Sen. Bernie Sanders opened Tuesday night’s debate with an impassioned response to a question about one of his signature policy planks: Medicare for all.
“Right now we have a dysfunctional healthcare system [with] 500,000 Americans every year going bankrupt,” he said, his voice growing louder with each word. Sanders spoke emphatically of the injustice in forcing patients to face both their health issues and outrageous hospital bills.
After the debate, a pattern emerged: The Brooklyn-born candidate was too angry, too loud, too passionate. CNN’s S.E. Cupp tweeted, “How is Bernie Sanders already this angry, and it's just his opening statement.” Former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney also mocked Sanders for being “angry.” And, shortly after the debate—during which Democratic candidate Rep. Tim Ryan quipped to Sanders, “You don't have to yell” during a fossil fuel debate—his campaign started selling stickers that read, “You don't have to yell. Tim Ryan 2020.”
As the pundits weighed in, some Jewish Americans pointed out that the way Sanders speaks is just how a lot of Jewish people, particularly those from Brooklyn, speak. Some said that perceiving his speech patterns as inherently angry or abrasive was ignorant at best and anti-Semitic at worst. Following the debate, many American Jews voiced their disappointment over critiques against Sanders’s speech patterns:
While linguist and professor of contemporary Jewish Studies at Hebrew Union College Sarah Bunin Benor said she doesn’t believe these critiques of Sanders’s speech are inherently anti-Semitic, she does agree that they reveal an unfamiliarity with the way Jews, particularly Jewish New Yorkers, speak. “The idea that arguing is part of how we as Jews speak, and the idea that Jews talk a lot with their hands has been the popular understanding of Jewish language for many decades,” she said.
For example, what some may see as Sanders interrupting others, Benor describes as “overlapping” or “cooperative overlapping” in Jewish speech. Overlapping is not only not considered rude, but is often used as a way to “display solidarity” and “protect intimacy” amongst speakers, according to a 1984 study called Jewish Argument as Sociability. According to a 2008 survey Benor conducted, 47 percent of Jews report having been told their style of speech was too aggressive, compared to 36 percent of non-Jews.
Mindy Isser, 28, was among those tweeting their frustrations after the debate. She said that immediately assuming Sanders is angry or being rude when he speaks is anti-Semitic. “I do think it’s anti-Semitic—but not just anti-Semitic, very classist too. His accent is a very distinct, working class, Jewish accent,” she said. “I’ve been called rude and abrasive because of the way I talk, and it just is what it is. I try hard to be less ‘Jewish’ when I’m in professional settings, but in my personal life, it’s hard to not just be myself all the time.”
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.