Will Bernie Sanders become the first Jewish president?

Experts claim that the septuagenarian Socialist’s chances to win his party’s nomination shouldn’t be discounted. But if he wins, it will be a disaster for Israel and the Jews.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) at the 2019 J Street National Conference. Source: J Street via Flickr.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) at the 2019 J Street National Conference. Source: J Street via Flickr.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

We’re still more than a month away from the first actual votes being cast in the Democratic presidential race. But an analysis piece published on the influential Politico website last week reminded observers of a possibility that many are ignoring: Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders could win and ultimately become the nation’s first Jewish president.

While generations of American Jews have dreamed of a day when one of their own won the White House, a Sanders’s presidency would actually be an unprecedented nightmare for Israel and Jewish interests.

The Politico article reported that Sanders’s resiliency has impressed Democratic insiders. Despite suffering a heart attack in October—something that not only sidelined him for a time, but also reminded voters that he is 78 years old—Sanders has remained in the top tier of contenders.

While acknowledging that he has won both the affection and loyalty of much of the party’s left-wing base, not least for his strong showing while opposing Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination in 2016, a lot of pundits disparage his chances. They say that despite the party’s clear tilt to the left since the victory of President Donald Trump, Sanders is too radical and would easily be beaten in November.

Yet Sanders has not faded the way some other candidates who were once highly touted have done in the past year. He is currently in second place in the RealClearPolitics average of national polls, trailing only former Vice President Joe Biden. He is a threat to win three out of the first four early voting states, with the average of polls showing him leading in New Hampshire, a close second in Iowa and in contention in Nevada. That means that although Biden remains the frontrunner and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s stock is rising (while that of Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren is falling), it would be foolish to assume that Sanders can’t be the Democratic nominee.

Though his extreme positions horrify moderates, Sanders is utterly authentic and, despite his long tenure in Congress, can’t be accused of being part of the establishment, as can be said of Biden. Indeed, being a Socialist outlier makes him seem more genuine to voters who are tired of conventional politicians, the same factor that helped elect Trump.

Moreover, his radicalism has won him both affection and loyalty from those in the Democratic base who think that choosing the candidate conventional wisdom deems more electable will be just as much of a disaster for their party in 2020 with Biden as it was when Hillary Clinton was the nominee.

Sanders’s irascible demeanor also endears him to primary voters, much as it did when unelected superdelegates and party rules that favored Clinton were needed to beat him in 2016. On top of that, the Democrats’ proportional voting rules that eliminate winner-take-all outcomes will ensure that Bernie remains a factor even if he loses the early states.

His capturing the Democratic Party in 2020 might still be less likely than the scenarios predicting a win for Biden, or a turn of events that would allow Buttigieg or even a second-tier contender to catch fire and win the nomination. But the Politico analysis does require an evaluation of what a Sanders’s nomination or presidency (despite the GOP’s open rooting for Sanders to be their opponent, matchup polls with Trump predict such a race would be a tossup) would mean for Jewish interests and Israel.

Though he is Jewish and has repeatedly said that he supports Israel’s existence, there is also no doubt that Sanders is the Democratic contender who is the most critical of Israeli policy and the most sympathetic to the Palestinians. Though other Democrats may agree with his scorn for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, most of them would hesitate to hurl epithets like “racist” at him, as Sanders has done.

Every one of the other Democratic candidates would reinstate the dangerous 2015 nuclear deal with Iran and likely revert to President Barack Obama’s policy of seeking more “daylight” between America and Israel. But Sanders goes further by seeking to also create a “pro-Palestinian” foreign policy. In the past, that has led him to call for the end of the blockade of Hamas-run Gaza, as well as issuing scathing and fallacious critiques of Israel’s efforts to defend its border and people against attacks from a coastal enclave governed by terrorists.

While this wouldn’t advance a two-state solution that both Hamas and the Palestinian Authority have no interest in, it would bring U.S.-Israel relations to a historic low point, while emboldening the Jewish state’s foes to a point where they might consider war a reasonable option.

On the domestic front, Sanders would not merely end Trump’s policy seeking to enforce laws against anti-Semitic activity on college campuses. His active opposition to anti-BDS laws and his close ties with advocates of this variant of Jew-hatred could potentially unleash a wave of anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic activity throughout the country.

That reminds us that Sanders has the support of most of the nation’s most notorious left-wing anti-Semites, such as Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), as well as fellow BDS advocate Linda Sarsour. His refusal to repudiate these figures sets an ominous precedent that would come into play when it comes to staffing an administration, which can be expected to be populated by fellow radicals hostile to Israel and indifferent at best to anti-Semitism.

More to the point, the person who would be responsible for this catastrophe would be insulated from criticism simply by the fact that Sanders and his apologists would claim that as a Jew, he could not be termed hostile to his own people. Seen from that perspective, such a Jewish president might be the worst thing yet to befall American Jewry.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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