In a February 19th piece at the Forward titled “Bernie Sanders says he’s proud to be Jewish. Will Jewish voters care?”, Alex Zeldin asks an essential question: Why are American Jews not particularly drawn to Bernie Sanders? And, despite the fact he is progressive Brooklyn-Jew who represents a politics that has long held a place in the Jewish tradition, recent polling shows that he only has 6% of the Jewish vote in New York.
Zeldin argues that “Jews vote less like the grandchildren of their grandparents than they do like other well-off, educated liberals. It’s class, rather than ethnicity or history, that is increasingly determining their vote.”
While Zeldin’s explanation may be half-right, the other half of the answer may have just been given by Senator Sanders himself on Sunday afternoon when he tweeted that he does not plan to attend this year’s AIPAC conference because “AIPAC provides [a platform to] leaders who express bigotry and oppose basic Palestinian rights.”
No, I am not saying that the central reason American Jews are not particularly drawn to Bernie is that he is not supportive of AIPAC and a certain brand of right-wing Israeli politics that is quite prevalent right now. Rather, my point is that Sanders does not resonate with a vast swath of Jewish voters because they cannot relate to him on a purely Jewish level—in other words, they do not feel as though they share an even remotely similar Jewish experience.
He had never expressed pride in being Jewish until 2015, he is campaigning with people that have a history of anti-Semitism, he championed—and even honeymooned—in the Soviet Union while anti-Semitism was rampant and, to top it all off, he hasn’t shown a particular fondness of the Jewish homeland.
At the end of the day, having Linda Sarsour as a campaign surrogate, championing Ilhan Omar, among other members of “the squad”, and writing an entire op-ed about anti-Semitism while not once mentioning its presence in any other movement than the conservative movement, is not exactly the vision many American Jews had of their first Jewish president. In fact, it makes most Jews pretty nervous.
For many Jews, standing up to anti-Semitism whether it comes from the left or right, defending the right of Israel to not only exist but defend herself, and simply taking pride in the fact that we are continuing an age-old tradition, is essential to who they are. Sanders, on the other hand, says that being Jewish is a central part of his identity, but the truth is that he has not actually demonstrated it to his fellow Jews throughout his career.
It is, of course, not my place to judge “how Jewish” another person is. Being Jewish may well be a crucial part of who Bernie Sanders is as a human—but that is certainly not something he has made clear. And, considering he has proudly endorsed Jeremy Corbyn—a person who 85% of British Jews believe to be anti-Semitic—it doesn’t exactly convince me much further.
It may seem unfair to assume that certain baseline support for Israel is necessary to garner the mainstream Jewish vote, but when 95% of American Jews have a “favorable view towards Israel”, that assumption can be made. Moreover, one must not even make that assumption to know why he does not resonate with American Jews considering the people and causes he has supported.
Now, don’t get me wrong, if Sanders is the Democratic nominee he will win upwards of seventy-five to eighty percent of the Jewish vote. But know this: Jews will just look at him just as they would any other democrat—as a vehicle to get President Trump out of office. Democrat-voting Jews will not view him uniquely as the fellow Jew who will be the first to represent us at the highest level of government. That is why, until the general election rolls around, we should not expect Bernie Sanders to garner a significant portion of the Jewish vote just because he is Jewish.