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The Bernie Sanders Campaign as a Pivotal Episode in Jewish History

The summer issue of the British journal Jewish Quarterly has a long essay by yours truly, looking at the presidential campaign as a significant episode in Jewish history — primarily in terms of the Sanders campaign and the Trump phenomenon.

JQ has a pretty stiff paywall, so they’ve generously given me permission to post my essay online.

And while you’re at it, check out Jewish Quarterly.

As alert readers know by now, America’s presidential year 2016 has turned out to be a year of epic, epochal weirdness. That said, it’s useful to understand just how weird it’s been, in order to appreciate it as a pivotal moment in the history of American Jewry.

It was a year in which one of the two major political parties, the Republican Party, winnowed a capable primary field of seventeen would-be candidates and settled on a billionaire television host with no political experience, little grasp of public affairs and distinctly demagogic — some said fascistic — inclinations. It was a year in which the other party’s eventual nominee, one of the nation’s best known and most seasoned public servants, was fought almost to a draw by an aging Jewish socialist, a cantankerous relic from the hippie era.

Above all, it was a year in which, once the two parties finally managed to narrow their fields, voters were presented with a choice between the two most disliked, mistrusted contenders in the history of modern presidential polling.

Given all that, it would have been surprising had the 2016 campaign not proved to be a defining moment for American Jews as well. And indeed, it did not disappoint.

This was a year in which Jewish Americans reached a high point of success and influence on the national stage, and yet, paradoxically, the organized Jewish community — the multibillion-dollar network of institutions built up over a century to defend American Jews’ interests and values — faded almost into invisibility.

And this at a time when the stakes for Jews could hardly have been higher. Tectonic forces were shifting the political landscape, stirring alarming, unpredictable tides. Most disturbing were, first, the nativist, isolationist themes and at times openly antisemitic murmurings aroused by Donald Trump’s campaign; and second, the pro-Palestinian currents injected into the national discourse by the Bernie Sanders campaign. Both tides caught the Jewish organizational world off-balance and decidedly unprepared.

The signature event on the Jewish political calendar was the emergence of Senator Sanders as the first Jewish hopeful ever to mount a credible major-party presidential candidacy, to win primaries and amass a bloc of convention delegates.

Some context is called for. American Jews have in many ways stood at a pinnacle of influence for quarter of a century or more. Just over two percent of the American population, they comprise fully ten percent of the United States Senate and one third of the justices of the Supreme Court. Jews are mayors of two of the country’s three largest cities, Los Angeles and Chicago — for a period in 2013 at the tail end of Michael Bloomberg’s New York mayoralty all three of the largest had Jewish mayors — and they hold countless other positions of power and influence at nearly every level of American society. And yet, no Jew has come close to the Oval Office. Until Bernie Sanders.

Indeed, one of the minor oddities of the 2016 campaign that says much about the place of Jews in society is the fact that of the three candidates left standing when the primary races ended, one, Sanders, is Jewish, and the other two, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, both have Jewish sons-in-law. Trump’s daughter Ivanka underwent an Orthodox conversion before marrying real-estate heir Jared Kushner, while Hillary Clinton’s daughter Chelsea entered an interfaith marriage with investment banker Marc Mezvinsky, heir to a Philadelphia political dynasty. In the end, Sanders, the sole Jew in the race, was the only remaining candidate whose grandchildren are not being raised to consider themselves Jewish, while Trump, the candidate most tainted with bigotry and reviled by the majority of Jews, is the only one with halachically Jewish grandchildren.

A handful of other Jews had sought the presidency before Sanders, but failed miserably. Republican senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania tried in 1996, running to the left of his party’s establishment. Democratic senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut tried in 2004, running to the right of his party’s mainstream. Both flickered out without winning a single primary. Both eventually quit their parties.

Sanders, by contrast, waged one of the most unexpectedly successful campaigns in presidential history. An avowed socialist from the tiny rural state of Vermont, he started his race in 2015 as a virtual unknown, registering a mere three percent in the polls. Yet he ended up a year later almost even with party favorite Hillary Clinton, the former first lady, senator, secretary of state and now Democratic nominee.

Born in 1941 in a working-class neighborhood in Brooklyn, Sanders carved out a unique political career. He was a minor activist in the campus New Left of the early 1960s. He spent half a year after college graduation in 1964 on an Israeli kibbutz — at a time when kibbutz volunteering was virtually unknown in America — and then joined the hippie-era migration to rural Vermont. There he helped form a radical left-wing party and eventually, improbably, became the state’s most popular and durable politician. He was elected mayor of Vermont’s largest city, Burlington, in 1981, moved on in 1991 to the US House of Representatives and then in 2006 to the Senate, serving in both chambers as a non-party Independent who caucused with the Democrats.

