For the first time in United States political history, a Jew is a strong contender to be the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee. Unfortunately, that Jew is Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.
In 2000, the American Jewish community was excited at the prospect of then-Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) becoming the first Jewish vice president. Lieberman was a greatly admired and respected politician, but unfortunately, hanging chads and a Supreme Court decision put paid to the Gore-Lieberman presidential ticket.
Now in 2020 we have Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) vying for the top position in U.S. politics. In 2016, competing for the Democratic nomination against Hillary Clinton, he never referenced his Jewishness but heavily criticized Israel, stressing its “disproportionate responses” to hundreds of rocket attacks by terrorist groups in the Gaza Strip. This time around he has acknowledged Israel’s right to exist (though not as a Jewish state), but is severely critical regarding its efforts to defend itself.
Just as troubling is the cadre of anti-Semites and Israel-haters who Sanders has assembled in his election campaign team. His chief of staff is Faiz Shakir, formerly the national political director of the American Civil Liberties Union and the prime mover of the organization’s efforts to oppose a Congress-led anti-BDS resolution aimed at the enemies of Israel. Tablet magazine has described Shakir as “one who throughout his career has been highly critical of Israel.” Another Sanders surrogate, Amer Zahr, has been guilty of anti-Semitic outbursts and has relentlessly demonized Israel, his scurrilous tweets describing defenders of Israel as “scumbags, pigs and bastards.”
Another ardent Sanders’s supporter is Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), arguably the most prominent Jew-hater in Congress. As Eric Mandel has written in The Jerusalem Post, “Omar’s anti-Semitism reaches beyond Israel into the old time [anti-Semitic] tropes on Jewish power and money. Bernie is silent because nobody in his base would want him to call out a woman of color.” However, with the growth of violent anti-Semitic incidents in the country, Sanders’s silence throughout has been deafening.
Another congressional representative and enthusiastic Sanders supporter is Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.). Like Omar, a recognized hater of Israel who speaks from the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives wearing the keffiyeh scarf.
Suggestions have been made that a future Sanders administration could well include the likes of Omar, Tlaib, Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and political activist Linda Sarsour. The latter two, both outspoken in their condemnation of Israel, have been with Sanders from the earliest moments of his current candidacy. Cortez joined him on visits to key states before the primary season.
Sanders walks in ideological lockstep with U.K. Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, whom 85 percent of British Jewry consider to be an anti-Semite; it’s not hard to guess who Sanders was rooting for in the recent U.K. elections.
Of late Sanders has added fuel to the fire via his anti-Israel comments and statements. He has described Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister of the democratically elected government of Israel, as a “reactionary racist,” but has praised the work of Fidel Castro, the man responsible for the deaths of thousands of Cubans. And, more recently, AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobbying organization, was described by Sanders as fostering bigotry. While Sanders has stated that he will not be speaking at AIPAC’s upcoming conference, he did not refuse to speak at the Islamic Society of North America’s annual conference, despite the list of speakers including an array of Jew-haters and Israel-bashers.
His description of AIPAC elicited strong criticism from Jewish organizations across the board. AIPAC’s response was telling: “Sanders has never attended our conference and that is evident from his outrageous comment. Many of his own senate and House Democratic colleagues and leaders speak from our platform to over 18,000 Americans from widely diverse backgrounds—Democrats, Republicans, Jews, Christians, African-Americans, Hispanic Americans, progressives, veterans, students, and members of the LGBTQ+ community—who participate in the conference to proclaim their support for the U.S.-Israel relationship.”
If he is elected to the presidency, then Jewish or not, Bernie Sanders will not support Israel and will not fight anti-Semitism.
Mervyn Danker is the Northern California regional director of the American Jewish Committee.