Bernie Sanders' N.H. win is a milestone for Jewish community

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Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont stresses a point ahead of the New Hampshire primary election | Senior Photographer Alex Fisher

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is not the only candidate that could be making history if she wins the Democratic presidential nomination.

With his win in New Hampshire's primary last week, Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vermont) is the first Jewish candidate to ever win a primary election in American history. Unlike the situations in which racial and gender barriers have been broken, as with Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, the media’s reaction has been underwhelming.

“People know that he’s Jewish,” said St. Joseph's University history professor Randall Miller. "He doesn’t have to get a bullhorn and announce it, because there is no political advantage in doing so."

Throughout history, when a presidential candidate was recognized as being the first of his or her kind, it was groundbreaking. Kennedy was the first Catholic to win a presidential election and "it was a whispered issue everywhere," Miller said.

“Part of Bernie Sanders’ appeal is his complete authenticity,” Miller noted. 

Sanders addresses his Jewish upbringing, but has stated that he is not strongly involved with organized religion. He still, however, considers himself spiritual.

“He is not saying he is rooted in a particular faith, he is saying that his arguments and his reasons for doing what he’s doing [are] grounded in fundamental moral principles of right and wrong,” Miller said.

To the Jewish community at Penn, however, Sanders’ progress is impactful. 

“I think that it is very exciting, obviously. I, as an American Jew myself, am excited to see this happen and I am looking forward to the day that we have a Jewish president of the United States," President of Penn Hillel and College junior Katie Hartman said. 

Sanders' choice to shift focus from his religion could be a political strategy. Sanders does not avoid the topic or run away from his religion, but chooses not to actively voice it. In doing so, “he is finding a much wider circle of people who would listen to him and think he’s authentic, among people who are non-affiliated,” Miller said.

Sanders’ moral appeals can reach and speak to larger numbers of people, creating a more inclusive campaign. The recent secularization of America may point to this weakened enthusiasm. According to a November 2015 study by the Pew Research Center, the percentage of religiously unaffiliated adults in the U.S. is on the rise.

Voters' political values are largely connected to their personal values, which is reflected in the focus of each party’s defining characteristics. Anyone who has watched the GOP presidential debates can say that religion is a topic which comes up very often. 

“In terms of those who are politically active, among evangelical Protestants, the vast majority of them support what we might call conservative social positions,” Miller said. This is a key aspect that Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) plays into in his campaign, and is a cause to which Miller attributes his success. 

For Democratic candidates, spirituality still plays a role, but strong religious principles do not seem to be as prominent. Regardless, Sanders success still marks a milestone for the Jewish community's political involvement. 

"It's definitely an exciting thing for Jewish Americans," Hartman said, "and I would hope to see more progress like this in the future." 

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