Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has already outperformed any Jewish presidential candidate in the history of the United States, and should Super Tuesday go his way (results were not in as of press time), the Democratic Party may well be putting forth a Jewish candidate this fall.
What is also true of Sanders is that he does not poll particularly well among Jewish voters. A Pew survey of Jewish voters conducted in January found that 31% of respondents reported that former Vice President Joe Biden was their first choice for the Democratic nomination, followed by Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren at 20%. Sanders even trailed former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who has since dropped out of the race.
Eight Jewish voters — four for Sanders, and four against — talked about what they made of his candidacy and his support (or lack thereof) among Jewish people.
‘He actually presents a threat’
Linda Garfield, 76, worked in the School District of Philadelphia for 38 years, and now works as an artist, her lifelong dream. Come April, she hopes to see Biden capture the Democratic nomination.
“I don’t like Bernie Sanders as a presidential candidate,” she said.
Garfield believes that his policies will prove too radical for moderate Democrats and Republicans that might otherwise be persuaded to vote blue. And even if she did like his policies, Garfield said, she worries about what a Jewish president would mean for anti-Semitism in the U.S.
“And the most important reason,” Garfield said, “is that I don’t feel that he is a supporter of Israel, in a way that makes me feel comfortable.”
Garfield’s feelings about Sanders’ stance toward Israel were echoed in the answers of others who do not support his candidacy.
Steve Reich, 29, said that by skipping the AIPAC Policy Conference, Sanders became “one of those highly vocal, fringe Jews who enables the demonization of the Jewish state and enables the anti-Semitism beneath.”
Rachel Brendle, 27, is a registered independent, and finds herself troubled by posture of the whole Democratic field toward Israel, with Sanders as an especially egregious example. She took issue with his criticism of AIPAC, and believes that he is loathe to criticize Palestinians.
“You never hear an ounce of criticism for the other side, and the other side is horrible,” she said. “That kind of a double standard, you’re either anti-Semitic or you’re extremely ignorant.”
“I don’t know anyone that is supporting him,” she added.
Mindy Oppenheimer, 55, works as a hospital chaplain, though she has many years of experience working in finance and commercial real estate. Sanders worries her.
His policies, she believes, will create economic instability, and she finds his estate tax policy to be concerning.
“I don’t believe that we should be penalized for the hard work and success of previous generations,” she said.
“A lot of American Jews’ ancestors came to this country to take advantage of, to quote the prayer, ‘the ideals and free institutions that are the pride and joy of this country,’ and that he actually presents a threat,” Oppenheimer added.
The prospect of a Jewish president is exciting to her — just not this one.
“Mike Bloomberg would make a very strong U.S. president,” she said.
‘He’s just a constant inspiration’
What does Stan Shapiro, 74, the founder of Philadelphia Neighborhood Networks, like about Bernie Sanders?
“Everything!” he said with a laugh.
Sanders, Shapiro believes, is the personification of “tzedek, tzedek tirdof” — justice, justice you shall pursue — and feels that his obstinacy is one of Sanders’ greatest traits. “He just doesn’t retreat,” Shapiro said.
“The fact that he continues to defy conventional wisdom about what he’s allowed to say, and what he’s not allowed to say, whether I agree with him on absolutely everything or not — although I do probably 95% of the time — he’s just a constant inspiration,” Shapiro added.
Aidan Frank, 26, is an engineer and a member of the Socialist Alternative. His reasons for supporting the independent from Vermont are fairly straightforward.
“I like Bernie Sanders because of the way he talks about the issues,” Frank said. “He understands there are big parts of our political process that are fundamentally broken, and it’s really hard in politics to acknowledge that.”
Frank believes that Sanders’ political values, much like his own, are rooted in Jewish practice, one that’s instantly recognizable to him. Sanders’ stance on Israel and Palestine, he said, is clearly “the most progressive,” based on the senator’s willingness to sharply articulate his negative views of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and settlements in the West Bank.
Appraised of Sanders’ poor poll numbers among Jewish voters, Frank replied that among the Jews of his age group, it was a totally different story.
Jacqueline Rothman, 28, may live in El Paso, Texas, now, but she spent the majority of her life in Philadelphia (her mother, Helene, worked for the Jewish Exponent sales department for decades). Trump’s election was “the worst day of my life,” she said, and it motivated her to educate herself about politics in a way that she had not before. The idea of a Jewish president is “amazing,” she said, and she doesn’t see a contradiction between her “100% pro-Israel” beliefs and the statements made by Sanders.
Jack Pollack, 52, helps run Philly for Bernie, a canvassing and organizing group that is unaffiliated with the campaign. Sanders, he said, “puts people before profits and … the planet before corporations.”
“He has been fighting for decades that it is the needs of people that are prioritized over the needs of corporations and big business and billionaires,” Pollack said.
Pollack’s grandparents immigrated to the U.S., which has shaped Pollack’s sense of his Judaism as that of a cultural and historical status more than a religious one, he said. That status has influenced his political commitments, he noted, and he sees similar inclinations in Sanders.
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