Senator Bernie Sanders is the most successful Jewish presidential candidate to date. But he did not prevail in the Apr. 19 Democratic primary in New York–despite the state’s massive Jewish community and his personal ties to Brooklyn. Even if Sanders does not end up the Democratic nominee, his efforts to push Americans politics to the left will be remembered for years to come. Among the most notable parts of his legacy may well be his attitudes toward Israel–which may also have cost him the support of his fellow Jews at the polls (who voted against him 58% to 42% in New York).
We can start with Sanders’ views on Israel. Although Sanders is unwavering in his support for Israel’s right to exist, he has also harshly criticized the Jewish state’s myriad human rights abuses against Palestinians. This was particularly apparent in the Apr. 15 debate. Sanders explained that although he is “100% pro-Israel in the long run,” he wants America “to treat the Palestinian people with respect and dignity” and believes that listening to the Palestinian side “does not make me anti-Israel.” These are bold positions for any mainstream presidential candidate to take. And while the risk of anti-Semitism accusations may be somewhat mitigated for Sanders, his willingness to speak ill of Israel could result in him being accused of something arguably worse—being a self-hating Jew.
As a Jew who has been on the receiving end of this particular taunt, I can personally attest to how infuriating the insult is. Nevertheless, there are emotionally (if not logically) sound reasons why so many Jews feel intensely protective of Israel.
Chief among them is the existential terror that accompanies the reality of being “a Jew.” Anyone with a cursory familiarity of Jewish history knows that we have been brutally persecuted for millennia: the Roman diaspora, Spanish Inquisition, Russian pogroms, and German Holocaust are merely a few of the most conspicuous occasions in which powerful nations have not only discriminated against Jews, but actively worked to wipe out the Jewish community.
After 5,000 years of such treatment, it makes sense that many Jews are extremely sensitive about potential persecution. This sensitivity translates into the potential abandonment of any presidential candidate who speaks negatively about Israel, even one who is Jewish.
At the same time, however, Sanders’s positions on the issue are indicative of a growing liberalism within the American Jewish community. Indeed, numerous polls have found that Israel ranks relatively low among Jewish voters’ priorities. And progressive humanism is just as integral to the Jewish tradition as support for Israel.
Jews have overwhelmingly voted Democratic since the 1920s—which, not coincidentally, was right around the time the Democratic party was becoming the more progressive of America’s two major political parties. Although assimilation and socioeconomic advancement have somewhat dampened these left-wing tendencies over the past 90 or so years, Jews remain a largely liberal lot.
This is in no small part because our centuries of persecution have left many of us with a keen sense of empathy. Our sympathy for the marginalized, persecuted, or suffering is also why Jews have been disproportionately active in fighting racial inequality, promoting gay rights, organizing and supporting labor unions, and backing left-wing third-party candidates. When it comes to Israel, this humanistic narrative is often at odds with historical fears of persecution. For Sanders, it’s clear which side has more influence. Speaking to CNN’s Anderson Cooper in February, he said his cultural background teaches him “that we are all in this together and that when children go hungry, when veterans sleep out on the street, it impacts me.”
It also explains why, as millennial Jews like myself participate in the political process, we are beginning to feel less tied to Israel than ever before. “Younger Jews’ waning support for Israel in its dealings with Palestinians may not be so surprising,” explained Jason Horowitz recently in The New York Times. “Unlike their parents and grandparents, who grew up when Jews were still reeling from the Holocaust, they know Israel primarily as a powerful nation rather than an existential necessity.”
From this progressive vantage point, humanist Jews find their religion actually motivating them to criticize their motherland. After all, why would we support any powerful entity that treats others in the same way that Jews were once treated?
Ironically, Sanders’ progressive interpretation of American Jewishness may be hurting him among some segments of Jewish voters. Although Sanders is the most left-wing candidate in this election, the Clinton dynasty enjoys strong popularity within the Jewish community. When Bill Clinton first ran for president in 1992, Jewish support for the Democratic ticket shot up by 16 points from the previous presidential election, giving him the best showing of any Democratic candidate in a quarter century. During his wife’s first presidential bid 16 years later, Jews preferred Clinton over then-senator Barack Obama by a wide margin.
This can be attributed in part to the Clintons’ warm personal relationships with individual Jews. Bill Clinton hired more Jews for powerful roles in his administration than any president before him, and the Clintons’ son-in-law is Jewish. But it also has to do with the Clintons’ hawkish commitment to Israel, which was best captured by Hillary’s unequivocally pro-Israel speech at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).
Of course, there is no way of knowing what’s primarily responsible for Sanders’ poor showing among Jewish voters–it could be his views on Israel, or the Jewish community’s longstanding loyalty to the Clintons. But for better or worse, the current trend shows that most Jewish voters aren’t going to play the identity politics game when it comes to their electoral decisions.
Perhaps more importantly, however, is the way Sanders’ politics have brought a new phase in the identity of American Jewry to the mainstream. We are gradually becoming a culture that perceives its heritage through a distinctly American paradigm. When we assess what being Jewish means to our political values, we don’t think solely in terms of what would be superficially best for the Jewish community specifically. Rather, we use our experience as a historically persecuted minority to inform our advocacy. It’s the difference between memorializing our oppression and committing ourselves to rooting out prejudice and oppression—wherever that may occur.
We aren’t there yet, but we’re getting closer.