At the recent “Champions of Jewish Values International Awards Gala,” an ersatz charity dinner hosted by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, the closest Jewish equivalent to a Rick Warren style celebrity televangelist, Pamela Anderson — yes, that Pamela Anderson — one of this year’s honorees, gave a red carpet interview in which she explained why she loved Israel.
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“They’re one of the most vegetarian nations! They’re spreading kindness and compassion around the world. I just think they’re a great example. And of course, the memory of the Holocaust.” This prompted the red carpet host to observe, somewhat unfortunately, that Elie Wiesel was also being honored: “The face of the Holocaust! The most famous surviving member!”
But celebrities and hired hacks embarrassing themselves on fake red carpets are just a half step below the usual American political rhetoric on Israel, which traffics in the same elementary school moral nostrums. Israel, Hillary Clinton wrote last fall in the Forward, “is more than a country — it’s a dream nurtured for generations and made real by men and women who refused to bow to the toughest odds.” The Israel-American alliance “transcends politics.”
More rigorous minds might suggest that no country is more than a country and relations between nation-states by definition cannot transcend politics, but this is an election year, after all. (Well, this is America, so it is an election two years.) Clinton’s pitch to “reaffirm the unbreakable bond” with both Israel and Benjamin Netanyahu was a pitch at a generation of Jewish voters and the squishy “responsible” Republicans who view Trump (and viewed Cruz and Rubio before they dropped out) as unacceptably divergent from the foreign policy consensus that rules Washington D.C.
Trump’s unexpected but hardly unbelievable shellacking of a Republican field full of ineffectual dynasts, scammers, and weirdos has upended the expected media narrative of the 2016 presidential race. After failing to unify behind any particular establishment candidate, the GOP was supposed to tumble into its convention with a handful of bruised competitors, while Hillary Clinton, despite a worrisome increase in the popularity of protest candidate Bernie Sanders, was expected to glide into Philadelphia unchallenged.
Instead, the remaining GOP contenders folded, leaving Trump unopposed, while Sanders, despite a mathematically unlikely path to the Democratic nomination, kept winning and tying state primaries and stayed in the race. Two months ago, talking heads gleefully anticipated the prospect of a raucous, confrontational, brokered, Republican convention. Instead, it was at the Democratic Party caucuses in Nevada where party leaders maneuvered the process to a favored outcome and angry Sanders supporters — allegedly — threw chairs.
The media’s professional hysterics immediately demanded that Sanders apologize and, moreover, that he withdraw from the race and throw his support to Hillary. All this messy, angry democracy stuff is getting in the way of the woman who gave us Libya telling the man who promises us a huge, beautiful wall that he is not realistic, not serious. Professional Democrats now openly fret about a weakened candidate entering the general and about disaffected Bernie supporters deciding to stay home in November.
As is the case across every other demographic tranche of Democratic voter, Sanders’ support among American Jews skews young, and those young American Jews skew hard for Sanders. Mostly, their support has nothing to do with Judaism or with Israel; they like him for the same reasons every other young Democrat likes him. They like his rhetoric on economic fairness, on income inequality, on health care, on student loans and college tuition. Hillary Clinton’s bumbling attempts to weld her far more conservative position onto these latter items — declaring that universal free public tuition would be unfair because rich kids could get it too — was particularly galling: it made no sense in the service of condescending to her imagined audience.
But Clinton is running on foreign policy expertise, and young American Jews do care about Israel, just not as their parents did. When Sanders is accused of a lack of foreign policy experience, the real accusation is that he mildly departs from the disastrous conventional wisdom that passes for sagacity and gravitas in the American government and legacy press. Observing that the Palestinians are human beings is hardly a threat to cut off all aid to Israel, yet it at least acknowledges what many younger Jews believe: that the nation which claims to represent global Judaism politically and spiritually has come instead to represent the extremes of discrimination and inequality that motivate the activism of so many on the political left.
Sanders casually skipped an AIPAC conference at which Clinton gave another embarrassingly fawning address using language little different from her Forward op-ed, and Trump a bellicose and incoherent one, but what is really noteworthy about the Sanders campaign is that he has generally treated the Israel-Palestine issue as a vexing problem involving actual people rather than an opportunity for moralistic posturing..
The question for these voters, then, is what to do next. There will be tremendous institutional pressure to coalesce behind a Clinton candidacy. No matter how awful her positions, unsavory her alliances, and heavy the baggage of her family’s business and past, isn’t Trump worse? Some kind of madman? Possibly a fascist?
Perhaps. Generally people selling arguments about politics without precedent are peddling an agenda. To suggest that Trump — that Trump's rhetoric — is new to American politics is to ignore the actual history of Republican policy and electioneering since Nixon at least. The “Southern Strategy,” the deliberate stoking of racial and religious animus to counteract the growing power of urban and minority populations, is not some insulting liberal confabulation; it is historical fact. Trump only says to the contemporaneous public what Nixon secretly recorded for paranoia and posterity.
But Trump is also an object lesson in effective intraparty advocacy, the end result of a long-simmering break between the vague promises of a party elite and the growing anger of their constituent base. The base won. There is direction here for Sanders’ constituency. Political parties do not respond to unconditional support. The Democratic Party will swiftly jettison the slightly more leftist policy ideas that Sanders has smuggled into this campaign as the party reasonably can. Clinton will make a hard right turn — she is already courting Republican donors, neoconservatives, hedge funds, Likudites — unless she and the party understand that voters’ support is contingent on her supporting at least some modest portion of the Sanders program. The current conversation focuses on issues of party governance and domestic policy, but given Clinton's extremely hawkish views and ongoing outreach to conservative factions dismayed by Trump's takeover of the Republican party, it would behoove Jewish voters who care to push for a platform that actually puts pressure on Israel rather than repeating the same failed platitudes.
It would be hard to blame Sanders voters if they do eventually feel compelled by the vulgar carnival of Trump to support Clinton in the end. I personally find her character deeply suspect and her policies — actual policies that have resulted in actual wars — repellent and frightening, but I'm also unable to lightly dismiss the extraordinary wave of virulent anti-Semitism that greets even something so mild as re-tweeting an article that criticizes Donald Trump.
While I know that these online voices have been amplified all out of proportion to their real size and influence, while I believe that to be a Jew in America today is likely the best time and place to be a Jew in history, I admit to a degree of fear when I see hundreds of commentators descending to declare themselves ready for the pogroms to start.
Even still, I would urge Sanders supporters to hold out to the last possible moment and exact some concessions. The alternative lesser evil is very much lesser indeed: four years of foolish interventions and Wall Street economics. Lord make me pure, as my favorite Christian prayed, but not yet.