Feb 25, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Bernie's historic Jewish fight

 Illustration of a series of white stars on a blue background, with the one in the bottom right being a star of David

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Sen. Bernie Sanders would be the first Jewish presidential nominee of a major American political party — but that history-making possibility is being overshadowed by his conflicts with America's Jewish leaders and Israel's leadership.

The big picture: That's partly because we're all focusing on the implications of Democrats nominating a self-described democratic socialist. It's also because a candidate's religion no longer seems to matter as much to voters or the media, making the potential milestone of a Jewish nominee more of a non-event.

The intrigue: But Sanders' policies toward Israel — and now his fight with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee — are causing his critics on the right to argue that the potential first Jewish nominee might not be sufficiently pro-Israel.

  • It's as stark a reminder as you could get of the divide among Jewish Americans — particularly over how Israel should treat the Palestinians and how vocal Jews should be if they disagree with Israel's policies.

The source of conflict is Sanders' determination to condition aid to Israel on better treatment of Palestinians. "What U.S. foreign policy must be about is not just being pro-Israel. We must be pro-Palestinian, as well," he said during the December Democratic debate.

  • That would be a major break from past U.S. policy, one that Sanders would probably have a hard time getting through Congress.
  • He's also a fierce critic of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whom he's called a "racist."
  • But he told the liberal Jewish group J Street in October that his Judaism might be "helpful" if Republicans try to go after him for being anti-Israel or even anti-Semitic: "It’s going to be very hard for anybody to call me, whose father’s family was wiped out by Hitler, who spent time in Israel, an anti-Semite.”

That hasn't stopped some on the right from trying — as in this Washington Examiner piece that accused his campaign of being "anti-Semitic" because of his support by surrogates like Palestinian American activist Linda Sarsour, as well as Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib.

  • And don't forget that Sanders would be running against President Trump, who has styled himself as the most pro-Israel president to hold the office.
  • Trump has been making a play for Jewish voters — who usually vote overwhelmingly for Democrats in presidential elections — by moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and proposing the Middle East peace plan. His team thinks Sanders' statements will make that job easier.
  • Trump, though, has been accused of trafficking in anti-Semitic tropes, and he has drawn fire for statements like referring to Netanyahu as "your prime minister" while addressing American Jews.

In a November article for Jewish Currents — which the Sanders campaign says is his best explanation of how he thinks about his background — Sanders says anti-Semitism is "very personal" to him.

  • He cites the mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2018 and the march of white nationalists in Charlottesville as examples of a rising threat: "We will confront this hatred, do exactly the opposite of what Trump is doing and embrace our differences to bring people together."
  • But he also notes that "the founding of Israel is understood by another people in the land of Palestine as the cause of their painful displacement. And just as Palestinians should recognize the just claims of Israeli Jews, supporters of Israel must understand why Palestinians view Israel’s creation as they do."
  • The Sanders campaign also put out a video featuring his Jewish outreach director, Joel Rubin, and including Sanders saying: "I'm very proud to be Jewish and I look forward to becoming the first Jewish president in the history of this country."

Our thought bubble, from Axios' Alexi McCammond: Barack Obama’s blackness was a point of conversation and, at times, a point of pride for him as the nominee and president. Hillary Clinton being a woman was certainly a prominent aspect of her campaign. But people tend to bring up Sanders' Jewishness only when he’s criticizing Israel — or Trump's rhetoric.

The bottom line: It would be a historic moment if Sanders were nominated — but that milestone could be overlooked if he becomes defined by fights over his Israel policies.

Go deeper