Bernie Sanders, the Jewish candidate who has gone further than any other member of the tribe in a presidential race, is struggling to connect with Jewish voters. But the rumpled firebrand is dominating rival Hillary Clinton among a surprising slice of the electorate: Arab Americans.
Sanders swept Tuesday’s Democratic primary vote in Dearborn, Michigan, the nation’s city with the highest Arab-American population, by a 2 to 1 margin over Clinton.
The irony of Sanders’s success in Dearborn was not lost on the national media. “Top Arab-American city backs Jewish socialist,” was the headline MSNBC editors chose to give the news article about primary night results in this Arab-American enclave.
But voters, Jewish-Americans and Arab-Americans alike, apparently don’t see it that way. For them, Sanders’s Jewish faith is hardly a factor — either as a reason to vote for or against him.
Arab leaders say Sanders is winning over Arab voters with his insurgent campaign. It didn’t hurt that has made outreach to Arabs and Muslims a visible part of his campaign.
“There was some talk in blogs about Sanders being Jewish, that he lived in Israel, that he has no foreign policy experience, but that didn’t matter,” said James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute. “When you compare the two candidates, it’s the outsider who resonates with people of the community because they feel they are also on the outside.”
Of course, there is another issue that may help explain Sanders’s strength among Arab voters and relative weakness among Jews: Israel.
Clinton has emphasized her strong and longstanding support for Israel in the campaign. It’s a stand that has earned her backing from prominent Jewish elected officials and big-money donors.
Sanders, on the other hand, has mostly shied away from talking about Israel, preferring to focus on his core message of battling inequality and pushing for economic justice.
But last week, he broke that silence by suggesting that he would be less of an unswerving supporter of Israel if he makes it to the Oval Office.
“Hopefully we can have a level playing field, the United States treating everybody in that region equally,” Sanders said when speaking about American efforts to resolve the conflict.
His comment was interrupted by cheers from the crowd at the March 7 rally in Dearborn, applauding what watchers of American Middle East policy clearly identified as a departure from the heavily pro-Israel position held by most candidates.
Sanders’s call for evenhandedness in brokering Middle East peace echoed a similar statement made by Republican frontrunner Donald Trump who promised to be “neutral” in his approach to a potential Israeli–Palestinian peace deal.
Michigan may be the state in which the Arab-American vote is easiest to distinguish. But some of the upcoming primary states, including Florida, Ohio and Illinois, have significant Arab-American communities that could play a role in the upcoming primary vote.
Up to now, Sanders’s position on the Israeli–Palestinian conflict has not drawn much attention within the Jewish community.
But that might change as word spreads about his “even-handed” phrasing. The Sanders speech drew condemnation from Josh Block of The Israel Project, who called it “disappointing and perplexing.”
“Bernie Sanders believes there is a moral equivalence between the Israelis who seek peace, and the Palestinian Authority, (which does not),” said Block, the group’s CEO and president.
Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt, president of the Jewish Federations of North America’s rabbinical cabinet, added that Sanders’s comments help explain why Jewish voters are greeting his candidacy with “underwhelming enthusiasm.”
“He shows little empathy for Israel and even less understanding and a naïve approach to the Middle East and a simplistic approach to a complex problem,” Weinblatt said.
But not all Jewish leaders see anything wrong with the “even-handed” approach.
Rabbi Steve Gutow, former president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and former head of the National Jewish Democratic Council, suggested the remarks would not hurt Sanders with Jewish voters, many of whom might prefer progress on peace to doctrinaire support of Israel’s policies.
“To say that you favor Israel over the Palestinians (would be) an odd way to move the parties toward peace,” Gutow said, noting that Sanders has made clear many times his support for Israel.
Sanders, while doing remarkably well with Arab-American voters, has been experiencing a hard time overcoming Clinton’s grip on Jewish voters.
Though no overall credible polling data exists, anecdotal evidence indicates that Jewish voters are not lining up behind the Jewish candidate. Sanders’ performance in areas of Massachusetts with significant Jewish population on the March 1 primary was poor. In Newton, for example, where an estimated third of the population is Jewish, Clinton won more than 60% of the vote.
Israelis, as a recent poll shows, would also prefer to see Clinton beat Sanders by a 2-to-1 margin.
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.