As the New York primary for both Democratic and Republican presidential hopefuls looms April 19, the battle for Jewish votes is revealing — and likely exacerbating — sharp communal fault lines over Jewish values, Israel and demographics.
“Young Jews animated by social justice concerns feel empowered and enlivened by [Vermont Sen. Bernie] Sanders’ campaign,” Daniel Sieradski, national organizer of the Jews for Bernie PAC, told The Jewish Week. “It is validating them, giving them a sense of conviction that the track they have been on is the right track — that their Jewish identity is authentic.”
Jewish establishment figures on the Democratic side, however, are not ceding ground to Sanders when it comes to Jewish values.
“Jewish tradition is replete with guidance directing us to aid the poor, to care for the sick, and to provide charity funds that establish people on firmer footing,” Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice-president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, writes in a Jewish Week opinion piece. (The rabbi was not speaking on behalf of the RA.) “On all of these accounts, Secretary [Hillary] Clinton’s policies and record are, in my opinion, the most consonant with those values and priorities.”
And even Ohio Gov. John Kasich touched on the notion of Jewish values during a Fox News-sponsored town hall program Monday in Huntington, L.I. In his remarks from the stage, Kasich spoke of his desire to help others.
“It’s a great Jewish tradition,” he said. “We are not in this world for ourselves but to lift people. I believe it in my soul.”
He went on to point out that he has “taken the high road to the highest office, not the low road. … We’re not going to tell those in the other party to drop dead or demean them. Before we are Democrats or Republicans we are Americans. What is written is entered into the Book of Life about who we are.”
Kasich added that he understands the fear of voters, but is “more interested in giving you vision. … I just need to get better known [and] I’d rather do it in the positive, upbeat lane.”
The debate on Jewish values intensified this week with a cover story in the Village Voice that focused on Sanders’ view of Judaism. It noted that he “carries on a Jewish tradition much longer, and more sacred, than merely paying lip service to the Holocaust. His every utterance about universal health care, economic inequality, and social justice relentlessly embraces Judaism; it’s just a Judaism many people no longer recognize.”
The article’s author, Jesse Alexander Myerson, observed also, “When pundits complain that Sanders is not being publicly Jewish enough, what they are really complaining about is … that Sanders has not aligned himself with Zionism.”
“In our rejection of Zionism and our revival of socialism, young Jews are reclaiming our birthright — the right to belong to a Jewry worthy of our heritage,” he added.
But critics of Myerson’s piece dispute the notion that Sanders is anti-Zionist, and point to a speech he gave on the campaign trail in Utah that he had intended to deliver remotely at the AIPAC policy conference.
Sanders told the Utah audience last month that peace will demand “the unconditional recognition by all people of Israel’s right to exist.”
“But,” he continued, “peace also means security for every Palestinian. It means achieving self-determination, civil rights, and economic well-being for the Palestinian people. Peace will mean ending what amounts to the occupation of Palestinian territory, establishing mutually agreed-upon borders, and pulling back settlements in the West Bank, just as Israel did in Gaza — once considered an unthinkable move on Israel’s part. … Peace will also mean ending the economic blockade of Gaza.”
The speech, Sieradski said, was “a liberal Zionist stump speech that resonated way more with the J Street crowd” than with the AIPAC crowd.
Sieradski, 36, who was a major figure in the Occupy Judaism movement, also noted that the divide in the Jewish community among Democrats tends to be between “older and richer” Jews who are supporting Clinton, while younger Jews support Sanders.
“The more affluent Jews become, the more conservative they get politically,” he said. “When we were an economically downtrodden and oppressed minority without full civil rights, we worked with other oppressed people to secure rights for everyone. Now that we’ve got ours, we no longer feel obligated to help others get theirs.”
Sieradski notes that Sanders has not specifically targeted the Jewish community for outreach, which he says is an illustration of his refusal to pander to any identity group.
“He cares about civil rights as they apply to everybody,” he said. “In this day and age, blacks and Muslims are most likely to have their civil rights infringed upon, so he’s speaking about that. He is not speaking about this stuff simply because he wants the black or Arab vote. He’s doing it because civil rights matter to him and he is being honest to who he is and what he is about.”
The last Siena Research poll of Jewish Democratic voters in New York, taken two months ago, showed Clinton with an 8-point lead over Sanders, 41-33 percent. A full 20 percent had no opinion. But when it came to favorability ratings, Sanders was ahead of Clinton 44 to 36. And Clinton had a 16-point larger negative rating than Sanders (37/53).
Judging by the importance of the Jewish vote in the 2013 New York City Democratic mayoral primary — it represented 19 percent of the vote — it can be expected to be even more significant in a high-turnout presidential primary.
