In Wallace Markfield’s 1974 novel “You Could Live If They Let You,” a character jokes, “The time is at hand when the wearing of [a] prayer shawl and skullcap will not bar a man from the White House — unless, of course, the man is Jewish.”
Maybe that’s no joke: 35 years later we still haven’t had a Jewish president, although an observant Jewish man is both the president’s son-in-law and one of his chief advisers.
If we ever hope to see a Jew gain entrance to the Oval Office without the benefit of marriage, our best hope may be between now and 2020, with Michael Bloomberg in the presidential race and Bernie Sanders sitting among the top tier of candidates.
But the set-up to the joke is still the same: Is American ready for a Jewish president?
The question was asked, but maybe with less intensity, when Bernie became the first major-party Jewish candidate to win a primary state: Yes, “Uncle Bernie” is unmistakably Jewish (except, perhaps, to the kinds of Jews who hold him to their own pro-Israel and religious standards). But questions about Sanders’ electability focused less on his Jewishness than his politics. Ahead of the 2016 presidential election, Gallup found that less than half of Americans would vote for a candidate who is a socialist. By contrast, more than 90 percent of Americans said they would vote for a qualified presidential candidate who is Catholic, a woman, black, Hispanic — or Jewish.
That wasn’t always the case. In 1937, Gallup found that fewer than half of Americans would support a Jewish candidate. That number rose steadily through the decades, to where a Jewish background is no longer seen as a liability. When Pew measures feelings toward various ethnic groups, Jews receive the warmest ratings, right in there with Protestants and Catholics — and well ahead of Muslims, Mormons, and Hindus.
No doubt people may tell pollsters what they think they want to hear. Nevertheless, Gallup’s recent polls show that 92 percent of Americans say they would be willing to support a Jewish presidential candidate.
But what kind of candidate? Sanders, 78, and Bloomberg, 77, seem almost overdetermined in the ways they embody two distinct Jewish types: the left-wing city boy who studied at Brooklyn College and the University of Chicago and made a firebrand’s life in crunchy Vermont; and the suburban kid who went to Johns Hopkins, made a fortune in media, and ran successfully for mayor of New York as a Republican.
Their speaking voices lend themselves to ethnic parody: Bernie’s dropped R’s, emphatic T’s, and loudest-man-at-the-seder-table inflections; Bloomberg’s nasal intonations and a Boston-meets-Manhattan accent that mimics tend to make more “Jewish” than it actually is.
Yes, that’s rich material for anti-Semites, who portray Jews as either communist infiltrators or greedy capitalists, foreign-sounding caricatures or sneaky assimilationists. But even when you throw in anti-Zionists on the far left, anti-globalists on the far right, and the white supremacists behind a rash of attacks on Jews, the anti-Semitic voting bloc isn’t very big.
The polls suggest voters are going to accept or reject Sanders and Bloomberg for the same reasons they’ll judge the other Democratic candidates: on their policies, their likeability, and their electability. And that last factor will have less to do with their Jewishness than their opposing visions for America.
If anything, the case could be made that Bloomberg and Sanders, both largely secular, would lose votes among some people — especially religious Christians who might have had enough of Trump — because they are not “Jewish” enough. This has a history: evangelical Christians were especially excited when an Orthodox Jew, Joe Lieberman, ran as Al Gore’s running mate in 2000. Just as some say Donald Trump is a poor person’s idea of a rich person, Joe Lieberman appeared to be an Evangelical’s idea of a Jew: devout, virtuous, socially conservative.
Although a Democrat at the time and pro-choice, Lieberman was happy to speak about what one admiring evangelical radio host described as “the moral and spiritual decline of American culture, particularly in the entertainment industry.” Christian clergy were ecstatic with his 1998 Senate speech denouncing President Bill Clinton’s “disgraceful” marital infidelity.
The New York Times wrote at the time that “Lieberman is seen by some Christians as a kindred spirit for his willingness to wear his religion on his sleeve.”
There are still Evangelicals, especially in the Hispanic community, whose views on immigration, criminal justice reform, and the environment might tempt them to vote for a Democratic kindred spirit.
Lieberman’s candidacy also suggested that if anyone was likely to hold a candidate’s Jewishness against him or her, it was the Jews themselves. Many liberal Jews found Lieberman’s rectitude insufferable, especially when he suggested lowering the wall between church and state. The Anti-Defamation League worried at the time that his regular appeals to religious faith on the campaign trail were “contrary to the American ideal.” Orthodox Jews, meanwhile, also soured on Lieberman, questioning his stance on abortion, his statement in which he appeared to soften the traditional taboo on interfaith marriage, and (no kidding) his diet on the campaign trail.
History suggests what kind of Jewish candidate America wants: neither a billionaire nor a socialist, but a business-friendly moderate who can unify America and is no religious fanatic but is very much at home in the language of faith, Torah, and Jewish ritual.
In other words, Cory Booker.
Andrew Silow-Carroll is editor in chief of The New York Jewish Week, NJJN’s sister publication. He served as NJJN editor for 13 years.