Bernie Sanders, the Israeli Left and White Privilege

For the Israeli left, Bernie Sanders' failure with voters of color and minorities is all too familiar.

vered kellner
Vered Kellner
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Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders greets supporters after a rally in Santa Monica, California, May 23, 2016.
Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders greets supporters after a rally in Santa Monica, California, May 23, 2016.Credit: Ringo Chiu, AFP
vered kellner
Vered Kellner

When I arrived in New York with my family on the eve of the 2012 U.S. election, I argued in an opinion piece for Haaretz that new arrivals should sit quietly and not venture overly loud opinions about politics whose workings they don't quite understand. Almost a full presidential term later, and despite having put on some mileage in American politics, I admit that even now I occasionally meet political developments that I can't easily fathom.

That's why I recently asked a local journalist friend to explain why the African-American community isn't "feeling the Bern," in contrast to many other Democratic voters, and is overwhelmingly supporting Hillary Clinton. Don't they want free college tuition, don't they think the banks are too big?

My friend supplied an explanation that included some sociological context, about geographic and intergenerational differences within America's black community, but it ended with a fascinating remark that continues to echo in my head.

He said the black vote in America is fundamentally pragmatic. Bernie Sanders' rousing rhetoric triggers their suspicion. They won't risk their votes on an ideological candidate with no real chance of being elected. Even in 2008, my friend argued, it took many black voters in the Democratic primaries a few rounds to switch their votes from Hillary Clinton to Barack Obama. They cannot afford to amuse themselves with fantasies about a pink, dare we say red, future the way their white brothers can, when the alternative is Donald Trump or Ted Cruz.

My friend's explanation made sense to me. Even though many of Sanders' proposals have come from the ideological niche to which I belong, it's hard for me to imagine him being elected and being able to implement these ideas. Nevertheless the majority of the party's white male voters, especially the younger ones, continue to support him.

This situation, I suddenly realized, is familiar to me from somewhere else.

At a time when Israel's Labor Party is once again making every possible mistake in an effort to scrape up a little power for itself, including begging pathetically and unsuccessfully at the door of the Netanyahu government, the Israeli left would do well to study African-Americans' lack of support for Sanders.

According to the familiar narrative of the Israeli left, members of lower income groups continue to support the right despite the fact that it is the left that represents their interests — and their ungratefulness in not recognizing where redemption lies is rooted in irrationality and with total disregard for their own interests, of course.

A good example of this narrative was Zionist Union MK Erel Margalit's "Give us back the country, damn it!" video of a month ago.

The video's purpose, ostensibly, was to attack the political right, but its real goal was to repair the image of the left, not least amongst those communities with which it has had little electoral traction.

Margalit sought to persuade viewers that the left is a "manly man" who served in the Golani Brigade. Above all, he sought to send the message that the left is good for Israel's geographic and socioeconomic periphery: in other words, Mizrahim. One moment he flatters them (suggesting that the extreme right learns from Israel's Black Panthers, the 1970s Mizrahi protest movement, "how to put a campaign together.") The next, he's beating his breast in contrition. ("We blew it ... because we attacked the traditionalists, instead of embracing them.") What Margalit doesn't do is assume that there's some logic in Mizrahim voting for the right.

Back to America: In the televised Sanders-Clinton debate in Brooklyn in April, Sanders admitted that Clinton swept the Democratic primaries in the Deep South, where black voters tipped the scales. "That is the most conservative part of this great country. That's the fact. But you know what? We're out of the Deep South now. And we're moving up," Sanders said.

His remark bared several problems. Firstly, Sanders sounded profoundly dismissive of the black Democrats unsympathetic to his candidacy who form a kind of Southern demographic trough from which he would ascend to friendlier more northern climes. This is an admission of a tactical defeat: The Democratic Party is increasingly less white.

The second problem touches on the nature of the party: A progressive party that has chiseled the fight against racism into its moral foundations cannot allow itself to dismiss or to downplay the clear choices of minority voters. In other words: When will Sanders consider the implications and consequences of the fact that his core support is from young white men?

I admit that as a veteran of the white Israeli left I have more than felt like bashing my head into a wall over the voting patterns of Mizrahim or underserved communities in Israel. Don't they realize that the fat state subsidies for the settlements are at their expense?

There’s clear proof for this. The Adva Center’s latest report, covering 1991 to 2012 and focusing on inequality in government funding for municipal budgets, shows settlement residents received an average of 2,695 shekels ($750) in government funding a year, while those in outlying towns (where Mizrahim often constitute the majority population) received 1,892 shekels a year; and over the last 20 years, government investment increased everywhere except for those outlying towns where it actually decreased.

But in the United States, where I benefit from an outsider's perspective, the picture seems slightly more clear — in relation to Israel, too. It's difficult to ignore the fact that here, as in Israel (when it comes to the Jewish left; the Arabs have much less of a choice), the supporters of the candidates with the most "social" positions are from the most advantaged demographic groups. They can afford to vote for ideological candidates with a clean conscience because they don't have skin in the game — they brought their duffel bag of privilege from home. They will remain the elite, one way or another, while the ones who will pay the price are searching for a candidate who is pragmatic, if less inspiring.

This realization does not erase the frustration. I promise to knock my head on the wall in the next Israeli election, too. But perhaps in between knocks I will try to take the lesson I learned in American politics and apply it to attain deeper understanding of what happens in Israel.

When it seems obvious to us that a certain group should support a certain party or ideology and it does not do so, that's not the time to try to tell the group where it went wrong. That's the time to ask what's wrong with the party.

Vered Kellner is a journalist who has worked in Israel for publications including Kol Ha'ir, Maariv and Globes and now lives in New York.

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