JFK and Bernie: Jew and Catholic

There’s a new account on Twitter called “Democrats Against Anti-Semitism” targeting Bernie Sanders. As of this date, December 22, it only has 234 followers, but since its first Tweet was a few days after the British elections, a retweet of a Guardian columnist talking about an antisemitic incident on a London bus, there’s little question that it’s a trial balloon by someone auditioning for a job doing opposition research for the Buttigieg, Warren or Biden campaign. Let me do to Bernie Sanders what the British media did to Jeremy Corbyn. The screenshot above is part of a thread detailing Sanders’s occasional lukewarm criticism of Israel as well as his past association with various figures on the American left, some of whom you will have heard of (Jesse Jackson) and some of whom you won’t (Michael Parenti).

If it all seems familiar, it should. It’s almost a carbon copy of the smear campaign Hillary Clinton ran against Barack Obama in 2008. While almost everybody remembers the “birther” campaign alleging that Obama was born, not in Hawaii, but in Kenya, few people also remember that it did not originate with John McCain or the Republicans but with Sidney Blumenthal and the Clintons. While Obama quickly disavowed former supporter Jeremiah Wright for Wright’s inflammatory but essentially accurate sermon that God would “damn” American for its treatment of the Palestinians and people in the global south, he continued to be attacked on the racist far right as a crypto-Muslim who had no right to be President.

My guess is that if Barack Obama had to do it all over again, he would still condemn former supporters like Wright and promise the Israel Lobby that he would move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. I do not think that Obama ever hoped to win over the hardcore racists that would eventually make up the Tea Party. By disassociating himself from Jeremiah Wright, and eventually releasing his birth certificate, Obama was not pandering to the Koch Brothers or the Republican Party, but rather to Wall Street and the Democratic Party establishment, the people who would eventually come to dominate his administration.

Obama’s loyalty to Wall Street and the ruling class, even as he continued to alienate conservative white America in the South and the Midwest, is a debate far too complex to do full justice to in a blog post. But it does bear upon the Presidential election of 2020. Barack Obama, a master of identity politics, skillfully guided the American ruling class through a period where it became substantially more diverse. In 2019, four of the five top defense firms, for example, have women CEOs. The American ruling class, its managerial elites, and the American upper-middle-class, is no longer exclusively Protestant. Rather, it’s “woke.” Similar to the way the WASP elite used to learn a code of etiquette that involved knowing which fork to use on your salad and how to dress at the yacht club, today’s professional managerial elite knows which cultures not to “appropriate,” which kinds of “whiteness” are good (Ivy League universities), and which kinds of “whiteness” are bad (brash, flag waiving patriotism). Being a White Anglo Saxon Protestant is much less important than having a degree from an elite law school. Knowing which is more racist, to like Indian food too much, or not to like Indian food enough, is as culturally important in 2020 as knowing not to wear white after Labor Day was in 1920.

(Note: There are currently no WASPs on the Supreme Court, a political institution most liberals consider more important than the Presidency.)

Throughout his two runs for the Democratic nomination for the President, Bernie Sanders has both suffered and benefited from his inability to master the “woke” code of the liberal elites. Sanders is a blunt, Polish American Jew from Brooklyn who graduated from the elite University of Chicago in 1964, but only after a year at Brooklyn College. Repeatedly dogged by smears that he’s sexist and racist, Sanders has also quite skillfully managed to appeal to white Christian voters in rural America, not only in Vermont, a rather oddball state with a history of cultural individualism, but elsewhere. In my own state of New Jersey, for example, Sanders took the Republican leaning Warren and Sussex counties, but lost in the heavily Democratic Bergen and Hudson Counties. In Massachusetts, he took the working-class but rapidly gentrifying Berkshires, but lost in the traditional liberal stronghold of Boston. Sanders, in spite of the stereotypical “Jewish” mannerisms and speech patterns that have put him on the bad side of so many Ivy League feminists, has, like John F. Kennedy, become an iconic “American.” He actually took the popular vote in culturally conservative West Virginia, even though the DNC awarded Hillary Clinton the majority of the delegates.

By 1960, American anti-Catholicism was already on the wane. My Polish Catholic father and German Protestant mother encountered absolutely no opposition to their marriage on either side of the family. The Presidential election of 1928,where the Ku Klux Klan would hold rallies opposing the Irish Catholic Al Smith, was a thing of the very distant past. The main problem for the Irish Catholic Kennedy was not the WASP establishment — who would have been horrified if Kennedy had pulled American military bases out of the Catholic fascist Franco Spain — but the “Solid South. It’s easy to forget these days that before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, most of the country below the Mason Dixon Line voted Democratic. They were still pissed at Lincoln, Grant, and Sherman. So while mainline Protestants in New Jersey or Massachusetts split mainly along party, not religious lines, the evangelical, Baptist, and Pentecostal South had to be assured that Kennedy wasn’t planning to set the Pope up with a nice apartment in the West Wing of the White House. Since Kennedy was an almost completely secular man who graduated from Harvard, not Notre Dame or Holy Cross, he was eventually able to overcome any objections to the religion of his birth.

“Jack Kennedy was as disinterested in Catholicism as his father was,” Tye says. “During his years at Harvard, people would kid him… that he was not especially Irish, and not especially Catholic — which is why they called him a Fifth Avenue Catholic or a Harvard Irishman,” Tye explains. “But he also saw himself as more than just Irish or Catholic. He saw himself as very much a new American — a guy who had come back from World War II, and that generation was reinventing what America was and what it was; and he wasn’t going to be constrained by his parentage, by his ethnicity or by his religion.”


If that sounds familiar, it should. It could be a description of Bernie Sanders, a man “Democrats against Anti-Semitism” describe as “ethnically Jewish” but too close to Muslims, people of color, and left-wing, pro-Palestinian radicals. The major difference is that while in 1960, John F. Kennedy’s secularism and universalism made him appealing to the WASP majority, Bernie Sanders’s secularism and universalism has put him out of touch with the “woke” ruling class elites so skillfully cultivated by Barack Obama. Indeed, while the concern in 1960 was that John F. Kennedy would be too Catholic, the concern in 2020 is that Bernie Sanders isn’t Jewish enough, that he may take an even handed stance on the Israeli Palestinian issue, one that would benefit all Americans, instead of favoring the Israelis. In the post Obama era, where culture is also capital, not only radically pro-Israel, Evangelical Christians, but “woke” secular liberals are baffled by Sanders’s tendency in the past to identify as a “Polish American” or just an “American” instead of as “Jewish.” But since being Jewish gets you “woke” social capital in a way simply being American doesn’t, neoliberals, Zionists and Clinton loyalists are just as determined to deny his Jewish identity.

John F. Kennedy won the 1960 election partly because he maintained that “I am not the Catholic President of the United States.” Barack Obama famously said that there is “no liberal America, no conservative America, no black America, no white America, no Latino America, no Asian America, only the United States of America.” For Bernie Sanders the cultural waters are much more treacherous. If he follows Kennedy’s example and declares that he “doesn’t intend to be the Jewish President of the United States,” it would probably be a career ending move, proof of his latent antisemitism. Sanders has to prove not only that he’s Jewish but that he’s not Jewish, that he’s “woke” but also that he’s ready to fight for all Americans, including Christian conservatives,regardless of their ethnicity or religion. Let’s hope that if he gets the Democratic nomination for President next Summer and beats Donald Trump next Fall he won’t take the easy way out the way Obama did, and become just another liberal Democratic sellout.

(Final Note: Michael Parenti is a great writer and you should read him.)

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