Elizabeth Warren has faced entrenched sexism at every turn in her personal, professional, and political life. It is what turned her once-promising presidential campaign into an uphill slog against the misogyny deeply rooted in the soil of American culture. It is the coefficient of resistance that any woman in American politics must factor into the equation. Warren just could not catch a break and, in the United States, she just could not win. The political message from the failed campaign of one of the most intellectually gifted, competent – yet female – candidates in a generation is that America remains a boys’ club.
It is also a restricted country club, where “people of the Jewish persuasion” need not apply for membership. That is the American reality that Bernie Sanders faces every day, and the Sisyphean struggle that makes his campaign, at best, an outside chance.
The scene in Annie Hall where Alvy Singer meets Annie’s all-American, middle-class, Christian family for dinner for the first time, articulates a dark truth that few Americans can really grasp. Chewing on Grammy’s “dynamite” ham, Alvy breaks the fourth wall and comments on his hosts. Annie’s mother is “really beautiful,” but the family obsesses on “swap meets and boat basins.” And Grammy, “the old lady at the end of the table “is a classic Jew-hater.” Every time she looks Alvy’s way, in fact, she sees what she wants to see: a stereotypical Chasidic Jew in payot and a wide-brimmed felt hat.
It is a moment of side-splitting humor, setting up a comedy of manners based on the culture clash between Jewish Brooklyn and WASPy Connecticut. Seen from a Christian perspective, the scene is a wry poke at people, like the old lady, whose prejudices blind them the reality of Alvy’s humanity, despite his twitching manners. We can laugh at Grammy’s antisemitism both because it is absurd and because it is her personal failing – and laughing lets the audience off the hook.
Through Jewish eyes, however, the scene, and the humor, is much darker. The bearded Chasid is not merely the old lady’s fantasy, it is Alvy’s social reality as Jew in Christian America. No matter what he does – wear a tweed sports jacket, make self-deprecating jokes, or compliment the cook on her treyf ham – he is always just the Jew at the dinner table, tolerated for Annie’s sake, and not his own.
“They really look American, you know,” Alvy says, conscious of his otherness. “They’re very healthy, and they never get sick or anything. They’re nothing like my family.” The scene summarizes everything that you need to know about antisemitism in America, and why Bernie Sanders, the first Jew in hstory with a chance to win the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, must factor in his own coefficient of resistance.
It is tempting to recognize antisemitism in only its most virulent manifestations. But as George Orwell (who, to be sure, had his own issues with antisemitism) once noted, the “trouble is that so long as antisemitism is regarded simply as a disgraceful aberration, almost a crime, anyone literate enough to have heard the word will naturally claim to be immune from it…”
Indeed, “the antisemite,” as a “type,” is a profoundly comforting idea; he is “always the same kind of person, recognizable at a glance and, so to speak, in action the whole time.” The neo-Nazi, or the Proud Boy is easily known but, as Orwell suggests, recognizing antisemitism in “the antisemite” exculpates the antisemitism in those decent, literate people who “claim to be immune from it.” And that is simply wrong because no Christian, not even the apostates and non-believers, is immune from antisemitism.
Christianity, and the Euro-American cultures based upon it, has antisemitism baked into its very foundation. It is the “new covenant” that supersedes the covenant of Abraham, the truth of which the Jews are simply too stubborn to recognize. “I am the way and the truth and the life,” the Christian savior said. “No one comes to the Father except through me.” So those stiff-necked Jews are always outside, beyond God’s grace. It was very nice of Pope Benedict to let us off the hook for the crucifixion in 2011, but for almost two millennia the one thing that all Christians agreed on was that we were “Christ killers.”
And, for all of the window-dressing of secularism and multiculturalism, American culture is Christian culture. This country was colonized by religious extremists whose Christian ritual of Thanksgiving we celebrate every November. Every hero of the American Revolution – except perhaps Haym Solomon, the financier – was a Chrsitian, and so was every president for 231 years. There is a National Cathedral in Washington, mandated as a national institution by an act of Congress; four of the last five presidents have held prayer services there to mark their inaugurations. It is where presidents lie in state after they die.
(There is a shul in Washington, Ohev Sholom, that bills itself as the “national synagogue,” but nether Congress, nor anyone else, acknowledges it.)
There are not many of us in the United States; in fact we make up less than two percent of the American population. Even in New York City – the largest Jewish city in the world – only about 13 percent of the population is Jewish; there are so few Jews in Bismark, ND, that they have to borrow a Rabbi from Fargo.
What can we do? We a tiny community, the exception to the rule. And, this country reminds us every day, we are the perennial “other.”
