Voters, wrote New York Times columnist David Leonhardt on Monday, respond to signals and “gestures of respect from politicians who are willing to say, in effect: We may not agree on everything, but I see you and understand what matters to you.”
Democratic presidential front-runner Bernie Sanders, who became the first major candidate to turn down on ideological grounds an invitation to speak at AIPAC’s annual conference since the organization began inviting the major presidential candidates in 2008, apparently doesn’t believe sending that kind of signal to the pro-Israel community in the US is important.
Why not? Because Sanders wants to pander to his progressive base in the Democratic Party, and to supporters like his surrogate Linda Sarsour, an anti-Israel activist, and anti-Israel congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib.
And to do that he needs to retain his pure progressive credentials. Going to AIPAC would taint those, so he won’t go. Sanders does not want to alienate his progressive base.
Sanders announced in a tweet Sunday that he would not attend AIPAC’s annual conference next week. This time not due to scheduling issues – as he claimed in 2016 – but rather because “I remain concerned about the platform AIPAC provides for leaders who express bigotry and oppose basic Palestinian rights.”
That, he said, is the reason he will “not attend their conference.”
Good thing his surrogates and supporters like Sarsour, Omar and Tlaib never “express bigotry.”
The Left’s problem, Leonhardt argued, is that because of its ideological purity, it will never be able to peel off voters beyond its base.
Sanders, Leonhardt wrote, has taken “a nearly maximalist liberal position on every major issue.” Though The New York Times columnist did not throw Israel into the mix, he mentioned that Sanders has embraced “policies that are popular on the left and nowhere else,” such as a ban on fracking, the decriminalization of border crossings, giving health benefits to undocumented immigrants and ending private health insurance.
Now add Israel to this list.
Coming off his impressive showings in the primaries and caucuses in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada, Sanders – who has called the Israeli government racist and endorsed cutting aid to Israel as a form of pressure – is now the recognized leader in the Democratic field. He could all but sew up the nomination with a win in Saturday’s South Carolina contest, and a strong showing in next Tuesday’s primaries where 16 states and US territories will cast their primary ballots.
And what Sanders has just done by snubbing AIPAC is adopt the anti-Israel orthodoxy of the far-left. He is doing this while at the same time remaining mum on the anti-Israel pronouncements and sentiments of some of his closest supporters.
Remember the Corbyn-ization of Britain’s Labour Party, where its leader Jeremy Corbyn took it so far to the left that it lost in historic numbers in December? What we are witnessing now is the Sanders-ization of the Democratic Party, where Sanders’s left-wing orthodoxy on all issues – including on Israel – will not attract voters to the Democratic Party, but rather drive some away.
Sanders’s decision on AIPAC drew Twitter cheers from Omar, will likely do the same from fringe-left Jewish groups such as IfNotNow and Jewish Voice for Peace, and will surely put a smile on faces at J Street. But it will alienate that large part of American Jewry which in no way sees AIPAC as a problem or an outlier organization that should be boycotted.
AIPAC is a mainstream American organization that has given strength, power and significance to Jewish voters in the US in a way no other Jewish organizations have ever done. Last year it drew 18,000 people to its annual conference. It is now an organization that Sanders says is beyond the pale.
The electoral considerations here for the Democratic candidate are clear. In weighing the pros and cons of either angering his progressive base by going or sending a taped message to AIPAC, or infuriating the mainstream pro-Israel community which will be angered by the snub, Sanders chose to go with the progressives.
Which is in no way out of character. The junior senator from Vermont has never attended an AIPAC conference nor distinguished himself during his nearly three decades in Congress as a strong friend of the Jewish state.
And that, despite the fact that he is Jewish, and despite the fact that – as he repeats ad nauseum – he spent some time on a kibbutz in his younger days.
The kibbutz was Hashomer Hatzair’s Sha’ar Ha’amakim near Haifa, and those younger days were in fact 57 years ago, in 1963, when he was 21.
While that experience might have shaped Sander’s socialist outlook, it apparently left little Jewish or Zionist impact on him. How ironic that the man who may be the first Jewish presidential nominee of a major US political party is also the man who has now essentially branded AIPAC – an organization that has taken great pains over the years to remain bipartisan amidst very partisan waters – a bigoted organization that should be shunned.
With that move Sanders may have strengthened the resolve of thousands of his progressive voters who were going to vote for him anyway. But in the process, he also may have alienated Jews who will think twice – if he is the Democratic nominee – about voting for the party.
And while some may say that this will make no difference in the election since Jews are only 2% of the US population, others will argue that this can make quite a difference in swing states with larger than average Jewish populations, such as Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida... especially Florida, a state key to any candidate’s presidential aspirations.