This is a scary moment for centrist and pro-Israel Democrats. Sen. Bernie Sanders’s overwhelming victory in the Nevada caucuses, coupled with the disastrous debut of Michael Bloomberg in last week’s Las Vegas debate, has forced the party’s establishment to confront reality.
It’s true that the Democratic race is still in the early stages. But the momentum Sanders has established and the inability of moderate Democrats to settle on a single alternative set up a dynamic that makes the septuagenarian Socialist not merely the current frontrunner, but the most likely winner of the party’s presidential nomination.
Despite matchup polls that show him leading the president, the conventional wisdom holds that Sanders is a certain loser against Trump in a general election. Even if the Vermont senator is riding a left-wing version of the populist wave that lifted Trump to the presidency four years ago, that still makes sense. But leaving the question of who would ultimately win a Trump-Sanders contest aside, another issue of interest is whether Sanders’s nomination would have a major impact on the Jewish vote.
No doubt, Republicans believe that it will. The party has been competing hard for Jewish votes for the last 40 years largely on the basis of the GOP’s solid support for Israel with little success. The only time it actually succeeded in making the contest competitive was in 1980, when widespread antipathy for President Jimmy Carter allowed Ronald Reagan to come as close to winning the Jewish vote as any Republican modern polling was created. But even then, Carter still won a 45-39 percent plurality.
Since then, Republicans have chased the phantom of following up on Reagan’s success with little luck. The best showing in recent years was when Mitt Romney held President Barack Obama to a 69-30 landslide. After that slight improvement in their fortunes, they lost ground again four years later as Hillary Clinton beat Trump 71-24 percent among Jewish voters.
If Sanders becomes the first Jew to be a major party nominee for president, it will encourage Republicans to believe that a fundamental shift in the Jewish vote is at hand. Yet even though Sanders will probably not do as well as Obama or Clinton, anyone who thinks he won’t win a majority of the Jewish vote doesn’t understand a thing about American Jews.
After treating it as unimportant throughout his political career, Sanders has spoken publicly this year about being proud of his Jewish identity.
Yet of all the serious candidates running for president this year, he is the most critical of Israel. Though he has said that he supports the nation’s right to exist and referenced the few weeks he spent on a kibbutz in his youth, Sanders has demonstrated little sympathy for the Jewish state’s right to defend itself while consistently speaking of his equal devotion to Palestinian rights. He’s demonized Israeli efforts to stop Hamas terrorism and gone so far as to declare his intention to divert some of the aid Israel gets from the United States to Hamas-ruled Gaza.
Even worse, he has embraced anti-Zionists and anti-Semites. While loudly denouncing Trump as responsible for the actions of far-right extremists, he ignores the hate against Jews and Israel emanating from the left, and backers like Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.). He is using Jew-haters like Palestinian-American activists Linda Sarsour and Amer Zahr as official surrogates. In that respect, his campaign is reminiscent of British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s efforts to transform one of that country’s major party into a safe place for Jew-hatred.
In theory, that ought to be enough to drive Jewish Democrats to refuse to vote for Sanders. But there’s little indication that will happen.
The first reason stems from the support Sanders is getting from young voters, including Jews who have embraced his Socialist message, as well as his lack of enthusiasm for Zionism. In that sense, Sanders is the perfect candidate for post-Zionist left-wing Jews with little sense of Jewish peoplehood.
By the same token, Sanders will benefit from the hyper-partisan nature of American politics. In a society where politics has largely replaced religion and the majority of Americans would be more offended by their children marrying someone of another political party than of a different faith or race, it will take more than radical economic views or hostility to Israel to scare off most Jewish Democrats from voting for him.
Then there is the Trump factor.
A minority of Jews who are either politically conservative or are basically one-issue voters when it comes to Israel (something that is true of many, though not all, Orthodox Jews) are inclined to support Republicans and view Trump with special affection because of his unprecedented backing for the Jewish state.
But in a country where views about this president have polarized Americans, the majority of Jews who are loyal Democrats wouldn’t vote for Trump—or fail to vote for his opponent—under any circumstances. Nothing Sanders has said or done could persuade most Democrats not to pull the lever for him (though to be fair the same could be said for most Republicans about Trump).
Still others will be persuaded to back Sanders out of misplaced pride in his milestone achievement or as an answer to stray anti-Semitic remarks about him emanating from the far-right all the while shutting their eyes to the anti-Semites on the left, who not unreasonably anticipate that a Sanders’s administration will effectively destroy the U.S.-Israel alliance.
So while there may be some erosion of Jewish support for the Democratic ticket if it’s led by Bernie Sanders, don’t expect the drop-off to come close to approaching the levels of the Reagan-Carter race. Jewish Democrats, including many who consider themselves ardent friends of the Jewish state, will hold their noses and complain, but in the end, they’ll vote for a presidential candidate who is openly hostile to Israel and supportive of its foes. And no one, either in Israel or the United States, should be shocked when this happens.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.
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