In 2015, at the advanced age of 73, he announced what was expected to be a symbolic bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, presenting himself as the enemy of greedy Wall Street and “the billionaire class”. To everyone’s surprise, including his own, his campaign caught fire. He found himself drawing audiences of tens of thousands while other candidates were attracting hundreds or even dozens. His strongest support came from the youngest voters in their teens and twenties, who gave him as much as 80% of their votes, taken by his combination of fiery, anti-establishment bluntness and quirky, grandfatherly charm.

No less remarkably, Sanders’ Jewishness was not an issue in his campaign. He stirred enormous excitement as a progressive icon, filled football stadiums with cheering fans, transformed the national debate. But opponents almost never tried to make the fact of his Jewishness a serious campaign issue. Neither did he. Not, at least, until he collided unawares with the pro-Israel advocacy community, with unfortunate results.

In an earlier generation his candidacy might have stirred dark murmurings about Jewish bolshevik conspiracies, but nothing of the sort surfaced in 2016. On the reverse side, a nation as religious and identity- besotted as America might well have expected his Judaism to be made a positive campaign theme, as it was in Lieberman’s brief 2004 campaign—or, for that matter, as Barack Obama’s race was in his successful 2008 presidential campaign. Lieberman had made his Orthodox Judaism a badge of moral probity and drew an enthusiastic following among Jewish community leaders. Sanders, a secular, intermarried Jew, seldom touted Judaism in public.

He never denied his Jewishness. Indeed, he occasionally — mostly when prodded — proclaimed himself proud of being Jewish. He periodically linked his progressive values to his Jewish background. Notably, he didn’t follow the current fashion of many Jewish liberals and progressives who link their leftist beliefs to a notion of Jewish social values. The popular “tikkun olam” catchword that’s entered mainstream American liberal vocabulary never crossed his lips. Rather, Sanders focused on his upbringing as a child of a Polish Jewish immigrant who lost most of his family in the Holocaust. It taught him early on, he regularly stated, about the evils of ethnic bigotry.

Neither did Sanders’ breakthrough Jewish candidacy become a rallying point for the mainstream Jewish community. Polls showed that he fared worse among Jewish Democratic primary voters than among Democrats overall. Perhaps ironically, those Jews who might have been most open to an ethnocentric embrace of a Jewish candidate were precisely the conservative sorts least likely to gather around a socialist.

The majority of American Jews are not conservative, yet most don’t think of themselves as leftists, either. Most are moderate liberals. Most are comfortably middle class and unmoved by Sanders’ class-based anger. Repeated surveys of Jewish opinion show that Jews lean Democratic in far greater proportions than nearly any other segment of the population — typically between sixty and seventy percent — and about forty percent describe themselves as “liberal”, twice the proportion of Americans overall (an equal percentage say they’re “moderate” and about twenty percent of Jews are “conservative”). But Jewish liberalism tends to be the social liberalism of gender rights, immigration rights and racial equality championed by the Hillary Clinton wing of the Democratic Party—and challenged by Sanders in favor of an economic, labor-oriented social democracy.

Nor did his relentless attacks on big business and finance endear him to the wealthy donors who dominate Jewish organizational life. He drew a devoted following among Jewish counterculture activists, but not enough to leave a distinctive mark on the larger political field.

Beyond demographics and ideology, the biggest obstacle to a Jewish native-son groundswell for Sanders was Israel. Sanders’ position on Israel, as he stated repeatedly, was that the Jewish state has an unquestionable right to live secure and free from terrorism, but that neither America nor Israel can continue to ignore the “suffering” of the Palestinians. Linking Palestinian rights to Israeli security is a standard feature of American diplomacy, but is traditionally taboo in election campaigns. It’s seen by the most outspoken segments of the pro-Israel advocacy community — which is increasingly conterminous with the organized Jewish community — as an attack on Israel. That’s one of the effects that seven years of Benjamin Netanyahu have had on American Jewry and American politics.

Sanders often peppered his Israeli policy comments with the observation that, unique among the candidates, he had “lived in Israel”, as he put it, had family there and knew the country from the ground up, so his “one-hundred-percent support” for Israel’s welfare was well-grounded. But it did him little good.

As the campaign heated up, his actions occasionally suggested that he was looking for a fight. He was the sole candidate to absent himself from the stage of the annual Washington conference in late March of the pro-Israel lobbying powerhouse AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. He told conference organizers he was committed to campaign appearances in the western states where primary elections were imminent and asked to speak via satellite, as candidate Mitt Romney had done in 2012. He was refused. Instead he delivered a major Middle East policy speech in Salt Lake City, Utah, on 21 March, the same day the other candidates were addressing AIPAC, and asked that the text be distributed to AIPAC delegates. It was not.

