Bernie Sanders talks with a young progressive. Is the Jewish establishment listening?
Menu JTA Search
Election 2016

Bernie Sanders talks with a young progressive. Is the Jewish establishment listening?

Bernie Sanders passes the revolutionary torch in a recent video, and the recipient happens to be Jewish.

Sanders spoke last week to Now This, the progressive news organization that distributes its material via social media.

Sanders’ interactions with a youthful acolyte, the interviewer, Armand Aviram, are sentimental and even sweet. And there’s the Jewish subtext: Both men are Jewish. A 1960s Jewish revolutionary gives his blessing to his millennial mirror image.

But dig a little deeper, and there is an unseen element of this exchange – Aviram’s embrace of the boycott Israel movement — that the mainstream Jewish community would find troubling. And there is more than a suggestion of the challenges facing the Jewish establishment in engaging millennials.

The thrust of the interview is that the Vermont senator, who has been campaigning for Hillary Clinton since conceding the Democratic nomination to her, absolutely wants his followers to vote for Clinton – but he also wants them to keep her honest once she’s elected.

“Immediately, our short term goal has got to be to elect Hillary Clinton as president and defeat Donald Trump who would be a disaster for this country,” he tells Aviram. “This is not trust, we’re not here to trust. It is the very opposite of what I’m saying. ‘Oh, sit back, elect Clinton and then trust.’ No. Mobilize, educate and then fight.”

Aviram begins by declaring his personal investment in the outcome of the election.

“About a year ago I was a volunteer for your campaign, I was unemployed, a graduate student, volunteering for your campaign and now I’m working for Now This, interviewing you a year later,” he says. “Can you help me understand how your political revolution continues under Hillary Clinton?”

Sanders thanks Aviram, and interrupts: “It’s not my political revolution, it’s your political revolution,” he says. “Ideas that at one point were thought to be crazy and fringe are now incorporated in the Democratic national platform.”

Sanders holds up a copy of the platform for the first of several times in the three-minute segment. “You did that. And millions of other people did that.”

He continues: “And because millions of people came out and stood up, fought back, about 80 percent, 80 percent of the Democratic national platform is what we believe in. Now that’s pretty good.”

What may discomfit the mainstream pro-Israel community is the 20 percent that didn’t make the platform. Sanders’ appointees to the platform committee pressed hard to include in the platform criticism of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. Appointees named by Clinton and the then-chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, nixed that initiative.

Yet that Israel-critical posture – and then some – is embraced by Aviram, albeit not in the interview.

On Oct. 6, prompted by tough Obama administration criticism of Israeli settlement expansion deep inside the West Bank, Aviram posted a public notice on his Facebook page saying “we have to support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement that has been building in recent years all across the world.” He framed his view “As an (atheist) Jew + the son of an Israeli.”

Aviram is a single activist who got Sanders’ ear, so he may not be representative. But it is worth noting two elements of this exchange as emblematic of challenges faced by the pro-Israel community in reaching progressive Jews:

— Sanders is proud of the 80 percent of the platform that he and his followers shaped. What happened with the remaining 20 percent, especially the Israel-critical component that Aviram embraces? Sanders has not shied from criticizing Israel, but he has also indicated before and throughout his campaign that he believes much of Israel criticism goes too far and does not take into account the threats Israel faces.

If Sanders was unenthusiastic about the Israel criticism his delegates tried to advance, is it because he’s ambivalent about the tone progressive criticism of Israel sometimes takes? If so, why doesn’t he clearly and publicly make that case? I asked Sander’s Senate office and the successor to his campaign, Our Revolution, for comment, and have yet to hear back.

— Aviram’s statement on BDS is tone deaf and replete with straw men in a way that drives the pro-Israel mainstream nuts.

“If people can begin to accept the idea that being fiercely critical of Israel does not = anti-semitism then we can finally begin to have a national conversation on the U.S.’s relationship with the country and how it needs to change in order to have a chance of peace some day in the future,” he writes.

Some folks do reflexively equate tough Israel criticism with anti-Semitism. But there is a broad segment of the pro-Israel establishment, from J Street on the left through the Anti-Defamation League in the center, that stresses that even fierce Israel criticism is not anti-Semitism, but also contends that anti-Semitism must not be ruled out when it is self-evident. The straw man that somehow Israel critics are “silenced” by charges of anti-Semitism inhibits honest critiques of progressives.

“South Africa’s apartheid ended in part because the US finally had the courage to take a stand against it,” he writes. Is Aviram saying an entire system in Israel needs to “end”? What system? Settlements? Or Israel itself? This kind of ambiguity, characteristic of the BDS movement, also inhibits engagement between progressives and the pro-Israel community. Settlements are up for discussion. Israel’s existence as a Jewish homeland is not.

“As an (atheist) Jew + the son of an Israeli I think it’s more important now than ever for people who are active in the Jewish community to challenge their own thinking and knowledge on the history of Israel and the decisions the country has made over the decades,” Aviram continues. “There is no shame in thinking, ‘Maybe, I’m wrong.’ It allows you to open yourself up to different perspectives, and that’s only a good thing.”

There certainly is no shame in thinking, “Maybe I’m wrong,” but it would be helpful if progressive critics of Israel understood how smug that sounds. At Jewish Community Relations Councils, on synagogue boards, across Shabbat tables, positions on Israel and how to express them are fodder for intense debate and expressions of self-doubt. Maybe Aviram is wrong to think Jews who don’t think like he does are programmable automatons.

The Jewish establishment has missed opportunities with progressives, and especially during the Sanders campaign – I’ve written about this. (One incident that sticks out was the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s refusal to countenance a remote address by Sanders, who was on the campaign trail, to its March conference, although it has accommodated other presidential candidates in the past.)

There’s been a shift in recent months. AIPAC hosted a retreat this past weekend for campus progressives. The ADL’s CEO, Jonathan Greenblatt, has made outreach to progressives a priority. American Jewish organizations are now agonizing over how best to reach the next generation.

Aviram is the young American Jew Sanders succeeded in reaching. What remains to be seen is if the Jewish establishment can reach Aviram and his cohort – and whether it wants to be reached.