Although New Yorkers consider their city, and sometimes their state, to be the center of the universe, it’s been a while since the presidential primary in New York has been this consequential.
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Although Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump lead in the polls, and Trump by an especially large margin, New York is not a winner-take-all-state, so a candidate can come in second and still walk away with delegates. For Ted Cruz, and surprisingly, also for Bernie Sanders, New York isn’t just about the delegates. For Cruz and Sanders, it’s also about the Jews.
You can’t really blame anyone for wincing while swallowing the bitter pill of Ted Cruz, but Jews, especially the Orthodox, are doing it. After all, barring emergence of a white knight at the GOP convention (and by "white knight," Republicans means a very white knight; think Mitt Romney or, yes, even Paul Ryan, who seems to campaign for positions by swearing he’s not interested in them) – Cruz has the best shot to be the party nominee if Trump falls short.
To be sure, Cruz has always had backing from Orthodox Jewish Republicans, many of whom identify as “values-based” voters and who see his support for Israel as unwavering. Cruz loudly opposed the Iran deal, makes all the requisite noise about moving the American embassy to Jerusalem, and claims to have had an affinity for Israel his whole life, calling Entebbe a “profoundly Texan approach to an act of terrorism.” Cruz’s school choice advocacy, not to mention his crusade to protect religious liberties, also resonate loudly, although it’s unclear what Orthodox Jews make of Cruz’s opposition to abortion even in cases of rape or incest.
This is why in the very few stops Cruz made this week in New York, we saw pictures of him wearing a scarlet kippah and baking matzo in Brighton Beach, and taking press interviews in what appeared to be a shul rabbi’s office, complete with a menorah collection in the background. If Cruz can pick up enough support from Orthodox Jews in New York, specifically from those in the Republican enclaves in an otherwise very Democratic city, he can use this support going forward in the remaining primaries (especially New Jersey and Maryland, both of which have large Orthodox communities), and more importantly, in the general election.
While Cruz is making a play for the Orthodox vote, Sanders seems to be going for another type of New York Jew entirely. Poll after poll has shown millennial Jewish voters growing disaffected with Israel, a trend which, if true, could make the BDS movement look like child’s play. Sanders’ wholly inaccurate comments (which he ultimately revised) that 10,000 civilians were killed in the Gaza conflict (a number which is at least 8,000 more than even the Hamas estimate), as well as his choice of Simone Zimmerman as his director of Jewish outreach, play to this disaffection. Zimmerman, a former student activist, was ultimately suspended when it emerged that she had made vulgar remarks about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on her Facebook page.
At the end of the day, Senator Sanders is a politician. His Gaza misstatement aside, his initial choice of Zimmerman, as well as his comments in Thursday night’s debate in Brooklyn, where his reiterated his position that Israel’s response in Gaza was disproportionate, show that he is not afraid to cast his lot with the left, specifically, the millennial left, on Israel. While the Orthodox community reacted predictably to Sanders’ comments as well as Zimmerman’s appointment, to many on the left, this was just more evidence of Sanders’ unwavering commitment to his core progressive values as well as his refusal to pander for votes. In other words, many millennial Jews are eating it up.
Although Sanders’ comments at the debate may have solidified his position with the left, they may have handed the rest of the Democratic Jewish vote to Clinton on a silver platter. It didn’t come as a surprise to Jewish voters that Sanders could be critical of both Israel and of Netanyahu, but it came a shock to many to hear his criticism so publicly. Democrats who were on the fence, or not planning to vote in the primary, could now turn out to vote for Clinton after they heard her staunch defense of Israel, as well as Sanders’ chiding her for failing to mention the Palestinians in her speech to AIPAC, the annual conference that he himself did not attend. (The Brooklyn debate could also have helped Clinton in the general election with Republicans who can’t bring themselves to swallow either the Trump or Cruz pills.)
Both Trump and Clinton have significant Jewish support, and it’s likely that they’ll ride this support to victories in the New York primary. But pay attention to second place and to the margins on both sides. There, Cruz and Sanders could not only pick up delegates, but they’ll secure their positions on issues that resonate deeply with their Jewish supporters, on opposite sides of the political spectrum.
Lea Geller is a writer who lives in New York City her family. She blogs at www.thisisthecornerwepeein.com. Twitter: @lrgeller