The behind-the-scenes wrangling was largely lost on the major media and most of the public. The general impression that was left—strongly encouraged by Sanders’s conservative opponents—was that he had refused to attend AIPAC.

Relations continued to deteriorate. Two weeks after the AIPAC conference, as the crucial New York primary was approaching, he gave an interview to the mass-circulation Daily News. Asked whether he supported a Palestinian bid to bring Israel before the International Criminal Court on war crimes charges, he said he did not, and went on to discuss the Gaza deaths on which the suit was based. It’s worth looking at the full quote:

Look, why don’t I support a million things in the world? I’m just telling you that I happen to believe … anybody help me out here, because I don’t remember the figures, but my recollection is over 10,000 innocent people were killed in Gaza. Does that sound right?

The interview continued:

Daily News: I think it’s probably high, but we can look at that.

Sanders: I don’t have it in my number …  but I think it’s over 10,000. My understanding is that a whole lot of apartment houses were leveled. Hospitals, I think, were bombed. So yeah, I do believe and I don’t think I’m alone in believing that Israel’s force was more indiscriminate than it should have been.

Of course, that number is wrong. The actual death toll, according to both Israel and the United Nations, was about 2,100. The proportion who were “innocent” — presumably meaning civilians — was between fifty-two percent (per Israel) and sixty-nine percent (U.N. figures). The figure of 10,000 in Sanders’ admittedly hazy recollection roughly matches the total of Palestinians wounded.

Sanders immediately issued a correction, after being called out by a wide range of critics. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the American Jewish Committee (AJC), the two most influential Jewish rights agencies, both demanded a correction. When it came, the ADL responded with thanks, but the AJC replied that he needed to go further and clear up his “unjust” accusation of “indiscriminate” Israeli force. Others to AJC’s right — and even putative liberals like Alan Dershowitz — continued hammering for weeks on the Daily News interview, claiming repeatedly that Sanders was deliberately, dishonestly inflating the death toll in order to defame Israel.

There was dishonesty, but it was on the part of his critics. He said clearly that he didn’t remember the number. In fact, he’d had the correct numbers in his Salt Lake City speech, just two weeks earlier. The notion that he was lying was—well, a lie. But truth has long since left American political discourse at nearly every level, including, alas, parts of the once honorable Jewish advocacy community.

But Sanders wasn’t done stumbling. Eight days after the Daily News interview, on 12 April, his campaign announced the appointment of a Jewish outreach coordinator, a standard feature of major national campaigns. The choice was another public relations disaster: Simone Zimmerman, 25, a former president of J Street U, the campus arm of the controversial liberal-Zionist lobby J Street. The following day, a popular conservative website reprinted a Zimmerman Facebook post from 2014 in which she attacked Prime Minister Netanyahu in adolescent terms over his Iran nuclear policy. She called him “an arrogant, deceptive, cynical, manipulative asshole” along with some worse vulgarities, and further claimed he had “sanctioned the murder of over 2,000 people”, referring to the Gaza war.

Her appointment was “suspended” the very next day, 14 April, just hours before a critical, nationally televised debate. Her dismissal had been demanded by a string of prominent leaders of mainstream Jewish organizations, including Abraham Foxman of the ADL and Ronald Lauder of the World Jewish Congress. But Zimmerman’s dismissal didn’t end the attacks. Like the Daily News interview, Zimmerman became fodder for critics further to the right to accuse Sanders of being anti-Israel, linked to “haters” and worse.

At a certain point — it’s hard to pinpoint precisely when — Sanders’s campaign changed in tone. Early on he’d maintained a determinedly collegial stance towards Clinton. He insisted his campaign would avoid personal attacks and focus on his primary issues of economic inequality and financial corruption. By mid-winter, however, the campaign had lost its quixotic feel. He began believing the presidency was within reach. And yet Clinton continued accumulating convention delegates and widening her lead. By late spring it was widely observed that his tone had turned bitter. He was repeatedly attacking Clinton and the arcane Democratic Party primary rules that he believed kept his victory out of reach.

