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 behind it — “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 presidency, 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 president of AIPAC 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 mind 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. The Vermont senator 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 repeatedly stressed that America must be “pro-Palestinian” in addition to being “pro-Israel.”
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 (BDS), but he has been criticized for his ties to Linda Sarsour, a Palestinian-American activist. Sarsour, who supports BDS, has been a surrogate for Sanders’ campaign.
Others have noted that in October Sanders officially named Amer Zahr, an extremely vocal critic of Israel, one of his surrogates. Zahr has been widely accused of blowing past the line separating anti-Israel and anti-Semitism rhetoric, once Tweeting — and subsequently deleting — that “Many American Jews are starting to realize that Israel might be their ISIS.”
Sanders has also said he would consider using America’s annual aid to Israel as leverage with the Israeli government. “I would use the leverage, $3.8 billion is a lot of money, and we cannot give it carte blanche to the Israeli government or to any government at all. We have the right to demand respect for human rights and democracy,” he said at J Street’s conference in October 2019.
For many, the argument against Sanders comes down to 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. McGovern was the 1972 Democratic nominee who lost in a landslide to incumbent President Richard Nixon, winning just Massachusetts and the District of Columbia in the electoral college. 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.
He said Sanders’ recent comments praising certain aspects of the Cuban communist revolution made him unelectable in Florida, with its large populations of Cubans who fled Cuban communism and large Jewish communities. 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.”
Levine called Sanders a “communist” and compared him to Karl Marx and Leon Trotsky. In fact, Sanders is not a communist; he is a democratic socialist.
To Hadar Susskind, the campaign director for the progressive Hatikvah slate in the World Zionist Congress and a supporter of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), the electability argument feels familiar. “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?’” he said.
Some held out the possibility of a contested convention. “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 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,” he said. “That’s very seductive but not realistic. Bernie’s policies would destroy the country.”
Should he get elected, Lippman said, “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.”
Democratic Majority For Israel (DMFI), an organization formed last year to shore up support for Israel in the Democratic party, recently ran ads attacking Sanders in Iowa and Nevada, making the case that Sanders would be unelectable in a general election.
“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 NJJN.
“We are also very concerned about his Israel policy and about the people that he’s surrounded himself with vis-a-vis Israel,” said Mellman, referring to Sarsour and Zahr.
When asked whether he thought most Jews would vote for Sanders should he win the nomination, Mellman called it a “highly speculative scenario.” Mellman said DMFI is not planning to endorse a candidate in the general election but would not rule out the possibility of eventually doing so.
Shira Hanau is a staff writer for The New York Jewish Week, NJJN’s sister publication. Jewish Week staff writer Stewart Ain contributed reporting.