Democratic US presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks to supporters during a campaign rally in Missouri.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The campaign waged by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders for the Democratic Party presidential nomination has rightly been hailed as an unprecedented event in American politics, on several counts. Not the least of these has been his achievement as the first Jewish candidate in either major party to win at least one state primary or caucus vote, with 17 such victories keeping him within striking distance of front-runner Hillary Clinton.
Sanders’s unexpected success should forever bury any remaining belief that the White House lies out of reach for American Jews, an outmoded notion that may have been reinforced for some by the disappointing 2004 candidacy of the highly touted Joe Lieberman.
Sanders’s own definition of his Jewish identity, and some of the views he holds related to Israel, may well be anathema to many members of his tribe. Yet the Jewish community in the US, and elsewhere, still has reason to be grateful for his success, if only on the basis of the ethnic barriers his candidacy has shattered.
For those of us with long-enough political memory, though, some other aspects of the Sanders phenomenon may recall past presidential campaigns. The one it specifically brings to the mind of this native New Yorker, especially after Sanders’s primary loss in the state this week to Hillary Clinton, is the 1984 bid by Jesse Jackson for the Democratic nomination.
Like Sanders, the African-American civil rights leader was the first candidate of his ethnicity to achieve any real electoral success in a presidential race, winning a few primaries and polling second or third in several more. Jackson was also a political outlier, staking positions well to the Left of that year’s Democratic establishment front-runner, former vice president Walter Mondale.
And Jackson, like Sanders, espoused views about Israel that deviated significantly from the political orthodoxy of both major parties. He promoted Palestinian statehood long before it was an accepted idea in either Jerusalem or Washington, had embraced PLO leader Yasser Arafat, and denounced prime minister Menachem Begin as a “terrorist.”
Yet the statement that really got Jackson into trouble with the Jewish electorate was an off-handed remark to one reporter referring to Jews as “Hymies” and New York City as “Hymie-town.” Coupled with his reluctance to denounce Jew-baiting Black Muslim leader Louis Farrakhan, those remarks reinforced a prevalent feeling in the American- Jewish community that they were one minority not entirely welcome in Jackson’s “rainbow coalition.”
Though Jackson initially denied the comments, he later acknowledged and apologized for them. But the damage was done, and while earlier polls had shown him with a chance at an upset victory in New York, he came in a disappointing third behind Mondale (who got my vote) and Gary Hart, deflating his run for the nomination.
While Sanders certainly hasn’t made any gaffe as severe as “Hymie-town,” his run-up to the NY vote was marked by missteps that clearly raised hackles among a significant part of the Jewish vote. His inflation of the Palestinian civilian death toll in the most recent Gaza conflict, and tardiness in correcting the figure; his appointment, and subsequent dismissal of a Jewish outreach director who felt that legitimate criticism of Israel included publicly cursing out its prime minister; and an insistence on even-handedness in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that seemed to shade into questioning the Jewish state’s traditional security relationship with the US – certainly helped to alienate those of his fellow congregates who were not already converted to his brand of populist leftish doctrine.
An NBC/WSJ/Marist poll conducted prior to the voting found NY Jewish Democrats favoring Clinton over Sanders by 65 to 32 percent, well above Tuesday’s result for all Democratic primary voters of 58 to 41 percent in Clinton’s favor. That’s a similar margin to that by which Barack Obama fell to Clinton in New York in 2008, but that vote came two months earlier in the primary season, and Sanders doesn’t enjoy the cushion of support in the African-American community that Obama had.
It’s likely then that we will look back on the NY primary as the moment when the Sanders campaign train permanently derailed. It’s also a loss with special significance for US Jewish politics.
Had Sanders come close to an upset in New York, his supporters would have surely hailed that as evidence that the old rules of Jewish politics no longer apply; that a candidate can dispute the shibboleths of the US-Israel relationship, and still triumph in races with a significant Jewish vote. As it is, I fully expect the Sanders faithful to still claim their candidate has forever changed the old equations of Jewish politics, by simply raising these issues in a major national campaign that succeeded beyond all expectations.
There may well be some truth to that.
After all, some of the positions Jackson staked out on the Israeli-Palestinian issue three decades ago have become accepted norms. The youthful cast of Sanders’s supporters, including the Jewish ones, suggests something similar might happen in the coming years.
Yet the political positions one holds at 20 are often not the same at 40 or 50, and I’ve found that to be especially so when it comes to Jewish views on Israel. In the meantime, the NY primary offered ample evidence that even among liberal Democrats, the American-Jewish political revolution has not yet arrived.
Did Sanders really think that moving beyond criticism of Israel’s settlement policies, into a general condemnation of its right to self-defense from Hamas rocket attacks, was the way to win the hearts and minds of NY Jewish voters? Well, to paraphrase the famous closing line of one of my favorite movies: Forget it, Bernie; it’s Hymie-town.The author is the political correspondent for IBA English News.