Bernie Backs the Jewish Values We Millenials Believe in - and Israel's Not One of Them

Sanders calls back to an earlier era before Jews integrated into white, affluent America and before the assumption that American Jews’ highest priority was support for a foreign county thousands of miles away.

U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders greets audience members at a campaign rally at the University of Buffalo, April 11, 2016.
Brian Snyder, Reuters

The apocryphal observation attributed to Churchill, that democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others, has often struck me as too optimistic. Democracy, after all, is the system that's delivered the current U.S. Congress. Yet we suddenly find ourselves with a compelling election, and the presidential nominating contests remain competitive unusually late in the calendar.

When was the last time that New York, the state and the city with the greatest concentration of Jewish voters, really mattered? Pennsylvania? California? Even Washington, D.C., whose Democratic caucus is last in the nation, may yet have some distinct impact on the selection of the Democratic nominee. For all the madness of the last year of campaigning, the fact that there is still some actual and ideological competition strikes me as wholly salutary: democracy is delivering something a bit more than the mere appearance of choice. This is obviously true on economics, true on social issues from gay and trans rights to abortion, and even true on the perennial “Jewish” issue of Israel, where we may be seeing a subtle but marked shift.

The Republicans, particularly Ted Cruz, offer the usual stark, jingoistic defense of Israel as a sop to Jewish voters. (Probably accidentally, Donald Trump offered the closest thing among Republicans to the old “honest broker” cliché about the proper American role in Israel and Palestine.) Yet Cruz is also the candidate of anti-Semitism, the man who glibly mocks “New York values” and Donald Trump's “chutzpah.” This is a stark reminder of the danger in making common cause with “pro-Israel” politicians whose support for the Zionist project is based on a Christian Dispensationalist movement that views Israel mostly as an ingredient for the end times. They don't actually like Jews very much; they see us mostly as a necessary evil.

Cruz is in most ways worse than Trump, who is merely more vulgar, because he represents a true commitment to Christian nationalism at home and imperialism abroad. Trump is a racist, but he isn't an ideologue. Cruz may really believe. 

Neither stands much chance of winning a general election. If a square-jawed conservative patrician like Romney or a media-acclaimed military man like John McCain couldn’t win in more normal years, then it is almost impossible to imagine any Republican winning now. The demographic composition of the American electorate and the geographic distribution of electoral votes in America's odd Presidential system almost certainly preclude it.

Which leaves Clinton and Sanders. Clinton, in part to draw a possible contrast with the unpleasant relationship between Obama and Netanyahu, promises to make the “special relationship” between American and Israel stronger than ever, whatever on Earth that can mean. 

This rhetoric still appeals to Jews of my parents’ generation. But I was born in 1981, the leading edge of the so-called Millennials, and like many of my approximate cohort, I find this sort of thing mostly insulting. Sanders’ extremely mild criticism of Israel, which consists mostly of admitting that Palestinians exist, at least has the merits of living in the real world.

Whether secular (I am) or observant, a growing number of younger American Jews lack the historical fondness for Israel that moved our parents and grandparents. Ironically, it is in part the tepid project of American Jewish identity that is to blame. The journalist and writer Rokhl Kafrissen observed  a few years ago: “It’s no coincidence that the most lavishly funded communal project of our generation has not been universal comprehensive Jewish education, but rather, an identity making vacation whose goals are no more controversial than encouraging passive Zionism and getting young Jews near each other.”

I never took that Birthright vacation, personally, although I did plant plenty of trees in Israel by dropping my parents’ money at Hebrew School. These projects, meant to tie young American Jews to the Israeli state with bonds of nostalgic affection, had the opposite effect: in making Israel just one more destination, they made Israel just another ordinary country, not the mystical homeland we appeal to in prayer, but a real, grotty, compromised place, a country whose frankly disastrous politics and shameful treatment of the Palestinians has made it increasingly unsupportable. 

The two-state solution, which seems more and more like a temporizing exercise for the endless inaction of bad faith negotiations, feels to many American Jews of my generation more like an excuse than a solution, and though no major American politician, including Sanders, has broached the topic of a binational state, we are already beginning to wonder if that is the only possibility, beside some unthinkable dissolution of the entire state. It is no accident that the BDS movement on American college campuses is often led by Jews. It is no coincidence that many of these same activists, Jew and gentile, support Bernie Sanders, who seems at least interested in something beyond the status quo.

For younger people, the compromises and failures of Clintonian centrism are familiar and deeply frightening. Burdened by debt, uncertain of decent employment, and rightly skeptical of the value of an entrepreneurial venture economy that delivers a few celebrated billionaires at the cost of yawning inequalities of both opportunity and outcome, they see Bernie Sanders as a spokesman for an ethical politics that at very least admits some notion of a commons. Distrustful of America’s failed militarism, they see Sanders’ relative disinterest in foreign affairs as a hopeful sign that adventurism would take a secondary role in his administration.

This is a fascinating development, because Sanders, the only Jewish candidate, calls back to an earlier era of Jewish politics, before the almost complete integration of Jews into white, affluent America and before the notion that the most important thing for Jews in America was support for a foreign county thousands of miles away. 

This return to a leftist, communal, and urban politics represents a real shift, though given the long rightward drift of America, it may better be interpreted as a sort of reversion to the mean. In this regard, the Democratic primaries’ ultimate result is almost incidental. While the Republican crack-up, much-commented on already, represents the institutional failure of a flawed organization, on the Democratic side a much more interesting and enduring realignment is afoot. 

Are our parents paying attention? Are our political leaders, are our Jewish leaders, prepared for a generation that again sees the heart of Judaism in the Diaspora and the ethical imperatives of American Judaism as existing in potentially stark opposition to the Jewish state?

Jacob Bacharach is a writer based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He is the author of the novel The Bend of the World. Follow him on Twitter @jakebackpack, or at jacobbacharach.com