We adapt, but that adaptation is a constant reminder of Jewish alterity. Our Christian neighbors grudgingly wish their Jewish friends “Happy Holidays!” But we’re not stupid people, we know whose holidays these are, especially when Chanukah starts in November (as it will this year). We see it in the holly boughs and hear it in the incessant, cloying Christmas music oozing from every radio and public space for eight weeks every year.
Even the years themselves are calculated by a Christian formula. It is the birth of the Christian God – not the mythical creation of the world, the founding of Rome, or revelations to a prophet – that defines the conceptual boundaries of our historical time. We are required to count every one of the last 2020 years subsequent to anno domini, and the preceding years as Before Christ. This is the Christian Age, and we had best not forget it. Sure, the Christians permit us to substitute the “Common Era,” but the practice only reinforces the reality; the Christian age is the Common Era.
The Jew is not the “common man.” His fanfare – composed, ironically enough, by a Jew – evokes the “All American,” the “working man,” or John Q. Public, from “heartland America.” His commons is the next neighborhood or the next town over from ours, and we are visible in our difference when we cross into it wearing our Sunday best on Saturday. We are conspicuous in our absence from the workplace during the High Holidays in the fall, and when we eat crackers for a week in the spring.
Jews are perpetual outsiders, a notion emphasized in the language used to describe us. We are “cosmopolitans,” with no real foothold in the culture of the commons; perhaps valuable for our connections to the vast world overseas, but always somehow untrustworthy “internationalists” out of the pages of The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion. Or, we are “elitists” looking down on the commons with maybe a little too much education, and a little too much allegiance to the high culture of the old country.
The Jew of American popular culture is always out of place in some way: too loud, too nervous, maybe too eager to ingratiate himself to his hosts. We are guests, and not always welcomed ones; we certainly don’t know the manners of the country. We are the Jew at the dinner table.
So, it seems, is Sanders. There might be much to criticize in his political platform. He has proposed an array of reforms, from universal healthcare, to the Green New Deal that, while perhaps necessary, are a great deal more expansive than many American voters are entirely comfortable with, and he has often been infuriatingly vague about how Washington – left skint by Republican tax subsidies to corporations and the super-rich – is going to pay for it. Yet, Sanders’ critics rarely mention policy.
Instead, when they aren’t focusing on a noisy minority of obnoxious partisans, they obsess over his style and performativity – a style clearly at odds with mainstream America, and the Hall family’s dinner table, though perhaps familiar to anyone with a Jewish uncle. For most of his critics, Sanders is “a human Grumpy Cat,” an angry man who always seems to be shouting. In social media a Warren loyalist complained that “he is so whiny and obnoxious;” a Buttigieg partisan said that he “is to New York to be president.”
Andrew O’Hehir noted the Senator’s “abrasive personal style” in Salon. For the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank, he is an angry old man with “crazy hair,” like Jewish comedian Lewis Black or Alvy Singer, I suppose. In Business Insider, Anthony Fisher notes (approvingly) that Sanders’ oratorical style is “transgressive” of American political traditions and social norms – indeed, reading between the lines one might suppose of “polite society.” He is the wild outsider who crashed the party.
These charges are hardly new, of course; they have dogged Sander for all of his political life. Interviewed for Bloomberg Business News in 2016, Win Smith, chairman of the Vermont Business Roundtable, and owner of the Sugarbush ski resort, made a point of calling him “abrasive.” In the 1980s, when he was just beginning his political career as the mayor of Burlington, Russell Banks noted that Sanders had a “personality that critics call ‘abrasive’ and ‘combative’ (terms which may in fact be euphemisms for far-less acceptable criticisms).”
It should not be surprising that the old antisemitic trope of the noisy Jew is, in fact a staple of alt-right media, whether it is Breitbart wondering “Why does Bernie Sanders keep yelling at me?” or Def-Con News promoting the myth that he shouts at babies. Even the majority of Jewish Democrats who support other candidates feel their skin crawl when they hear this kind of thing.
There is no doubt that Sanders is unconventional by the standards of Christian America, even if his “personal style” and passion is familiar to virtually anyone with a Jewish uncle. Yet this is where the deeply-engrained, antisemitic cultural resistance to Sanders is encoded, just as the misogyny that bedeviled Warren was coded in comments about her “brittleness” and “school teacher style.” He is “obnoxious,” “annoying,” “distasteful,” too Jewish to be taken seriously.
The conventional wisdom in Christian America is that Sanders is unelectable. This is his coefficient of resistance and he has a long hard fight ahead.