The Bernie Factor and Other Such Considerations

By Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.

A new political nervousness is moving across the Jewish electoral scene as we observe the spring primary contests across the nation in advance of the 2020 Presidential election.

Already dealing with a rise in hate politics, voters now must contend with the presence of a political challenge involving a Jewish American presidential candidate who is seeking to upend the traditional pro-Israel alliance. While many Jews are uncomfortable with Bernie Sanders’ campaign messages, remnants of the “red diaper baby” era can still be found among some Jewish Democrats. These socialist-aligned voters resonate with Bernie Sanders’ platform statements. In some cases these politically left activists tie their contemporary agenda to their parents and grandparents’ deeply rooted socialism. These old democratic socialist arguments are now being rewired as a distinguishing feature of the Sanders’ campaign.

However, Bernie’s candidacy has increasingly raised concerns in connection with the Senator’s “Jewish credentials,” especially in light of his sharply worded rejection in recent days of an invitation to speak before the recently completed AIPAC Policy Conference. To add to his revolutionary image and standing, the Vermont Senator has welcomed into his campaign leadership a number of anti-Israel, pro-BDS activists, while correspondingly criticizing not only the Trump Plan but Israeli politicians and policies.

Bernie Sanders’ Jewishness has added an additional controversial layer to his candidacy, as an intensive conversation is underway in connection with the Senator’s ties, or lack thereof, to the Jewish community. He has jettisoned any semblance of connections to established Jewish institutional positions in support of the American-Israel relationship. In response, even Jews who embrace Sanders’ domestic political ideas may find themselves deeply torn by his negative Israel policy proposals. Some of his critics are labeling the Senator as a self-hating Jew, while his Jewish supporters welcome his assault on the sacred tenets of the Jewish/Israel establishment.

As these issues mount, his candidacy is placing particular stress on Jewish Democrats and the larger pro-Israel community. Should he move forward and capture the party’s nomination, what will be the electoral pathway for Jewish Democrats in November?

What is different about the Saunders’ candidacy in 2020 than his earlier 2016 presidential effort? Studying his performance four years ago, the Senator has apparently determined that he will take a more strident policy line, preparing to further separate himself from “establishment” personalities and policies. In the process of mounting his current campaign, he has welcomed the support of a number of high profile figures that share his hostility toward the Israel political establishment as well as his policy differences with the influential pro-Israel community. With intention, the Senator is seeking to make United States’ foreign policy interests in the Middle East a central theme in his campaign. As a result, we are witnessing a Jewish American presidential candidate who has introduced onto the political stage a conversation that fundamentally questions the Israel-American special relationship.

Indeed, there have been other Democratic presidential candidates who did not enjoy a strong connection with the Jewish mainstream, but few have been as controversial and problematic to this audience. What complicates this current scenario is President Trump, who is unpopular with many Democrats, including a broad sector of Jewish voters. For one of the only moments in modern politics, one hears conversations within Jewish circles expressing not only their frustration but also their real concerns about the narrowing of political options. To be clear much of the conversation centered around the Saunders’ campaign, beyond his Israel agenda, is focused on a growing feeling that nominating a democratic socialist may create a scenario similar to George McGovern’s disastrous 1972 presidential bid.

While her candidacy remains on life support as this piece goes to press, Senator Elizabeth Warren’s Jewish supporters are also facing a difficult choice. Do they join the Sanders campaign, even if they are troubled by the Senator’s hostile Israel posture or do they move to the center, embracing Vice President Biden?

Indeed, many of the mainstream, establishment Democratic voters are now looking to galvanize their support around former Vice President Biden, especially after his surprisingly strong Super Tuesday performance. Should there be a brokered convention in Milwaukee this summer, will delegates seek to identify a consensus candidate that might bring a degree of unity to a divided party? As part of their negotiating strategy, should the Senator fail in his presidential bid, will his campaign seek to impose their anti-Israel proposals onto the Democratic platform, as the price tag for party unity!

In the end is it possible that we might see traditional Jewish Democrats move to support a third party candidate or decide to “sit this one out” by not voting in 2020, in order to make a statement about the current direction of their party?

Understanding these potential internal difficulties, the Republican Party is actively pursuing Jewish voters, arguing that the President has advanced and defended the pro-Israel agenda, like no one before him! This will be the basis for a major outreach initiative by Jewish Republicans to embrace those Jews concerned with the policies being advanced by the left wing of the Democratic Party. The defining question, will that appeal be enticing enough to attract moderate and liberal Democrats, whose political interests extend beyond the Israel agenda?

Clearly, for most centrist Democrats, including a significant portion of the Jewish voting public, they are seeking to support a strong and compelling figure who in their view can not only defeat the 45th President but also limit the damage in connection with the impact of the Sanders’ campaign. In the end will that choice be Joe Biden or are we likely to see other options before this uncertain political season comes to a close?

Dr. Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of HUC-JIR, Los Angeles. His writings can be found on his website,