It almost felt like a kind of family therapy.
Eight Jews, all well north of 50, sat in a circle on metal folding chairs in the basement office of the local chapter of the Communications Workers of America in Tribeca, sharing their hopes and the complicated feelings stirred up by their absentee favorite son: a 74-year-old Jewish senator from Vermont who kept riling the neighbors.
They all agreed that his heart and mind were in the right place, that he “felt Israel in his kishkes” and was someone they could trust to protect it while also advancing peace and justice. But he had made a bit of a mess with a few of the things he had said to a newspaper, alienating some of their closest friends and family members. And now it was their job to help clean it up.
These are folks who consider themselves Jews for Bernie. Skewing much older than Sen. Sanders’ core base of support, they had come to the meeting targeting Jewish Sanders supporters — organized by Rabbi Iris Richman, a volunteer working with the Sanders campaign — along with about 90 others (a little less than a quarter observant, by a show of hands) to learn about the mechanics of canvassing. But as that part of the program wrapped up, they stayed on to grapple with what some felt was a distressing “tone deafness” on the part of Sanders’ campaign regarding Israel. All consider themselves committed to the candidate’s broader agenda.
“I am a very strong supporter of him [Sanders] to the extent that I have my other relatives screaming at me,” said Lisa Harbatkin, a writer whose schoolteacher parents were targeted and interrogated as part of the city’s anti-Communist probe of teachers in the 1950s.
“I believe that he is totally pro-Israel. But what he said to the Daily News was incorrect,” she added, referring to comments Sanders made in a wide-ranging interview with that newspaper’s editorial board.
In the interview, Sanders first estimated the number of Palestinian deaths in the Gaza war at “over 10,000” but indicated he was unsure of the exact figure. The audio of the conversation makes it clear that Sanders was corrected during the course of the conversation and provided with the much lower death toll of 2,300 — a correction he accepted by saying “okay.” However, the interview transcript released by the Daily News failed to include Sanders’ “okay.” The Daily News interviewer then noted that the total number of Palestinians wounded was 10,000.
(The Jewish Week made multiple attempts through the Sanders campaign to secure an interview with the candidate but was unsuccessful.)
Harbatkin acknowledged that it was “a stupid mistake.”
“It’s something he should have known. Hamas and the U.N. know it, why doesn’t he know it?” she said. But like the others in the group, she did not believe it signaled anything nefarious about Sanders’ commitment to Israel.
The gaffe, however, provoked a strong response in some quarters.
Michael Oren, a former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. and a member of the Knesset, and New York State Assemblyman Dov Hikind, a Brooklyn Democrat, said Sanders had accused the Israelis of a blood libel. And the Anti-Defamation League called on Sanders to correct his comments, which he did.
Because of the reaction, the pro-Sanders group decided to take it upon themselves to put together a document they could disseminate among fellow Jews, laying out Sanders’ positions and voting record with respect to Israel.
Sanders has repeatedly expressed support for a two-state solution. In a speech he had intended to deliver remotely from the campaign trail to last month’s AIPAC policy conference but was denied the option by the organizers, Sanders told a Utah audience 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.” His voting record includes votes to approve funding for Israel and condemn terror attacks there. For those in this group, including Eli Rogosa, an Israeli American who for 15 years worked in “Israel and Palestine as a scientific coordinator of biodiversity conservation” and set up sewage treatment systems there, getting Sanders’ position on Israel out to other Jews is critical.
“We’re campaigning for Bernie as Jews so we’re making a flyer of the key points of why Jews should support Bernie,” she explained.
“The key is that they [the campaign] are not doing it, we’re doing it. It’s up to us,” she added.
“The Clinton people are trying to undermine Bernie in the Jewish community, and they are using the issue of Israel to try to do that,” an attendee who gave his name only as Bernard chimed in. “I think Bernie is going to be fair. I think Bernie is about being fair. I think that might hurt him. There are some people who don’t want to be fair.”
“The point is that we know that Bernie is for Israel,” added Sheryl Fetik, an active volunteer with the campaign. “That Bernie is for a secure Israel. That Bernie believes that Israel has a right to defend itself and a right to exist. And that the Arab countries, its neighbors, must accept the fact and acknowledge the fact that Israel has a right to exist with security.”
But, she continued, “he is also saying that other people besides the Jewish people have rights. In order for us to have peace we have to recognize that other people have rights. … And Bernie has come out and questioned some issues, lately. … He said, can we reduce the number of civilian casualties, when Israel needs to [defend itself].”
Fetik, who has many relatives both in the U.S. and Israel who are supporting Sanders, campaigned for him earlier this year in South Carolina, where she met some of his Muslim supporters. “They trust this man,” she noted. “It isn’t that he is going to give away the store. [But] they trust him. Maybe we need someone in office who people believe they can trust.”
Rogosa echoed these sentiments: “I have a lot of Palestinian friends and this is an incredible opportunity to build trust because people trust Bernie. The Arab-American community trusts Bernie. There are so many barriers. Everybody there [in Israel] I know has lost family, on both sides, so there’s a lot of baggage.”
As to whether Sanders is well enough versed in foreign policy issues, Rogosa seems unconcerned. “Because he left [Brooklyn], he went to Vermont, God bless him, he doesn’t have the international [focus]. He’s going to have to get up to speed.”
And everyone in the small group agreed that Sanders is, as one man who declined to be identified by name said, “comfortable in his Jewish skin.”
“He is very comfortable,” Rogosa agreed. “And that’s why he can also criticize Israel. Because he’s not a guilty Jew. Some people are saying he’s a lefty, he’s from Vermont. But no, he is a visceral Jew, he has a menschlichkeit.”
Another attendee cited as an example of Sanders’ comfort with his Jewishness the fact that he had traveled to give a speech on social justice at the conservative Christian college, Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., on Rosh HaShanah last year.
“I don’t know that we want to put this in the flyer,” he laughed. “But it takes guts to do that, to say, you know I’m Jewish but I’m going to go to the goyim.”
“And then he went to do tashlich with the mayor of the town,” Harbatkin added, referring to the fact that after his speech Sanders reportedly showed up at the home of the Jewish mayor of Lynchburg as a tashlich service was ending and joined those assembled for a “kiddush and a motzi,” according to NPR.
And, as Sanders himself has often done on the campaign trail, the group heralded what they saw as his good judgment.
“He has the right instincts,” said the man who declined to give his name.
“When [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu came and spoke before Congress [during the debate over the Iran nuclear deal], he didn’t go. I remember when he was asked, are you gonna go and he said, No, I’m not gonna go. It was as simple as that. He didn’t make a big thing. It wasn’t grandstanding.”
And, he added to assent from the group, “He was right. A lot of the American Jewish community doesn’t, I want to say they don’t know how to think. Before, on the Iran nuclear treaty, there was a J Street poll, an exit poll of the 2014 election coming out, and there was like 80 percent Jewish support for that treaty. The support went down to about 50 percent. [A November 2014 J Street-sponsored exit poll put Jewish support for the outlines of deal at 84 percent, with 16 percent opposing it; a July 2015 J Street poll found that 60 percent of Jews supported the deal, while 40 percent opposed it.] But somehow it became the official Jewish position that you are supposed to hate this agreement with all of your guts. But it was the propaganda, the hasbara [public relations], that did it. It was a propaganda campaign.”
Yes, agreed Rogosa. “So we have to do a good hasbara for Bernie right now.”