Clinton appeals to Jewish feminists who want to see her break the proverbial glass ceiling by becoming the first woman president, some observers note. And they say that wealthy, conservative Jews don’t want to pay more taxes. For them, a Jewish socialist is problematic and reminiscent of the negative stereotypes of Jews. In addition, many Jewish Clinton supporters believe Sanders’ Middle East policy is unrealistic and would be dangerous for Israel.
Rabbi Schonfeld said she supports Clinton because she “has consistently offered rational, productive, achievable answers to the serious problems our nation faces. It is time to set out on a path on which we can address difficult challenges rather than vent anger and cast blame.”
She argued that Clinton would not build a wall to keep immigrants out because she understands that immigration “is at heart a family issue.” And Rabbi Schonfeld said Clinton “continues to champion women’s reproductive rights and right to equal pay and workplace treatment. …We especially can appreciate that as secretary of state, she worked to protect women subject to sexual and other forms of slavery and abuse.
“As both secretary of state and as senator, Hillary Clinton also demonstrated her commitment to Israel. While she was at the State Department, military support to Israel increased by 20 percent and she led the way on developing a tough Iran sanctions regime. During her tenure, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called U.S.-Israel security cooperation ‘unprecedented.’ Secretary Clinton fought the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement and defended Israel’s legitimacy around the world. Her record on Israel is unparalleled.”
But not all of those planning to vote for Clinton are doing so with the same enthusiasm. At Monday’s Kasich town hall meeting, Joan Holzberg, 50, of Commack, L.I., a Democrat, said she would be voting for Clinton in the primary and in the general election if she faced Trump or Cruz. But, she said, she would vote for Kasich in November “if I had the opportunity.”
Clearly not thrilled with Clinton, she quipped: “Does Biden want to make a run for it? … I’m not enthused with Hillary and even less enthused about Bernie. I didn’t love her performance as secretary of state for us or for Israel, and a part of me has had enough of Clinton and Obama — I don’t need them again in the White House. And I don’t trust her honesty. … She’s the less of two evils.”
Her husband, Larry Holzberg, 51, a registered Republican, said he would be voting for Kasich in the primary.
“There is no way I would vote for Trump or Cruz,” he said. “I would vote for Hillary before I vote for Trump or Cruz.”
But Susan Glazer, 58, a Republican from Smithtown, L.I., said Kasich was the only one of the candidates in either party she liked.
“The only man to consider is this man,” she said. “Of the other two [Republicans], one is an evangelical minister and the other is a crazy man.”
Asked whom she would vote for if the general election pitted Clinton against Trump, Glazer replied: “Neither one.”
And she said her husband is a registered Democrat but that he would vote for Kasich, if possible, in the general election.
“All of them are killing the middle class,” she said of the other candidates.
Asked about Sanders’ proposal of a free state college education for all, she replied: “I’m all for education, but somebody has to pay for it — nothing is free in this world. … It doesn’t look like things are getting better. I feel badly for my children. … There are no choices. Even my mother doesn’t know what to do — and that has to be a first.”
But Dava Schub, a Jewish communal professional in Manhattan, said she has made up her mind. After noting that it is important voters are knowledgeable about the issues, she said she supports Clinton because “her values resonate with mine.”
“I want to live in a world that seeks economic and social justice — that protects the rights and interests of those most in need,” she said in an email. “Hillary has fought for decades for health care reform, equal pay for women, a woman's right to choose and she has been a strong ally to Israel. She can get stuff done. … Does being Jewish affect how I cast my vote? Yes, because for me my values are informed by my Judaism. We don't corner the market on those values, and clearly someone like Hillary who doesn't share my faith does share many of those values. It all goes together.”
On the other hand, Rabbi Iris Richman, the volunteer organizer of Rabbis for Bernie, said she has read Sanders’ positions and “agree with virtually all the stands he has taken on issues. And I [am] … of course interested and excited about the prospect of a Jewish candidate for president.”
“For a lot of people his values are Jewish values,” she told The Jewish Week. “And they resonate with Jews. The way we treat the stranger — something that the Torah talks about 36 times — is certainly something he speaks about a lot.”
Regarding Sanders’ positions on Israel, Rabbi Richman said she believes they are “pretty mainstream.”
Rabbi Richman acknowledged that “there may be some people who object to any concern about the Palestinians,” but nevertheless she said it is “important that he very strongly supports Israel and says that it’s important to have a two-state solution.”
“We see that among the Republican candidates a lot of their message concerns fear,” she added. “But what I hope characterizes the message of the Democratic candidates is hope, and so any suggestion from Democratic candidates that voters should go in one direction or another based on fear would be a value that I would not endorse.”