Some of that frustration seemed to spill over into the Israel debate. Foreign policy had never interested Sanders, with the glaring exception of his relentless opposition to the American intervention in Iraq. His inability to offer the Daily News a ready explanation for his opposition to Palestinian use of the International Criminal Court, and his failure to remember the Gaza death numbers he’d read aloud in a speech just two weeks earlier, illustrate the extent of his disinterest. But the Israel question was thrust on him, and despite what he plainly regarded as his genuine affection for and commitment to the country — and to a dovish policy that’s well within the Israeli mainstream— he found himself pilloried as a Jew by other Jews. It was probably his first-ever foray into the ugly side of Jewish communal politics, after spending his entire adult life in his Vermont social-democratic bubble. And it stung.

As the primary season neared the end, party leaders were openly worrying that Sanders’s bitterness would make it hard to unite forces against the Republican candidate after the July convention. Some Sanders supporters were declaring they’d never vote for Clinton. On 25 May the party announced a compromise agreement to give Sanders unusual influence at the convention. He would be allowed to name five of the fifteen members of the platform committee, normally the prerogative of the chair of the Democratic National Committee, Florida congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Clinton would pick six and Wasserman Schultz would pick four, including the committee chair.

Sanders promptly announced his five choices. They included, in addition to an environmental activist and a Native American author, the leading Arab American lobbyist in Washington, James Zogby; the first Muslim member of Congress, Keith Ellison of Minnesota; and a fiery leftist black philosophy professor, Cornel West. The influential news site BuzzFeed headlined its report: “Convention Compromise Sets Up Israel Fight.”

Few bothered to note that Zogby, whose name led in most coverage, is a pioneering advocate of Israeli- Palestinian coexistence with close ties to pro-Israel liberals. Moreover, Zogby has been a member of the platform committee for years and co-chairs the party’s platform committee between conventions. Ellison is even closer to Israel as a staunch, outspoken ally of the liberal Zionist J Street organization. Both Zogby and Ellison advocate policies that aren’t far from Israel’s own Labor Party.

West, on the other hand, is an open advocate of boycotting and divestment from Israel. Despite his frequent partnership with the liberal firebrand Rabbi Michael Lerner of Tikkun magazine, he uses words like “evil” to describe Israeli policies and actions. All in all, the symbolism was unmistakable. Sanders was digging in his heels.

The importance of uniting the Democrats has never been greater than this year. The Republican candidate, Donald Trump, is a unique phenomenon in American presidential history. If the Sanders campaign is the signature event in this year’s Jewish politics, Trump is the overriding issue, for Jews and for America. Sanders represents the unlimited promise that America offers to Jews. Trump represents the darkness lurking at the heart of American democracy, threatening the security of racial and religious minorities and the stability of democracy itself.

Trump successfully won a majority of delegates to the Republican Party’s July convention by running a primary campaign that was largely devoid of issues, other than keeping Mexican immigrants and Muslims out of the United States and starting a trade war with China. The rest of his campaign time was spent hurling personal insults at his Republican rivals and mocking the Obama administration as “filled with stupid, stupid people” and “losers.” He promised to have America “win again.”

Image by Getty Images

Day after day, Trump delivered long, extemporaneous, often spellbinding speeches in which he boasted about his electoral successes, often county by county, and enumerated people who were “terrible” and “horrible,” invariably because they had said unkind things about him, and others who were “amazing” and “terrific” because they’d spoken his praise. When other Republican candidates tried to argue with him over issues like abortion rights, taxes or military spending, his replies were nearly always personal insults. He did endorse specific policies, only to reverse himself, often the next day after facing criticism, sometimes within the same speech. He once called Hillary Clinton a “liar” for claiming he favored something he’d actually promised in writing, to bar US entry for Muslims. At one debate he boasted about the size of his penis.

Only gradually did it dawn on opponents from either party that his candidacy had nothing to do with issues or policies. They don’t interest him. It’s about his own personality and character. From his perspective, he should be president because he’s a winner who’s built successful businesses, amassed a fortune and clearly knows how to get things done. For others, the issue is whether a narcissist who flies off the handle at personal insults, mocks and stereotypes other races and religions and takes no interest in policy or facts can be trusted with America’s nuclear codes.

His taunts and insults won him a mass following that matched Sanders’s in size and enthusiasm. At the end, it became clear that the one consistent theme in his campaign is the resentment of white Americans, particularly working class white men, over their loss of status and privilege in a society that’s growing increasingly racially diverse, that’s finding blacks, Hispanics, Asians and women of every color taking an ever increasing role in society.

That resentment is not new. It’s been broadcast in raw form from right-wing talk radio and extreme reaches of the internet for decades. But it’s never had a tribune who openly expresses and encourages such raw resentment within shouting distance of the White House. Nowhere was the latent threat more obvious than in the violence that periodically erupted at Trump’s campaign rallies—directed at minorities and journalists by his followers with the candidate’s encouragement and, no less ominous, by mobs of his opponents against Trump supporters exiting the rallies.

