At this point in the Democratic primary, it’s no secret that Bernie Sanders is not the candidate of choice for all Jewish voters. While those further to the left affectionately call him “Zeyde,” some centrist Jewish Democrats have united with Republicans in attacking Sanders for his positions on Israel.
But as Sanders comes off a victory in the Nevada caucuses, where he won 46.8 percent of the vote, and heads into South Carolina and Super Tuesday, his frontrunner status has set up an intensifying clash with moderate Democrats, including many Jewish Democrats.
With Sanders’ decision to skip the AIPAC conference next week and his strongly worded reason for that decision — “I remain concerned about the platform AIPAC provides for leaders who express bigotry and oppose basic Palestinian rights,” he wrote on Twitter — the rift between Sanders and more centrist Jewish voters has deepened. For some Jewish Democrats, the possibility of a Sanders nomination, particularly in light of his recent comments about AIPAC, is becoming more alarming as it becomes more realistic
“I think it would be potentially harmful,” said Steve Grossman, a former AIPAC president and former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, of the possibility of a Sanders candidacy in the general election. “I am highly distressed that Bernie chose in the last couple of days to be so polarizing.”
Grossman, a Democratic “superdelegate” who is supporting Pete Buttigieg in the primary, said the Jewish community was split between those who were most focused on domestic issues and those who kept Israel at the front of their minds when choosing whom to vote for, with more of those focused on domestic issues supporting Sanders. “There’s a bit of a schism in the Jewish community about Bernie,” said Grossman.
For some Jewish voters, their opposition to Sanders stems from his positions on Israel. Sanders has taken a more isolationist stance on a host of foreign policy issues, promising to keep America out of the “forever wars” in the Middle East that have defined the last several decades of foreign policy debates. He has called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a “racist” and has said the U.S. aid package should be leveraged to make Israel change its policies toward the Palestinians.
The Republican Jewish Coalition’s Victory Fund ran an ad this week using Sanders’ own words to demonstrate what they claim are his “extreme, radical and out-of-touch views with regard to Israel.”
Sanders has said he opposes the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement but has been criticized for his ties to Linda Sarsour, a Palestinian-American activist who supports BDS. Sarsour has been a surrogate for Sanders’ campaign. Others have noted that in October, Sanders officially named as one of his surrogates Amer Zahr, an extremely vocal critic of Israel. Zahr has been widely accused of blowing past the line separating anti-Israel and anti-Semitic rhetoric, once Tweeting — and subsequently deleting — that, “Many American Jews are starting to realize that Israel might be their ISIS.”
The tension played out ahead of the Nevada caucuses when the Democratic Majority for Israel, a centrist group, ran ads attacking Sanders, although they did not mention his Israel record. The liberal Mideast policy group J Street objected, saying DMFI represents “a minority of pro-Israel Democrats who seem more concerned with targeting progressives over Israel policy than with confronting the destructive agenda of Donald Trump.” J Street is not endorsing primary candidates.
In addition to his Israel policies and surrogates, “We have serious doubts about whether Sanders can win a general election and we have fears that he can harm Democrats up and down the ballot around the country, especially in swing districts,” Mark Mellman, president of DMFI, told The Jewish Week.
As for the Sanders camp, it is banking that it can win Jewish voters based on its progressive agenda and Sanders’ appeal, as a Jew, to a community legacy of social justice activism. Sanders’ Jewish outreach director, Joel Rubin, appears in a recent campaign video in which the candidate says, “I’m very proud to be Jewish and I look forward to becoming the first Jewish president in the history of this country.”
Rubin also retweeted Jewish support for Sanders’ AIPAC decision, including a tweet from Matthew L. Green, assistant rabbi of Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn, who wrote that, “Bernie is making the right decision to #SkipAIPAC. … By opting not to go, [Sanders is] standing in solidarity with American Jews who demand freedom and dignity for Palestinians and who seek Jewish institutions that reflect our values.”
Others shares Mellman’s concerns about Sanders’ electability.
“We can call him Bernie Sanders or we can just call him George McGovern, because this is 1972 all over again,” said Phil Levine, a former mayor of Miami Beach, Fla., and a surrogate for Mike Bloomberg’s campaign. George McGovern was the 1972 Democratic nominee who lost in a landslide to Richard Nixon, winning just Massachusetts and the District of Columbia. Many blamed McGovern’s loss on his left-wing views. “If the party wants to beat Donald Trump … you need independents and you need moderate Republicans,” said Levine.
Levine said Sanders’ recent comments praising certain aspects of the Cuban communist revolution made him unelectable in Florida, with its large population of Cubans who fled the country’s communist revolution and its large Jewish population. He put his opposition to Sanders in Florida terms. “Bernie Sanders’ movement is warm water to a right-wing hurricane of Donald Trump, it will allow them to become more powerful, more aggressive, to beat this socialist, communist threat,” said Levine. “So it’s the exact opposite of what’s needed to bring this country together.”
After calling Sanders a communist, Levine compared him to Karl Marx and Leon Trotsky. In fact, Sanders is not a communist; he is a democratic socialist.
To some Democrats, the electability argument feels familiar and premature. “There were plenty of people who I know who early in 2008 said, ‘Gee, this Obama guy seems really great but will America elect an African-American? Does he have enough experience?’” said Hadar Susskind, a political consultant who supports Elizabeth Warren. Susskind is the campaign director for the progressive Hatikvah slate in the World Zionist Congress but spoke personally for this article.
Some held out the possibility of a contested convention if a moderate rival does not overtake Sanders in the primaries. “Regardless of what happens over the next few weeks, Super Tuesday and beyond, I think it is unlikely that any Democratic candidate will go to Milwaukee to win the nomination outright,” said Grossman. “So I think the chances of a contested convention continue to go up all the time.”
Should Sanders become the Democratic nominee, Harley Lippman of Miami, a major Democratic donor, political commentator and former campaign adviser to Hillary Clinton, predicted he will lose to Trump because “Americans will not choose democratic socialism over capitalism.”
“I understand why young people are supporting him — he would cancel all college debt, guarantee federal jobs to all, offer Medicare for all. That’s very seductive but not realistic,” he said, adding that he believes that “Bernie’s policies would destroy the country.”
Should he get elected, Lippman said he believed that “the stock market will crash” and wealthy businessmen who would face increased taxes to pay for Sanders’ programs would flee the country for “countries that allow people to keep more of what they make.”
Nevertheless, Lippman said: “I think Bernie may be unstoppable. Bloomberg is the best hope against Bernie, but he stubbed his toe [in the first Democratic debate] and it is not easy to recover. And for the Democratic Party — more than the Republican Party — the notion of someone buying the election is not going to go over well.”
Staff writer Stewart Ain contributed reporting.