Will Tapping Into the Divide Within the Jewish Community Pay Off for Sanders?

For many activists, Simone Zimmerman’s suspension was an anomaly in a campaign that is otherwise willing to push the limits of the discussion on Israel beyond the comfort zone of many pro-Israel Democrats.

The Forward
Nathan Guttman
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Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks during American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations convention in Philadelphia, April 7, 2016.
Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks during American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations convention in Philadelphia, April 7, 2016.Credit: David Maialetti/The Philadelphia Inquirer via AP
The Forward
Nathan Guttman

The hashtag #IStandWithSimone took off shortly after the Sanders campaign abruptly suspended its Jewish outreach coordinator April 13. Within hours, hundreds of tweets were posted in support of Simone Zimmerman, who had been hired only days earlier; she had immediately created an uproar when an old Facebook post surfaced in which she used vulgarity directed at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“Jews who speak up [about] the injustice of the occupation shouldn’t be threatened by the right wing for doing so,” read one tweet. Another added: “The American Jewish Right’s politics of fear has claimed another victim. But we won’t be silenced.”

The outpouring of support for the 25-year-old Jewish activist caught in the crossfire of a bigger battle over the boundaries of Jewish debate on Israel was directed at two targets: the communal establishment that spoke out against Zimmerman, and the Sanders campaign for caving into that pressure.

“I wouldn’t want to see that young people get discouraged by what happened to Simone,” said Isaac Luria, a Sanders supporter in New York who previously served as J Street’s communications director. “I hope that Simone and other young Jewish progressives understand that they don’t have to check their liberal values at the door.”

This hope is based on a contradictory message coming out of the Sanders campaign. Hours after taking action against Zimmerman, the candidate himself delivered what could easily be seen as the most critical view ever uttered by a serious presidential candidate. “There comes a time when if we pursue justice and peace we are going to have to say that Netanyahu is not right all of the time,” Sanders said, turning to his rival Hillary Clinton on stage during a debate in Brooklyn.

“It was a breath of fresh air,” said Luria.

And for many activists, a sign that Zimmerman’s suspension was an anomaly in a campaign that is otherwise willing to push the limits of the discussion on Israel beyond the comfort zone of many pro-Israel Democrats. The decisions surrounding the rapid hiring and firing of Zimmerman illustrate the difficulties faced by the Sanders campaign in reaching out to the Jewish community. The Jewish senator was a late arrival to the field of Jewish outreach. He devoted very limited resources to convincing Jewish voters to switch from Clinton’s camp to his side and irked some of his own activists by ignoring their call for a comprehensive approach to progressive Jewish voters and communal leaders.

Sanders’ campaign got around to appointing a Jewish community liaison only a week before Tuesday’s primary in New York, the state with the nation’s largest Jewish population. The choice of Zimmerman, a popular left-wing activist who had been outspoken in her views on Israel, sent a clear message that the Sanders campaign was targeting liberal Jewish voters who had been feeling shut out of the communal debate. Zimmerman, as reported by JTA regularly protested outside the offices of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations during Israel’s 2014 Gaza military campaign and voiced her opposition to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the “rampant racism” in Israeli society.

“It was obviously a crazy hire,” said a Sanders supporter who asked not to be named because of his ongoing ties with the campaign. “This was their plan to get more Jews to support Bernie Sanders?” The activist noted, as did several other supporters contacted by the Forward, that Zimmerman was hired by lower level officials in the campaign and in a rushed manner that did not allow for sufficient vetting.

The Sanders campaign did not respond to requests for comment.

“It does not reflect well on the Sanders campaign when on one hand they say ‘we’ll speak out against Netanyahu,’ and on the other hand they suspend someone for speaking out against him,” said Daniel Sieradski, national organizer of Jews for Bernie, a political action committee backing the Vermont senator.

Other activists have noted that although Sanders is the only Jewish candidate in the race and the first Jew to score major victories in a presidential campaign, his outreach to the Jewish community has been all but nonexistent. The campaign did not respond to requests from activists to engage with rabbis and local leaders or to frame his candidacy in terms relatable to Jewish voters, such as building on the American Jewish socialist legacy, the community’s commitment to social justice, and the role it played in the civil rights movement.

These claims are clearer when contrasted with the elaborate Jewish outreach effort conducted by the Clinton campaign.

Clinton appointed Sarah Bard as her director of Jewish outreach in early January, before the first caucuses took place in Iowa. Since then, Bard, with a staff of national and local volunteers, has been targeting Jewish voters and communal leaders before primary contests in states with large Jewish communities. On April 15, for example, the Clinton campaign held a phone briefing for New York rabbis with Rep. Steve Israel and Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the Reform movement’s former president. Earlier this week, John Podesta, chairman of the Clinton campaign, met with Orthodox communal leaders in Boro Park.

And while Sanders’ choice of a liaison to the Jewish community was a clear anti-establishment statement, Bard comes with deep organizational and political ties. A daughter of a Massachusetts rabbi, graduate of Jewish day school, federation activist and Anti-Defamation League fellow, Bard gained her political experience working on the Clinton and Obama presidential campaigns and with DNC chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz.

“This is really personal for me,” she told the Forward. “The Jewish community and the organizational community were always a key part of my life.” She added that Clinton, with 35 years of experience working with the Jewish community, “understands the diversity of the Jewish community and the role of Jewish organizations.”

Sanders, on the other hand, has had little involvement in organizational Jewish life, and as a senator from Vermont was never faced with the need to reach out to Jewish voters or to explore the complexity of Jewish views on Israel.

“I don’t think the campaign realized that the animosity in the Jewish community toward progressive Jews was so great, and that’s because the folks on his campaign weren’t involved enough,” said Sieradski.

The Brooklyn debate provided Sanders with an opportunity to explore this divide within the community. In a heated exchange with Clinton, Sanders doubled down on his claim that Israel used disproportionate force against Palestinians in Gaza and pressed the former secretary of state to express her perspective on Israel’s military activity. He then accused Clinton of not paying attention to the need to “treat the Palestinian people with respect and dignity.”

“It was a breakthrough moment,” said Carinne Luck, co-founder of If Not Now and a consultant to not-for-profit organizations, who has yet to decide who to support in Tuesday’s primaries. “Young Jewish voters want to see a different kind of politics.”

Will tapping into the divide within the Jewish community pay off for Sanders?

Recent polls have shown him trailing Clinton by 20%-30% margin in New York. Sanders supporters argue these results are impressive for a candidate who had made virtually no effort to reach out to Jewish voters. But backers of Clinton point to the obvious: The first serious Jewish presidential candidate is losing the Jewish vote.

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