Sanders defines a Jewish identity his way on the 2020 trail

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FILE - In this Sunday, Nov. 17, 2019 file photo, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks as supporters wave lighted signs during a fundraiser for the Nevada Democratic Party in Las Vegas. During the 2020 campaign, Sanders, whos known more for eschewing organized religion than embracing his Jewishness, has shifted the way he talks about his faith and tied it to his broader worldview. (AP Photo/John Locher)

NEW YORK, N.Y. – Bernie Sanders is approaching next week’s Iowa caucuses in a position to become the first major-party Jewish presidential nominee in the nation’s history. And at a time of resurgent anti-Semitism, he’s talking in more depth about how his faith shapes his broader worldview.

Soon after the one-year anniversary of the massacre at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, Sanders penned a column on combating anti-Semitism that outlined how his family’s history underpins his commitment to fight bigotry. After five New York Jews were stabbed while celebrating Hanukkah last month, Sanders used an Iowa menorah-lighting stop to connect his immigrant father’s journey to America, “fleeing anti-Semitism and fleeing violence,” to ideals he described as imperiled by attacks on Jews -- and other minority groups.

Just last week, Sanders tweeted a video featuring his campaign’s Jewish outreach director, Joel Rubin, discussing the Vermont senator’s “intrinsically Jewish values.”

Sanders has described his pride in being Jewish since his first Democratic presidential run in 2016. But he’s known more for detaching from organized religion than embracing faith, and his model of Jewish American candidacy -- aligning with “the tradition of Jewish social justice” while criticizing Israeli government policy toward Palestinians -- breaks the mold cast by observant Jew Joseph Lieberman, the Democrats’ vice-presidential nominee 20 years ago.

Sanders’ increased engagement with his Jewishness comes as a Democratic super PAC unveils a six-figure ad campaign in Iowa challenging his candidacy and raising questions about his health.

Sanders “doesn’t buy into that concept of anti-Semitism and Jewish identity as defined by Israel,” said Rubin, who joined the campaign earlier this month, in an interview.

The 78-year-old democratic socialist connected his Jewishness to his liberal policies during remarks last fall to J Street, a progressive Jewish American group whose conference drew five Democratic presidential candidates.

“If there’s any group on earth that should be trying to bring people together around a common and progressive agenda, it is the Jewish people,” Sanders said, adding that he believes in Israel’s “right to exist in peace and security” and would extend the same right to Palestinians.