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The VICE Guide to the 2016 Election

Why Orthodox Jews Aren't Feeling the Bern

Orthodox Jews from across the political spectrum have turned against the Brooklyn-born Democrat over his position on Israel.

by Kevin Ellerton
Apr 19 2016, 10:40pm

The author, knocking on doors in West Hempstead, New York. All photos by the author

The sun was shining in western Long Island last weekend, as I made my way out for my first day of canvassing for Bernie Sanders, part of a final, frantic push to boost the Democratic presidential candidate ahead of Tuesday's New York primary. I'd started volunteering at Sanders' field office in Garden Grove as soon as it opened earlier this month. Since those early days, the operation had been perpetual chaos, directed by a single paid staffer who'd been given a comical number of cell phones and tasked with teaching new arrivals how to work a modern presidential campaign.

Over the weeks, I made hundreds of phone calls from that office, trying to identify Bernie voters, sway undecideds, and recruit more volunteers. Then last weekend, with the primary around the corner, I helped organize a canvassing event, offering to cover the predominantly Jewish neighborhood of West Hempstead myself. I'd grown up in this tight-knit community of Modern-Orthodox Jews—most of the houses on the canvass map belonged to family friends—and I imagined it would be easy to convince some of these neighbors to start feeling the Bern.

Boy was I wrong.

The first door on my knock-list belonged to one of my parents' neighbors, a Modern Orthodox couple in their mid-thirties who, according to the canvassing app, were registered Democrats. I'd had friendly interactions with the pair previously, so I figured this would be an easy place to start.

When the young woman opened the door, she greeted me kindly, and asked if I was looking for my sister's cat again. I told her no, I was canvassing for Bernie Sanders—and her face went from sweet to sour. "No, we're not voting for Bernie Sanders," she told me blankly.

"Why not?" I asked, taken aback by her sudden change in tone. "He's a Jew-hater," she explained. "He's an anti-Semite Jew."

I walked away a little dazed, but figured I'd just gotten a difficult house. But as I knocked on more doors, and spoke to more of the Orthodox Jews behind them, I was met with similar vitriol toward Sanders, similar attacks on his record, and often even similar words: Sanders, most of them agreed, was a "self-hating Jew."

Theoretically, Sanders' runaway White House bid should be a big deal for American Jews. Since his overwhelming rout of Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire this February, the independent senator from Flatbush, Brooklyn has made history not just as the first Jew, but as the first non-Christian to win an American presidential primary. And if Sanders somehow managed to defy political logic, delegate math, and the Clinton family, he would be the first Jewish president in US history.

But not all American Jews seem entirely thrilled by this prospect. The last time there was a serious contender of the Jewish faith running in a presidential race—Joe Lieberman in 2000—I remember the head Rabbi at my Yeshiva ominously warning, "A Jew in the White House is a recipe for anti-Semitism. If anything goes wrong, they'll blame the Jews."

Historically, Jewish Americans have gravitated toward the left of the political spectrum. In every presidential election since 1916, Jewish voters have favoured Democrats by overwhelming margins, with the exception of 1920, when 38 percent of Jews cast ballots for Eugene Debs, the Socialist Party candidate whose portrait hangs in Sanders' Senate office.

Orthodox Jews, however, tend to skew more conservative than other members of the faith. According to a 2013 survey from the Pew Research Center, 57 percent of Orthodox Jews in the US identify with or lean towards the Republican Party, compared to 36 percent who side with Democrats. As the Pew report notes, these political measures are far more similar to those found among evangelical Protestants and Mormons than among other Jews in the US.

All told, Orthodox Jewish Republicans make up just 10 percent of the Jewish electorate across the country. But in New York, they are geographically concentrated, living and voting together in enclaves like West Hempstead, where the community is strong and the politics are complicated. On nearly every issue, these voters tend to lean liberal—or at least liberal enough to think Republican culture wars and Fox News fearmongering are bonkers. But when the talking heads start talking Israel, Orthodox Jews—even the registered Democrats among them—unite against the left—and in 2016, that means Bernie.

The animosity towards the Vermont Senator was stirred up in part this month a lengthy interview Sanders did with the New York Daily News, and specifically the moment in which he struggled to come up with the accurate number of civilians killed by Israeli forces in Gaza. At some point citing the figure 10,000—in fact, there have been 2,300 killed and 10,000 wounded in Gaza—prompting the paper to suggest late that Sanders remarks were biased against Israel.

Soon, every self-respecting Jewish newspaper and media outlet had printed a headline like "Bernie Sanders claims Israel killed 10,000 innocents in Gaza" and "Sanders yet to correct claim Israel killed 'over 10,000' Palestinian innocents." Michael Oren, former Israeli ambassador to the US, accused Bernie of "blood libel." The candidate himself flamed tensions further Thursday, stating during a Democratic debate in Brooklyn that Israel's response in Gaza in 2014 had been "disproportionate and led to the unnecessary loss of innocent life."

As I canvassed, I heard about these comments again and again. "We liked him until we heard his stance on Israel," one woman told me, before creaking her door to a close. Another woman said that while she liked Sanders' domestic policy ideas, she worried he would take a hardline against Israel to prove a lack of bias toward the Jewish state.

"Don't you know that Bernie is an enemy of Israel?" one man asked, looking at me with pity as I explained what I was doing on his front doorstep.

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