Sanders builds a deeper Jewish identity on the 2020 trail

Known for being detached from organized religion, progressive Democrat opens up on his heritage, talks about anti-Semitism while also criticizing Israel

In this November 17, 2019 file photo, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks as supporters wave lighted signs during a fundraiser for the Nevada Democratic Party in Las Vegas.(AP/John Locher)
In this November 17, 2019 file photo, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks as supporters wave lighted signs during a fundraiser for the Nevada Democratic Party in Las Vegas.(AP/John Locher)

NEW YORK (AP) — Bernie Sanders is approaching next week’s Iowa caucuses in a position to become the first major-party Jewish presidential nominee in the nation’s history. And at a time of resurgent anti-Semitism, he’s talking in more depth about how his faith shapes his broader worldview.

Soon after the one-year anniversary of the massacre at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, Sanders penned a column on combating anti-Semitism that outlined how his family’s history underpins his commitment to fight bigotry. After five New York Jews were stabbed while celebrating Hanukkah last month, Sanders used an Iowa menorah-lighting stop to connect his immigrant father’s journey to America, “fleeing anti-Semitism and fleeing violence,” to ideals he described as imperiled by attacks on Jews — and other minority groups.

Just last week, Sanders tweeted a video featuring his campaign’s Jewish outreach director, Joel Rubin, discussing the Vermont senator’s “intrinsically Jewish values.”

Sanders has described his pride in being Jewish since his first Democratic presidential run in 2016. But he’s known more for detaching from organized religion than embracing faith, and his model of Jewish American candidacy — aligning with “the tradition of Jewish social justice” while criticizing Israeli government policy toward Palestinians — breaks the mold cast by observant Jew Joseph Lieberman, the Democrats’ vice-presidential nominee 20 years ago.

This undated family photo provided by the Bernie Sanders campaign in July 2019 shows him as a child, center, with his mother, Dorothy; father, Eli; and brother, Larry. (Bernie Sanders campaign via AP)

Sanders’ increased engagement with his Jewishness comes as a Democratic super PAC unveils a six-figure ad campaign in Iowa challenging his candidacy and raising questions about his health.

Sanders “doesn’t buy into that concept of anti-Semitism and Jewish identity as defined by Israel,” said Rubin, who joined the campaign earlier this month, in an interview.

The 78-year-old democratic socialist connected his Jewishness to his liberal policies during remarks last fall to J Street, a progressive Jewish American group whose conference drew five Democratic presidential candidates.

“If there’s any group on earth that should be trying to bring people together around a common and progressive agenda, it is the Jewish people,” Sanders said, adding that he believes in Israel’s “right to exist in peace and security” and would extend the same right to Palestinians.

Sanders later raised a topic that promises to complicate his unifying vision of Jewish American values. Blasting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he told the audience: “It is not anti-Semitism to say that the Netanyahu government has been racist.”

Scott Svonkin, vIce chair of the Los Angeles County Commission on Insurance, wears a Gore-Lieberman yarmulke while listening to vice presidential candidate Sen. Joe Lieberman. speak at a Democratic Leadership Council luncheon in Los Angeles, August 17, 2000. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)

Sanders is hardly alone among Democrats in opposing Netanyahu’s bid to annex West Bank settlements. But if Sanders prevails in the crowded Democratic presidential field — which includes moderate Jewish rival Michael Bloomberg — he’ll face a president in Donald Trump whose messages about anti-Semitism and Jewish identity are closely connected to the Israeli government.

Trump signed an executive order last month that stoked debate over when criticism of Israel crosses the line into anti-Semitism. The president also continues to embrace Netanyahu, releasing a Middle East peace plan alongside him on Tuesday, and last year said Jews who vote for Democrats are disloyal to their religion as well as Israel.

If Sanders is pitted against Trump, who would court Jewish votes as an ally of Netanyahu’s government, the senator would have to carve out more nuanced terrain as a proud Jewish critic of that government. Bloomberg offers a contrasting approach, declaring on Sunday that he “will always have Israel’s back” in a speech that poked at Sanders’ 1960s volunteer stint on a leftist kibbutz in Israel.

In this January 5, 2020 file photo, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks during a campaign event in Boone, Iowa. (AP/Patrick Semansky)

Rubin acknowledged that Sanders is on the outside of legacy Jewish groups that view supporting Israel as sacrosanct.

“The Jewish establishment has a hard time looking at a Jewish politician who stands up for Jewish rights and makes it a Jewish American argument first,” said Rubin, who was J Street’s founding political director. But he asserted that “the predominant majority of American Jews” agree with Sanders.

A survey last year by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center found that 42% of Jewish Americans said Trump favors Israel too much. A similar share of Jewish Americans, 47%, said Trump strikes the right balance.

Even as Israel remains a polarizing topic, Sanders’ candidacy underlines a point that many Jews can agree on: Jewishness means different things to different people, presidential candidates included.

“The Jewish community is not a monolith,” Rabbi Hara Person, the Central Conference of American Rabbis’ chief executive, said by email.

“It is certainly an important sign of progress in our country that Sanders is comfortable talking about and embracing his Jewish identity in the 2020 election and encompassing it as a value of who he is as a candidate,” added Person, who said she is not endorsing Sanders.

Halie Soifer, who heads the Jewish Democratic Council of America, said that Sanders “identified himself in a way most American Jews can relate to” by linking his faith to his progressive agenda.

“Where there’s a robust debate in our community relates to his policies on Israel, and in that regard, I don’t know that his Judaism really comes into play,” added Soifer, whose group is not endorsing a Democratic primary candidate.

Jewish Americans tend to vote Democratic, even as Trump continues his outreach. According to AP VoteCast, 72% of Jewish voters backed Democratic House candidates in 2018 and 74% disapproved of Trump’s handling of his job.

Rubin described his job with the Sanders campaign as three-fold, energizing Sanders’ existing Jewish American supporters while also fielding challenges on high-priority Jewish issues and convincing new supporters that Sanders’ perspective is worth their time.

He may have a particularly tough road ahead with Jewish groups alienated by Sanders’ use of campaign surrogates who have made polarizing remarks about Israel-Palestinian relations.

Among those divisive figures is Muslim-American activist Linda Sarsour, who last month had to clarify her remarks after saying that Israel “is built on the idea that Jews are supreme to everyone else.” Among the prominent Jewish Americans who pushed back was the CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, who tweeted that her remarks were “anti-Semitism plain and simple.”

Mark Mellman, a longtime Democratic strategist who heads the group Democratic Majority for Israel, said that “it’s fair to say (Sanders) is greatly concerned by” rising anti-Semitism. But he warned that Sanders’ use of surrogates whose remarks on Israel have offended some Jewish Americans reflects a blind spot.

“There’s something wrong with somebody who professes to be concerned about anti-Semitism” but won’t disavow it when it comes from within his own camp, Mellman said.

His group’s separate political action committee is spending six figures on the Iowa airwaves against Sanders this week, running an ad that does not mention Israel but raises doubts about the candidate’s health after a heart attack last fall. Sanders cited the ads in a Tuesday video tweeted to rally supporters.

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