In winning the New Hampshire primary last night, Bernie Sanders marked two big firsts in U.S. presidential history: He was the first Jewish candidate of a major party to ever win a presidential state primary. He was also the first self-described socialist to win a major party primary.
But that doesn’t mean that Jewish and socialist politicians haven’t played a big role in American politics in the past. In fact, some of Sanders’ proudest positions, from fighting inequality to providing universal healthcare, can be traced back to Jewish socialist politicians from the early 20th century.
Notably, the only two members of Congress to be elected from the Socialist Party were both Jewish. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the vigorous U.S. Socialist Party won control of municipal and state offices around the country.
The first socialist elected to Congress, Victor L. Berger, was a Jewish Romanian immigrant who settled in Milwaukee. A newspaper editor and organizer, the short and temperamental Berger won a Congressional seat in 1910. His pacifistic opposition to World War I made him a target of war hawks, and in 1919 he was sentenced to 20 years in prison under the Espionage Act.
Berger was re-elected to Congress even while under federal indictment. His conviction was overturned by the Supreme Court, and back in Congress, he became known for supporting unemployment insurance, public housing, and old-age pensions, reforms that wouldn’t become widely accepted until decades later during the New Deal.
The real power center of Jewish socialism at the time was in New York City, where Jewish immigrants on Manhattan’s Lower East Side elected Meyer London to Congress in 1914. London, who emigrated from what is now Lithuania at age 20, was a union organizer in the garment industry. In Congress, he introduced legislation to provide unemployment and sick insurance and was the only Representative to vote against declaring war on Austria-Hungary.
Daniel Soyer, a history professor at Fordham University who’s studied the political movement here, said these early Jewish socialists didn’t gain enough political power to enact many substantive reforms. But they had a broader impact on the political discourse, especially in New York. “They were a force for pushing New York toward more social liberalism, more social democratic kind of positions,” Soyer told me.
The 1910s were the high-water mark of the Socialist Party success in the U.S. Presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs, running a third-party candidacy under the Socialist Party, won 6% of the popular vote in 1912. Debs, who wasn’t Jewish, credited his socialist conversion to a jailhouse conversation with Berger while he was imprisoned for organizing a massive railroad strike. In the ’70s, Sanders made a 30-minute documentary about Debs and his candidacy.
Socialist politics in the U.S. fell out of favor in the next few decades, especially with the rise of the Cold War and fears of communism in America. But in some ways, Sanders seems to harken back to the old Jewish socialist politicians who fought for the working class.
He’s the son of Eli Sanders, a Jewish immigrant from Poland who emigrated to escape the Holocaust a generation after London and Berger. Sanders and his family grew up in a Brooklyn tenement, where he was a high school basketball champion. (He went to the same high school as Sen. Charles Schumer and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg.)
In his 20s, Sanders lived and volunteered on a kibbutz—a socialist farming commune in Israel—for several months. When he was there in the ’60s, members wore spartan uniforms, woke early in the morning to pick fruit, and avoided “bourgeois” pastimes like ballroom dancing or playing cards, the Times of Israel reported.
Some analysts believe his time there shaped Sanders’ ideas of democratic socialism. During his campaign, Sanders has been tight-lipped about his kibbutz experience; the precise kibbutz he volunteered at was only revealed after the new agency Haaretz found a decades-old interview with him.
That’s a big change from the 2000 election, when Democratic vice-presidential nominee Joseph Lieberman had a chance of becoming the first Jewish veep. Lieberman’s place on the ticket set off “what felt like a months-long national bar mitzvah bash,” Ami Eden wrote in The Forward, with considerable discussion in the press about his religion. This election, Eden says, there’s been a comparable “lack of Jewmania:”
Since Lieberman’s dance on the national stage an African American was elected president, a Mormon won the Republican nomination and a woman is widely viewed as the favorite to win in 2016. Suddenly the whole first-Jewish-president thing seems like a yawner.
But the first socialist president is hardly a yawner. Since his first political campaigns in Vermont in the ’70s, Sanders has identified himself as a Democratic Socialist. He first ran with the anti-war, socialist-inspired Liberty Union Party, and later as an independent. As a sitting U.S. Senator, Sanders is arguably the most successful socialist politician in U.S. history.
“He’s the first candidate in a long time, the first serious candidate in the Democratic primaries who’s labeled himself socialist,” Soyer said. “He is prepared to explain that, to explain what it means to him.”
Just because Sanders is the first to call himself socialist, though, doesn’t mean that he’s that far to the left of other historical Democratic presidents. As Sanders has noted, liberal candidates from FDR to Barack Obama have been called socialist for their policies. Here’s how Sanders explained his own democratic socialist views in a speech in November:
Let me define for you, simply and straightforwardly, what democratic socialism means to me. It builds on what Franklin Delano Roosevelt said when he fought for guaranteed economic rights for all Americans. And it builds on what Martin Luther King, Jr. said in 1968, when he stated that, ‘this country has socialism for the rich and rugged individualism for the poor.’ It builds on the success of many other countries around the world who have done a far better job than we have in protecting the needs of their working families, their elderly citizens, their children, their sick and their poor.
A Sanders win—however unlikely—would set considerable historic milestones for America: the first non-Christian and first avowedly socialist president. And it would also mean a strong resurgence of early 20th century Jewish socialism that seems to have been all-but-forgotten in American politics.