Also new is the antisemitism that’s emerged from some of his followers. Several journalists who’ve been critical of Trump or his wife have found themselves subjected to massive outpourings of Nazi-style hate via social media and even the US mail. Perhaps more alarming, Trump has refused to acknowledge or express any regret over the outbursts. His daughter is a convert to Orthodox Judaism and the mother of three Jewish children, so he considers himself immune from criticism on that front.

Appeals to Trump to rein in his divisive rhetoric met a blank wall. Indeed, if there was a theme to his campaign other than his own ego, it was his assault on “political correctness.” Conservatives used the Marxist term mockingly to refer to leftist squeamishness at any talk that might offend particular minorities or out-groups. Trump carried the dismissal to new heights.

“We don’t have time for political correctness,” he said over and over. That was his way of justifying his savaging of the groups he chose to target, Hispanic immigrants and Muslims. It should have come as no surprise that some of his fans would go the next step and attack Jews and blacks, the traditional targets of bigots. Trump didn’t directly encourage those prejudices, but neither did he fight them. He stuck to his principle: no time for “political correctness.”

No serious observers have accused Trump himself of harboring antisemitic views. Besides his daughter, he has close relationships with numerous high-ranking employees in his organization who are Jewish. Nonetheless, his refusal to explicitly dissociate himself from the antisemitism among his followers continues to disturb many Jewish community leaders. In February, after he was endorsed by one of the country’s best known hatemongers, the former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, Trump told an interviewer: “I just don’t know anything about him.” Only days later, after extensive media coverage of his past denunciations of Duke—going back as far as 1991—did Trump state that he rejected the endorsement.

Perhaps more disturbing, Trump in an April speech adopted the campaign slogan “America First”, which is remembered as the slogan of the 1940s-era America First Committee, which campaigned under the leadership of the outspokenly antisemitic aviator Charles Lindbergh to maintain good ties with Nazi Germany and prevent America from entering World War II. Trump’s choice of the slogan prompted massive media coverage and a personal letter from the Anti-Defamation League asking him to stop using the phrase, but on 7 June he reiterated his intention to make it a centerpiece of his campaign.

Staffers at Jewish defense and human rights agencies say they’ve held agonizing internal discussions, wondering what if anything they can do in response to the Trump phenomenon. Jewish agencies are registered as non-profits under the US tax code and are barred from taking sides in elections. It’s never happened before that a major candidate posed such a direct challenge to the principles on which the Jewish community bases its collective self-defense. One agency, AIPAC, actually found itself publicly apologizing after Trump was invited, like all the other candidates, to address the conference and he ended up vilifying President Obama in a way that outraged half the membership—and worse, drew cheers and standing ovations from the other half.

To date only one major agency, the ADL, has consistently and repeatedly spoken out against Trump’s excesses. The league’s statements avoid advocating for or against his candidacy, but simply note and question specific actions he or his campaign have taken. Additionally, the league announced in March that it was taking $56,000 in past donations from Trump and redirecting them to its nationwide anti-bias programs. It’s a model others could follow if they weren’t so afraid of the their tax exemptions— or of their big Republican donors.

For American democracy, the 2016 presidential race has been a cautionary tale in the system’s weakness, its vulnerability to exploitation by demagogues. We’d seen charlatans make a run for the White House before, but the good sense of the voters always blocked their way. This time the system partially failed. Trump’s sense of showmanship and the insecurities of the Republican electorate allowed him to win the nomination of one of the two major parties. Whether partisanship—which in present-day America means hatred of the opposing party more than loyalty to one’s own—will carry him all the way to the top remains to be seen.

For American Jews, the lessons of 2016 are paradoxical. First, Bernie Sanders showed that Jewish acceptance is nearly complete. The last barrier to Jewish success appears to have fallen. If he had been a slightly less eccentric candidate, he might have snared the Democratic Party’s nomination and perhaps gone on to win the presidency.

Second, Donald Trump showed that a second barrier has fallen as well: the barrier of good taste and goodwill that, it was thought, would prevent open prejudice and hate-mongering from taking the main stage in American public life. In successfully dispatching “political correctness”, he tore down one of the basic protections of American tolerance and fair play. Time will tell whether the breach was temporary or whether “no time for political correctness”—open season on minorities—has become the new normal.

The third lesson is the bankruptcy of the major Jewish advocacy agencies in the face of the second lesson—the collapse of the social taboos against prejudice that they had spent the previous half-century laboriously putting in place. When open hate-mongering was adopted by one of the two major parties, the great civil rights coalition built by Jews and blacks following World War II was nowhere to be seen. — JQ


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