Karl Grossman

Sanders’ Criticism of Israel Hurt Him with Jews

Bernie Sanders “will not pay a political price for his stance” on Israel, claimed New York Times columnist Roger Cohen in an op-ed piece in the paper this week.

Sanders’ criticism of Israel, said Cohen, wouldn’t cost him politically “because there is an emergent constituency, particularly among young Americans, for a different approach to Israel, one that underwrites its security without writing a blank check for its every policy.”

The day the Cohen piece ran there was a Democratic primary in New York State to chose who should be the Democratic Party’s candidate for U.S. president—and Sanders did poorly.

Sanders had hoped that a victory in his home state—following a string of primary victories in a series of states—might be key to helping him grab the Democratic nomination and, in any event, he had expected a very strong showing in New York.

But as Lawrence J. Epstein, long-time Suffolk County Community College professor and author (his most recent book The Basic Beliefs of Judaism: A Twenty-first-Century Guide to a Timeless Tradition), wrote on his Facebook page the day after the primary:

“There was an interesting story yesterday on MSNBC. The network sent a reporter to Bernie Sanders’ old high school [Midwood High School in Brooklyn] which was serving as a polling place. The big takeaway for the reporter was that she spoke to many voters who had originally intended to vote for Sanders but changed their minds when he spoke about Israel in a manner that these voters considered insufficiently pro-Israel.”

“Since Sanders lost by a larger margin than expected, I wondered if this was part of the explanation so I looked at the results in the 10th Congressional District, widely thought to be the one with the largest Jewish population in the country,” Epstein continued. The 10th Congressional District includes the West Side and Greenwich Village in Manhattan and also parts of Brooklyn including Borough Park. Sanders in his New York primary campaign stressed his Jewish background although being critical of Israel.

And Hillary “Clinton won the district three to one. She also won the district where Sanders grew up” [in Brooklyn], noted Epstein.

Epstein declared: “And it’s not just Jewish voters. Israel polls very well with voters generally. Sanders let inaccuracies and ideology overshadow sober historical and political facts. There’s a lesson here for Democrats as they proceed.”

Cohen stated in his column: “Sanders struck an important blow for honest and more open debate by raising issues seldom broached in an American presidential campaign—the Palestinian houses and schools ‘decimated’ by Israeli force in Gaza, the fact that ‘there are two sides to the issue,’ the need for a balanced American role. He set down a marker in the Jewish American city par excellence.”

Insisting this would not hurt Sanders politically, Cohen went on to assert: “Whether Sanders will benefit is another matter—the situation is fluid and Hillary Clinton’s more conventional approach to Israel retains strong support.”

Sanders’ stance and incorrect statements about Israel such as his telling the New York Daily News editorial board that “over 10,000 innocent people were killed in Gaza” by Israel during the 2014 conflict with Hamas didn’t benefit him and indeed did hurt him.

And, yes, there’s a lesson here for Democrats in the U.S. about how most Jews—and non-Jewish Americans—strongly feel about Israel.

About the Author
Karl Grossman is a professor of journalism at the State University of New York/College at Old Westbury who has specialized in investigative reporting for 45 years. He is the host of the TV program “Enviro Close-Up,” the writer and presenter of numerous TV documentaries and the author of six books.