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Many Jewish voters are lukewarm on Bernie Sanders — for now

As the race heats up, polling suggests Sanders is not the frontrunner among Jewish Democratic voters. There are several possible reasons why.

Senator Bernie Sanders speaking at a podium microphone with trees in the background.
Bernie Sanders has increasingly spoken about his Jewish identity in the 2020 presidential primary.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

After his early primary victories, Sen. Bernie Sanders is closer to being America’s first Jewish president than anyone has come in the country’s history. But 10 years ago, he was just an iconoclastic socialist senator from a small New England state where I, a Jewish girl from New York, happened to be attending graduate school. Several times, I watched Sen. Sanders walk down Montpelier, Vermont’s, Main Street, for a July Fourth parade and expressed my approval so intensely my classmates teased me. I was kvelling (a Yiddish word that means feeling a sense of pride).

As a secular New York Jew, Bernie felt like family. And as an avowed democratic socialist, he was one of a mere handful of national political figures whose positions aligned with my core beliefs. My excitement arose mostly from the connection between these qualities: the idea of Judaism and social justice as intertwined.

Yet fast-forward to 2020 and polling indicates that full-throated Jewish support for Sanders hasn’t yet materialized. In fact, one Pew survey conducted before the Iowa caucuses in mid-January found that Jewish support hadn’t consolidated around any one candidate, despite the historic presence of Sanders and another Jewish contender — Mike Bloomberg — in the race.

According to Pew, only one in five Jewish voters preferred either Sanders (11 percent) or Bloomberg (8 percent). The other candidates for the Democratic nomination had similarly split support, with 31 percent preferring Biden, 20 percent for Warren, and 13 percent for Buttigieg; the remaining 11 percent were undecided, refused to answer, or gave another response. (We don’t know yet how Sanders’s strong performances in Iowa and New Hampshire will affect these numbers.)

If you’re surprised by this variety in Jewish voters’ preferences, you’re not paying attention. Yes, American Jews are a reliable Democratic voting bloc. Despite efforts by the Trump administration to use Israel policy (including moving the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem) to court Jewish votes, he remains wildly unpopular with Jewish voters. In the general election, our support will likely rally around whoever wins the Democratic mantle, whether or not it’s Sanders. But the clichéd-for-a-reason saying goes like this: “two Jews, three opinions.” And this early primary polling is a perfect example.

Like many American Jews who see our heritage as an identity, a culture, and a way of thinking rather than solely a “faith,” Sanders identifies as both Jewish and secular. He has spoken more about his background this campaign season than in the 2016 election, connecting his family’s history of persecution with his values.

For many, Sanders embodies a particular way of being Jewish. He draws a “universalistic vision of a better world from particular Jewish experiences of suffering and oppression,” according to Jewish Currents’ Joshua Leifer.

“What is familiar is not necessarily beloved ... but to be an American Ashkenazi Jew and listen to the speech of Bernie Sanders, and watch the motion of his hands, is to know he is one of us,” writes Talia Lavin at the New Republic, adding that Sanders is part of a “long and flourishing tradition of secular Jews — and in particular secular Jewish leftists — who were Jewish in every particle of their being.” A vocal group of younger Jews has made this affinity into their calling card, nicknaming him Zeyde (Yiddish for grandpa) and forming new “Jews for Bernie” groups around the country.

But American Jews, far from a monolith, carry intersecting identities: We include women, LGBTQ folks, and people of color, and some of us are Sephardi or Mizrahi in origin. Some Jews, myself included, feel that electing a woman president is more urgent than a Jewish one. Even for me, an original Bernie fangirl, Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s aggressive defense of reproductive justice — my defining political issue — is compelling enough to compete for my vote.

Some Jews don’t necessarily feel the kinship with Bernie that I do; they are religiously observant, in contrast to his secularism, or they experience their Jewishness differently. And why should it be otherwise? If the statistic that 53 percent of white women voted for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton teaches us anything, it’s that there is no rule saying people will vote based on a particular “group identity,” or even that group identity is a fixed category to begin with. With younger voters eschewing fellow millennial Pete Buttigieg for Sanders and older voters doing the opposite, with women voters not yet flocking to the female candidates and black voters sticking with Joe Biden in early polls, this is the primary that ought to put the final lie to the myth of identity-first voting.

A few specific bumps do lie in the road for Sanders and Jewish voters, and they’re worth discussing. Israel is one. It’s ironic: Sanders is the only major presidential candidate who has lived in Israel, working on a kibbutz in his youth, and today his position on the occupation is more humane toward “the needs of the Palestinian people” than any of his rivals.

Because he foregrounds the human rights crisis in Gaza and the West Bank, Sanders is facing heightened attacks on this issue, including from the so-called pro-Israel lobbying group AIPAC. Right-wing factions have gone so far as to insinuate that he’s anti-Semitic. While this is ridiculous on its face (and, in fact, Sanders’s two-state position on Israel and Palestine lines up with the majority of American Jews), the fear-mongering may be enough to deter a number of Jewish voters from jumping on the Sanders bandwagon.

Another stumbling block to Jews’ full-throated embrace is the fear of an anti-Semitic backlash. Barack Obama’s presidency and Clinton’s nomination have shown that when a member of an underrepresented group achieves new heights politically, it invites vitriol and backlash. Given that anti-Semitism is already on the rise, many older Jews in particular may feel that nominating Sanders will attract attention they don’t need.

“Whenever rapid social change threatens the stability of the existing social order, the right-wing is tempted to fall back on the explanation of left-wing politics as a Jewish plot,” Joel Swanson writes at the Forward. “The inconvenient fact that the most successful Jewish presidential candidate in history is also the most successful socialist can only feed this conspiracy theory.”

It’s also undeniable that some American Jews — like some people of all groups and backgrounds — may be wary of Sanders’s urgent social messaging. This group of voters may hate Trump, but they are unmoved by Sanders’s call for radical realignment or “revolution,” believing it to be impractical, too extreme, or an impediment to defeating Trump. Sanders will have to win over these cautious voters of all backgrounds in order to make it to the White House.

A poll of American Jews taken in September 2019 by the progressive Jewish group Bend the Arc and released this week found that “75% view President Trump unfavorably, and 66% view him very unfavorably ... in an open-ended question about what matters most about the 2020 elections, the most common response was defeating Donald Trump.”

Many of the concerns mentioned above break down along age lines, with younger voters tending to embrace Zeyde’s radical politics more warmly than their parents. This is a pattern that appears to hold across demographics. But policy and ideology aside, I’d imagine most Jewish voters are simply preoccupied with the same “electability” obsession that many Democrats keep expressing. They want someone who can beat Trump and are hedging their bets, or backing whoever seems like a moderate frontrunner, until the best contender becomes apparent — hence the support of Biden before Iowa.

In the coming weeks, we should question any narratives that try to pin Sanders’s lower polling numbers among Jews on his views on Israel, anti-Semitism, or any single determining factor. Like everyone else, American Jews are following the results, listening to the policy debates, watching the news, and waiting for their fellow Democrats to make their choice. And if that choice is Sanders, there may be worries, yes, but there will also be a lot of kvelling.

Sarah M. Seltzer is a writer in New York City and an editor at Lilith Magazine.