Sanders, Biden and the Jewish Generation Gap


Biden or Bernie?

I can’t be the only one who finds it weird that a Jewish generational battle is being waged over two men in their late 70s.

For older Jews on the left and center-left (let’s say, 45 and up), Joe Biden’s comeback in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination is a tremendous relief. Even those who support some of Bernie Sanders’ more aggressive policies — single-payer health care, debt relief, raising taxes on the very wealthy — are drawn to Biden’s moderation. It’s mostly about electability, no doubt, but also a sense that the country is not ready for Sanders’ brand of progressivism.

And then there’s Israel. Biden is a conventional pro-Israel Democrat, fully committed to Israel’s security even if he’s willing to criticize its “threats of annexation and settlement activity,” as he did in his recent video remarks to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Republicans may try to tie Biden to what they consider Obama’s shaky Israel record, but they forget that most centrist and left-wing Jews never turned on Obama in the first place. As vice president, Biden was often trotted out to calm things down with the pro-Israel establishment.

Bernie, by contrast, criticizes Israel in ways that may play well around Shabbat tables on the Upper West Side, but sound ominous in the context of the campaign trail. It’s one thing for an Israeli to accuse Benjamin Netanyahu of “racism” when he campaigns against the Arab vote; it’s another when a Democratic candidate makes the charge, without context, from the debate stage. This week Sanders welcomed Phillip Agnew as an advisor on race and inequity; in a 2014 article Agnew accused Israel of “cold, calculating racism and ethnic privilege masquerading as a Jewish State,” and described Zionism as “a racist, exploitative, and exclusionary ideology.” I doubt that an old kibbutznik like Sanders agrees with these definitions of Israel or Zionism, but his appointments and own reckless statements on Israel make such distinctions moot.

Younger Jewish liberals are embracing Sanders for the very reasons their elders are rejecting him. Biden represents a sort of Democratic incrementalism they say gave the country an underachieving eight years under Obama and has done little to address the structural flaws in democracy and the economy. Burdened by student debt, facing wage stagnation despite their high-priced degrees, younger Jews — like younger college-educated voters in general — are sympathetic to Sanders’ calls for a revolution. Eric Levitz, in New York magazine, writes that denying millennials and Gen-Z the “opportunities they were promised, while affixing an anchor of debt around their necks — and you’ve got a recipe for a revolutionary vanguard.”

I doubt more than a minority of young Jews would call themselves anti-Zionist, but old-fashioned Liberal Zionism has become deeply unfashionable on campuses and among young Jewish leftists. They share the old left’s critique of the occupation, but many are either agnostic or even antagonistic to the idea of a sovereign Jewish state. Rather than ally with Israeli activists who support Palestinian rights and a two-state solution (as powerless as they may appear), many instead partner with international groups that are looking to one-state solutions that mean the end of — a dirty phrase — Jewish nationalism.

None of this should come as a surprise. Young Jewish adults only know a world in which the peace process is on life support; the ideological gap between Israelis and the American Jewish majority has grown ever larger, and the idea of particularist identities — Jewish and otherwise — is itself under assault. Sanders himself may occasionally write in support of “a democratic homeland for the Jewish people after centuries of displacement and persecution,” but his supporters hear something very different, and far less sympathetic, on the campaign trail. 

I see the growing divide among generations in another comeback: that of New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. It has been a rough few years for the three-time Pulitzer Prize winner: The grand thesis of his 2005 book, “The World Is Flat” — global collaboration without regard to geography or language — hasn’t played out the way he thought it would, and economic nationalism is on the rise. But Friedman, 66, has new relevance among Democratic moderates who are desperate to defeat Trump and scared to death of Sanders as the party nominee. Last summer, he wrote a much-shared column, “Trump’s Going to Get Re-elected, Isn’t He?”, warning that Sanders’ revolutionary agenda is a recipe for Democratic disaster. The real revolution, he warned, will come when Trump is re-elected, and it “will be an overthrow of all the norms, values, rules and institutions that we cherish.”

Friedman followed that up last month with a column proposing a National Unity Ticket strategy for defeating Trump, in which the ultimate Democratic nominee pledges to appoint his or her debate-stage rivals to key positions in the next administration. It is crucial, he wrote, “that moderate and progressive Democrats find a way to build a governing coalition together.” He proved prescient: Biden’s surge came shortly after vanquished rivals — Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar —endorsed him. Since then, Cory Booker and Kamala Harris got on board.

OK Boomer? Maybe. But Friedman is speaking for a cohort that longs for a recalibration of national politics, away from the extremes and toward a restoration of democratic norms. They think it will be quite enough of a revolution to send Trump packing, return credibility to federal agencies, slow conservative appointments to federal courts, rejoin the Paris Climate Accords and maybe let poor Ruth Bader Ginsberg retire. As for Israel, they remember when Israel was willing to compromise with the Palestinians precisely because the leader of the free world, a Democrat, signaled that he had her back. 

is editor in chief of the New York Jewish Week and senior editor of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. He previously served as JTA’s editor in chief and as editor in chief and CEO of the New Jersey Jewish News. @SilowCarroll