Trump vs. Bernie.
The socialist vs. The Donald.
The impractical ideologue vs. the opportunistic political atheist.
Raise your hand if you’ve had a conversation over whether you would vote for Bernie or Trump if those were your only two options. I have, more times than I can count (then again, I failed high school math).
After the victory of Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) in the New Hampshire Democratic primary, a runaway victory in the Nevada Caucus, and a virtual tie with Mayor Pete Buttigieg in the disastrous Iowa Caucus (the South Carolina primary occurred after NJJN went to press), not to mention that he is leading most national polls, the nightmare scenario for moderate American Jews has moved beyond the hypothetical, inching toward a legitimate, if not yet likely, possibility.
It might not be a difficult decision for people comfortable standing at the edges of either side of the political spectrum, but for those of us who are disgusted by the words and actions of the president and at the same time horrified by the senator’s seeming ambivalence to the Jewish state, there are no right answers, only wrong ones.
Although Sanders has been in the Senate for the last 13 years, he only became a household name in 2015 when he announced he would take on Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination. Many of us, myself certainly included, believed that the party leadership had a wink-wink deal with Sanders to run as a patsy against Clinton, whose victory seemed inevitable, in order to give the impression that she wasn’t presented with the nomination on a silver platter. We were wrong, of course, and the hurting that Sanders and his loyal base of Bernie Bros put on Clinton during the primaries damaged her just enough to allow Donald Trump to slide into an improbable electoral triumph.
For almost a century, and with virtually no exceptions, the Democratic Party has been able to count on about 70 percent of the Jewish vote. Although both major political parties have been stalwart supporters of Israel for generations, the issues championed by the Democrats — reproductive choice, social welfare programs, increased environmental regulations, and the loosening of immigration restrictions — closely mirror the values of the vast majority of American Jews. That hasn’t changed nor is it likely to for the foreseeable future, but passionate Zionists from either party will be justifiably repulsed by any ticket with Sanders’ name on it.
Sanders, 78, caucuses with the Democrats but has often identified as an independent. Perhaps it was his status as an outsider that enabled him to become the voice of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, which like the Tea Party for the Republicans, is principled to a fault.
The quandary for many moderate Jews comes down to this: Although they fall squarely into the #NeverTrump camp, there’s an argument to be made that the president is Israel’s best friend to ever reside in the White House. On the other hand, Sanders, who is Jewish and even spent several months living on a kibbutz near Haifa in his younger years, has been unusually critical of Israel and said he would consider reducing American aid to the Jewish state if it does not make concessions to the Palestinians.
As recently as last week’s Democratic debate in South Carolina, Sanders said that if elected he would look into moving the American embassy from Jerusalem back to Tel Aviv. He also called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “a reactionary racist.”
Many of his opinions on Israel, like others on the left, are similarly half-baked. He was correct in asserting in a November 2019 essay in Jewish Currents, “How to Fight Antisemitism,” that “it is not antisemitic to criticize the policies of the Israeli government,” but he has been negligent in trying to understand why Israel acts the way it does. It’s true that the Palestinian poverty rate is unthinkably high, much of which has to do with Israeli security checkpoints and a vice-like grip on imports and exports. And in some instances, Israeli soldiers have acted with inexcusable violence. But, with limited exceptions, these are byproducts of Israel’s need to defend itself from Palestinian terrorism, not Israel’s perfidy. Such reasoning is lost on the uncompromising Sanders, who has given no indication that he understands the world is colored in shades of gray.
If not for the devastatingly high stakes we’ll face in November, such a choice — the equivalent of a Yankees-Mets World Series for a Bostonian like me — would actually be a little funny, as Trump and Sanders have far more in common than they would admit. While their ideologies are polar opposites, Sanders and Trump are really two sides of the same political coin.
Think about it: Both were fringe candidates in the 2016 election, neither expected to compete, yet each of them carved out a small but passionate base of supporters in their respective parties. Much of their traction with voters had to do with catchy, easy-to-understand proposals — “Build the wall, Mexico will pay for it,” for Trump; “Break up the banks” and “Medicare for all,” for Bernie— their simplicity matched only by the lack of forethought on how to turn such goals into a reality. And Trump purports to be a billionaire but he refuses to provide documentation to prove it, while Sanders would like everyone to believe he’s a man of the people even though his success in 2016 granted him millionaire status courtesy of the lecture circuit.
Many Democrats disagree with Sanders’ proposed domestic policies, though few believe that Sanders would be guilty of Trump’s unprecedented executive overreach. But what exactly can he deliver?
Sanders, and on a smaller level N.Y. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, is the personification of what’s wrong with the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. It’s easy to say Medicare for all, but even if a President Sanders would be able to ram it through Congress, funding such a program would bankrupt the country. Also, aside from the banks themselves, no one would shed a tear if JPMorgan Chase or Goldman Sachs were taken apart, but is there a legal mechanism to compel them to do so? Sanders was not able to provide a practical answer when pressed by the New York Daily News editorial board in 2016, particularly striking in that it was his signature campaign issue.
But no matter which Democrat emerges from the pack, Trump’s name will appear on the other end of the ballot. And so until the Democratic convention in July, I will pray to Hashem, the benevolent God Who is merciful and gracious and slow to anger, that He not present me with such a disastrous choice in the General.