Will Jews Sit Out the Election?
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has now won two primaries, exacerbating panic in Democratic ranks that he might become the nominee for president and lead the party to an epic defeat on the scale of George McGovern’s loss in 1972, when McGovern won only one state and the District of Columbia. Aside from the far left, Jewish Democrats share this anxiety, raising the question of whether Jews will turn out if Sanders is the standard bearer.
It is ironic that the first Jew to have a realistic chance of leading one of the two major parties — and at least a theoretical shot at becoming president — has little support from the Jewish community. In a January Pew poll, Sanders came in dead last among the four front-runners for the nomination among Jewish Democrats, with only 11% saying he was their preferred candidate.
One reason that Sanders is so unpopular is his socialism. American Jews have enjoyed the benefits of capitalism and, while they historically have voted against their economic interests, Sanders’ positions are too extreme. Jews also are cognizant of the persecution they suffered under non-democratic socialist regimes, which may be a far cry from what Sanders envisions, but are likely still in the back of their minds. Jews might also be afraid of being tagged with a socialist label if Sanders becomes the party’s — and their — candidate. Finally, besides opposing much of his agenda, Jews fear his far-left positions make him unelectable.
A second explanation is his attitude towards critics of Israel. Sanders has said, “It is true that some criticism of Israel can cross the line into antisemitism, especially when it denies the right of self-determination to Jews, or when it plays into conspiracy theories about outsized Jewish power,” but he defended Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN)’s antisemitic remarks. “It is not antisemitic to be critical of a right-wing government in Israel,” he said, while lumping the fight against anti-Muslim bigotry in with protecting Jews. While Sanders opposes BDS, he was one of the 22 Democrats who voted against anti-boycott legislation.
The main cause of unease is Sanders’ strident criticism of Israel. Sanders has called Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a “racist,” supports an end to Israeli “occupation,” calls for “Palestinian self-determination,” opposed moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, opposes unilateral annexation, insists settlements are “illegal,” and said military aid to Israel should be “conditioned on Israel taking steps to end the occupation and move toward a peace agreement.” US foreign policy, he said, “must be pro-Palestinian as well” as pro-Israel.
“The parameters of a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are well known,” he believes. “Two states based on the 1967 lines, with Jerusalem as the capital of both states.” He says the Palestinian state should be democratic and acknowledges the current leadership is corrupt, but does not talk about how it denies Palestinians their civil rights.
He has said, “The Palestinians must fulfill their responsibilities to arrest terrorists, confiscate terrorists’ weapons, dismantle terrorist organizations, halt all anti-Jewish and anti-Israel incitement, and recognize Israel’s right to exist. In return, the Israelis must end their policy of targeted killings, prevent further Israeli settlements on Palestinian land, and prevent the destruction of Palestinian homes, businesses, and infrastructure.”
Israelis across the political spectrum see the Palestinian demand that refugees be allowed to reside in Israel as a recipe for its destruction. Sanders, however, said, “The right of refugees to return to their homes after the cessation of hostilities is an internationally recognized right.” This ignores the causes of the refugee issue, and the fact that few of those who left in 1948 are still alive.
While threatening to cut aid to Israel, he promised to restore funding to the Palestinians and UNRWA. He also pledged to rejoin the United Nations Human Rights Council, which devotes most of its attention to demonizing Israel.
Today, Sanders talks about the “crisis in Gaza” while ignoring the fact that Israel evacuated the area and has been bombarded with rockets ever since. He doesn’t recognize how that precedent has affected Israeli attitudes toward territorial compromise.
In 2015, he acknowledged that Hamas was firing missiles into Israel from populated areas and that Hamas believes Israel has no right to exist, but said after Israel’s Operation Protective Edge response to the terror attacks: “I think that Israel overreacted and caused more civilian damage than was necessary.”
In 2016, he said, “The sight of Israeli soldiers breaking the arms and legs of Arabs is reprehensible. The idea of Israel closing down towns and sealing them off is unacceptable.”
Many Jews are alarmed by his commitment to return to the Iran nuclear deal. Sanders would reenter the deal with no new preconditions, provided Iran is also meeting its commitments.
The Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI), a group created last year by establishment party figures to work for the election of Democrats who support Israel, is so concerned about Sanders that it sent out a fundraising solicitation with the subject line “This Poll Has Me Worried” after Sanders’ standing rose prior to the Iowa caucuses. The group also produced ads that ran in Iowa attacking Sanders’ electability and identification as a socialist.
“There are unambiguous signs that our party could nominate the candidate we believe is least capable of winning in November and most likely to adopt a hostile attitude toward Israel,” explained DMFI’s President and CEO Mark Mellman.
So, what will Jews do if Sanders is the nominee?
Jewish Republicans may see an opportunity for their fantasy of a realignment coming to fruition; however, few Democrats are likely to vote for Trump, despite the pro-Israel steps he has taken (some of which Democrats believe are harmful). Polls indicate Trump is likely to match the average vote for a Republican — 25% — after 24% voted for him in 2016.
Historically, 71% of Jews vote for the Democratic candidate. This loyalty is tested, however, when a candidate is perceived as hostile towards Israel. Despite polls saying Israel is not one of the top issues that determine their vote, Barack Obama’s share of the Jewish vote dropped from 78% to 69% after he was viewed as insufficiently supportive of Israel in his first term. Even more dramatically, Jimmy Carter’s share of the vote dropped from 71% to 45% and played a role in his defeat (for which he never forgave the Jews).
Given Democrats’ disdain for Trump, will they hold their nose and vote for Sanders? Some undoubtedly would, but with less enthusiasm or willingness to devote the time and money they usually give to the nominee. It is possible many Jewish Democrats will sit out the election rather than vote for someone they consider hostile to Israel.
But won’t that help Trump win?
Possibly. Jews make up a tiny percentage of the electorate, but can play a disproportionate role in a handful of key states needed to win the electoral college. But that’s only if the election is close. If Sanders is routed like McGovern, the Jewish vote won’t make a difference.
Furthermore, when 15% of Jews voted for third-party candidate John Anderson in 1980, they showed they were willing to vote for someone with no chance to win rather than a candidate they saw as anti-Israel. If a third-party candidate emerges, Jews could turn to him or her.
The one hope for many Jewish Democrats is that Michael Bloomberg can win the nomination. We still get our first Jewish president and, though he is critical of some Israeli policies, Bloomberg has a long history of support for the country. After Super Tuesday, we will know if his candidacy is viable.
Mitchell Bard is Executive Director of AICE and Jewish Virtual Library.