If Bernie Sanders becomes America’s first Jewish president, it will not be quite as historic as Barack Obama’s election. But pretty close.
Jews have a complex and confusing history. They have been essential to the development of Western civilization, playing crucial roles in the establishment of moral, ethical and financial institutions. Yet they have often been the target of venomous prejudice and relentless persecution.
You know about the Holocaust, of course. But you may not know about the pogroms throughout Europe over the centuries. And you probably don’t know that it was persecution during the Inquisition that prompted Jamaica’s Sephardic Jews to flee Portugal and Spain.
Today many of Jamaica’s most prominent families are descended from those persecuted Jews. Indeed, because Sephardic Jews are much more relaxed about marrying Gentiles than the Ashkenazi, many Jamaicans – of varying complexions – have Jewish roots and don’t know it.
I believe my great-grandmother was Jewish. Chances are you, too, have some of Jacob’s blood flowing through your veins.
So what has all this got to do with American politics?
More than you might think. You and I know the Constitutional separation of Church and State is wishful thinking. Political power in America today is shared by the Catholics, the Jews and the Evangelicals. (Of the nine Supreme Court justices, for example, six are Catholics and three are Jews.)
Secular influence in America’s government gets a lot of lip service, but as far as I can see, it is really quite insignificant.
Atheists, agnostics and “moderate” religious voices attract little attention in the media or in the halls of power. You can bet the farm that an Atheist couldn’t get elected America’s president today. I don’t even think an Atheist could get a job as a TV pundit.
America’s acceptance of its Jewish citizens is a fairly recent phenomenon. For a long time, Jews were scorned and derided in America. My Jewish friend Andrea told me about a sign she saw as a child in Miami that warned “No Dogs or Jews allowed.”
Even today you will hear deluded white “supremacists” railing against Jews. But those voices are gradually fading. Today, Jewish Americans are generally accepted as part of the country’s mainstream white culture.
But nobody with Jewish roots has managed to win the highest office in the land. Not Goldwater. Not Lieberman. Not John Kerry.
You didn’t know that Kerry, a practicing Catholic, had a Jewish grandfather? He didn’t either – until the Boston Globe dug it up during his run for the presidency.
Politically, Jews have been good for America. The Judaic tradition of justice and compassion has prompted Jewish Americans to support such liberal causes as labor unions, minority rights, welfare benefits and equal pay for women.
Of course Bernie Sanders doesn’t emphasize his Jewish roots. That might not be the wisest thing to do. America has come a long way since the execution of the Rosenbergs. But that “perfect union” wistfully mentioned in the Constitution is still proving elusive.