It’s still too early to know whether either Bernie Sanders or Michael Bloomberg, two Jewish candidates in the Democratic primaries, will win the Democratic nomination or whether one of the other candidates will, but at this point having a Jewish candidate for president is a realistic possibility and has captured the imagination of some of the press and the public.
From the headlines, you’d think it was election season in the Catskills. “Is Bernie vs. Bloomberg good for the Jews?” “Two Jews Walk into a Presidential Primary.” “Two Old Jews Argue Over Whose Arteries Are Worse.” “Finally, Good News for the Jews.”
These playful takes on Jewish jokes reveal the extent to which Jewish culture has assimilated into the American mainstream. They also reveal the singular effect of having two Jews among the top contenders in the Democratic presidential race — with one holding a far left position and one holding a more centrist position in a pack of deeply divided candidates.
And then there are the disquieting reminders of two perpetual anti-Semitic tropes about Jews.
As political writer Jonathan Tilove described them, Trope No. 1 is “the International Jew, money-lender, banker, all-powerful manipulator of world events for his own nefarious ends.” Trope No. 2 is “the rootless cosmopolitan, the subversive, radical outsider bent on destroying the American way of life.”
As Bloomberg and Sanders are targeted by their Democratic and Republican opponents, many of those characteristics will probably be highlighted, as their policies, records and characters are discussed and attacked. Disturbingly, the hateful part of the narrative will likely provide ammunition for anyone looking for a Jewish scapegoat or a Jewish conspiracy in what promises to be a fractious presidential race.
While fear of that nastiness should not get in the way of progress toward a possible Jewish president, the prospect is as frightening as it is exciting. Chemi Shalev claimed in Haaretz last week that “If either Sanders or Bloomberg face off against Donald Trump, an anti-Semitic surge on the white right — from the White House down — is almost inevitable.” And we can expect similar reactions from the far left.
As we in Pittsburgh know all too well, hateful rhetoric and stereotyping of Jews can lead to horrific consequences. And the proliferation of bigotry coupled with the incitement of violence on the internet most definitely can present a clear and present danger.
As much as we would be happy in principle to welcome a Jewish person to the White House, if the Democratic candidate facing off against Trump is either Bloomberg or Sanders we need to brace ourselves for an ugly and possibly dangerous election year for Jews. And that’s no joke. pjc