Sanders’ Jewish support is hardly a given
Although young Democrats nationwide favor Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton by a wide margin — he leads 76 percent to 23 percent among those 29 and younger according to a recent McClatchy-Marist poll — that lead does not necessarily translate to young Jewish voters, some of whom see Sanders as unable to defeat Trump in the general election and as not sufficiently pro-Israel.
“I’m thinking of voting for Hillary in the primary,” said Avigail Schneiman, a sophomore at the University of Pittsburgh who hails from Philadelphia and who is active in the campus Israel advocacy group Panthers for Israel. “I’m a Democrat, but I think that some of Bernie’s ideas, like free college for everyone, are far-fetched. It makes me nervous that Trump is winning among Republicans, and I think [in the general election] more Republicans would vote for Hillary than for Bernie.”
Despite the fact that Sanders is the only Jewish candidate at this stage of the election process, polls show that seems to matter little to Jewish voters.
A Jan. 2-March 21 Gallup Poll showed Sanders neck-to-neck with Clinton among Jewish voters, with Sanders at a 61 percent favorable rating and Clinton’s favorable rating at 60 percent.
Schneiman expressed deep concern about Sanders’ positions on Israel, and cited a recent New York Daily News interview in which Sanders greatly inflated the number of Gazans killed during Operation Protective Edge. The Anti-Defamation League quickly called on Sanders to correct his statement that “over 10,000 innocent people were killed in Gaza.”
“Even the highest number of casualties claimed by Palestinian sources that include Hamas members engaged in attacking Israel is five times less than the number cited by Bernie Sanders,” ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt said in a statement on April 6. Two days later, Sanders admitted to the ADL that his statement was inaccurate.
Other student members of Panthers for Israel are likewise refusing to support Sanders — the only Jew who has ever won a state primary for president — and are considering voting for alternative candidates.
Brian Burke, a freshman at Pitt who is a Pittsburgh native, will be voting in his first primary on April 26. He sees a similarity between Sanders and Republican frontrunner Donald Trump and does not support either candidate.
“I think it’s pretty embarrassing the way Donald Trump is treating politics,” Burke said. “It’s a travesty, the lack of concrete policies and personal attacks.
“He and Bernie are both playing into an anti-establishment feeling and the anger voters have against Washington,” Burke continued. “I don’t think anger is a way to fix things.”
Burke, who originally had registered as a Democrat, recently changed his party affiliation in order to vote for John Kasich in the Republican primary.
“Kasich has more executive experience and knows how to get things done with the legislature,” Burke said. “Other than Hillary Clinton, he has the most foreign policy experience. I was impressed with his speech at AIPAC [the American Israel Public Affairs Committee Policy Conference last month]. He is the most moderate and the most pragmatic. And I like his positive message.”
Alyssa Berman, a freshman from Connecticut, will be obtaining an absentee ballot so that she is able to vote in her home state’s primary on April 26. She is not inclined to vote for Sanders, she said, although she would vote for him in the general election if he ends up facing Trump.
She is “embarrassed” by the tenor of this year’s election, she said.
“We portray ourselves in the world as a global superpower, but there is all this pettiness and back stabbing, and candidates are getting publicity by putting each other down,” Berman said. “This seems like middle school to me.”
In conversations with friends and family members, Berman sees confusion among many regarding who deserves their support.
“It’s hard to settle on one over another,” she said. “I say, ‘We will just have to choose the best of the worst.’ And I don’t even know who that would be.”
Berman has found that many people assume that she is a Sanders supporter just because she is Jewish, but such is not the case.
“I’d love nothing more than to see this country vote in a president who is not Catholic or Protestant, but not Bernie Sanders,” she said. “I think he has lots of very lofty ideas, but I think being president is the hardest job in the world, and to try to do anything more than is realistic is insane to me.”
Junior Amit Shimshi, president of Panthers for Israel, has been living in the United States since she moved to Pittsburgh with her parents from Israel in 2008, but she is not a citizen and cannot vote in this year’s election. Still, she said, she is “very interested,” especially because of the Israeli advocacy work she has been doing on campus.
“I don’t identify with any political party because I can’t vote,” she said. “But I have had an amazing time watching the debates. There was one where the candidates were talking about Israel, and [Ted] Cruz was going all out talking about Judea and Samaria. It’s amazing to know that there are Christians who are very supportive. And we need their help in getting the word out.”
It is especially important to have politicians coming out publicly in support of the Jewish state when the media often portrays Israel in a negative light, Shimshi said.
While there is a lot about Sanders that is appealing to Shimshi, he is “too idealistic,” she said.
She also is troubled by his perspectives on Israel.
“I can’t say he’d be standing up for Israel as much as Hillary would,” Shimshi said. “I would probably support Hillary, but I still do like Bernie Sanders.”
Talia Landerman, a Pitt senior who was raised in Pittsburgh and attended Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh, is an enthusiastic Sanders supporter as she believes his policies are in line with “the Jewish concept of tikkun olam, ‘repair the world,’” she wrote in an email.
“When I chose a candidate to vote for, I chose the one that has stood by their values for decades and has proven their dedication to social causes, like the Civil Rights Movement.” Landerman said. “He also authored and co-sponsored several bills to support veterans, showing his dedication to supporting the people that have served our country. Coming from a middle class family, it is important to me that the wage gap between the richest people in our country and the poorest is shortened.”
Landerman is also in agreement with Sanders’ positions on climate change and student debt, as well as Israel.
“Bernie’s position on Israel is like my own,” she said. “I believe that Israel and Palestine should both have self-determination on where their country is going… Both sides have made it difficult to come to a deal and there is no denying that. Bernie agrees that we need a good US/Israel relationship, but isn’t willing to allow lobbyists and bad politics to make the issues less transparent and obfuscated.”
While Clinton attracted an estimated crowd of 2,000 at Carnegie Mellon University’s Skibo Gymnasium last week, Sanders attracted nearly four times that number at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center on March 31.
One out of four Sanders supporters — 25 percent — say they would not back Clinton in a general election if she became the Democratic nominee for president, while just 69 percent say they would support her, according to the recent McClatchy-Marist poll.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.