Bernie Sanders © Erik S. Lesser
Bernie Sanders would be the first Jewish U.S. president in history. But the front-runner among Democratic presidential contenders is dividing the minds of American Jews not only with statements on Israel.
He still speaks with the accent of Brooklyn’s Jewish neighborhoods, spent time volunteering on a kibbutz in Israel, and lost most of his father’s family, who remained in Poland, in the Holocaust. The had been lucky to have emigrated to the U.S. as early as 1921 at the age of 17. Over the years, father Eliasz Gitman changed his name. Why Bernie is now called Sanders and not Gitman.
"I’m the proud son of an immigrant," Sanders says when talking about his heritage. The Democratic front-runner says exactly the same thing about his faith. "I’m very proud to be Jewish," the 77-year-old proclaimed at a recent Democratic presidential debate. But what he then followed up with makes some Jews in the U.S. nervous.
Much criticized statements
He calls Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a "reactionary racist," describes the treatment of Palestinians as "unjust" and sees the U.S. in the role of honest broker.
"The Israeli people have the right to live in peace and security, as do the Palestinians," Sanders tweeted ahead of the meeting of the Israel lobby AIPAC, which ends this Tuesday in Washington – only to then explain his cancellation from the annual meeting. "I am disturbed that AIPAC provides a stage for leaders who express bigotry and opposition to basic Palestinian rights."
"How far is an American Jew allowed to go??"
His cancellation sparked controversy within the U.S. Jewish community over how far an American Jew may go in criticizing the state of Israel and its policies. Or with regard to Sanders somewhat pointedly asked: Can a Jew be anti-Semitic??
Among Netanyahu’s and Donald Trump’s supporters among U.S. Jews, there are some who answer in the affirmative. Except they are nowhere near a majority of the up to 7.2 million Jews in the U.S. 70 to 80 percent of them are considered reliable Democratic voters. What prompted Trump to accuse the communion of voting against its own interests.
Struggle for social justice as core value
Sanders is in the long tradition of American Jews who see the fight for social justice as more of a core value than unconditional support for Israel’s policies. Author Mairav Zonszein, who lives in the U.S. and Israel, recently spoke in the Washington Post "of a battle over what the values of Jewish Americans are on Israel." Sanders had made himself the reference point for this "civil war".
It depends on who in the community is asked about Bernie. For the term "American Jews" is a broad one. No one can say for sure who belongs and who doesn’t. Counting only practicing Jews, the PEW research institute arrives at 4.2 million. The rest do not practice their religion, but feel connected to the culture. A minority has Jewish parents, but does not see itself as part of the religious community.
"It is irresponsible to describe AIPAC in this way"
Certainly Sanders appeals more to secular Jews than Orthodox, to the young rather than the elderly. And progressives more than political conservatives. But there are also civil libertarians like Anti-Defamation League Chairman Jonathan Greenblatt, who is not happy about the positioning of the Democratic front-runner. "At a time when they are witnessing real hatred swelling in the U.S., it is irresponsible to describe AIPAC in this way." That may explain why Sanders is the first choice for the White House for only 11 percent of U.S. Jews, according to a January PEW poll.
Other Jews find it irresponsible the way the once bipartisan Israel lobby is now setting itself up. AIPAC criticized Barack Obama and invited then-candidate Trump in 2016. Hundreds of conferees marched out of the hall at the time in protest of this.
Moreover, Sanders was not alone in his criticism this year. Elizabeth Warren, a Democratic contender for the presidential nomination, also canceled her attendance at the annual meeting. And Sanders’ pursuer in the primaries, Joe Biden, merely sent a video warning about the undermining of democratic values in Israel and the consequences of settlement building.