In search of Sen. Sander’s backbone

Sanders at the Apollo

The polls after this week’s New York primary revealed an interesting phenomenon—-the vast majority of Jewish voters in New York City voted against the first Jewish candidate (a native New Yorker no less) to make a serious run for a major party nomination. In most instances, when a minority group candidate runs for office, there is a closing of the “group identity” ranks behind the candidate, not so with Jews and Sanders.

There may be a reason beyond his politics—his views on Wall Street and the banks and Israel may not have been the determinants—but a more fundamental reason that goes to his backbone and principle.
As a yardstick against which to measure the senator, a few days before the primary, Bill Clinton spoke at a Philadelphia event on behalf of Hillary. As he spoke he was confronted by Black Lives Matter protestors who heckled him for the anti-crime law he helped craft and signed in 1994. According to the hecklers, the law led to the mass incarceration of blacks that persists to this day—for which they hold Clinton, in part, responsible.

In one of the more compelling moments of this year’s electoral campaign, Clinton took the Black Lives Matter folks to task for not knowing what they were screaming about…. and he was right.
He gave an honest, factually accurate and impassioned quite long response to his accusers. He referred to the data that have emerged regarding the 22 year old crime bill and how wrong-headed the accusations against the Clintons and his legislation are. For more information see Prof. John Pfaff’s (Fordham University) analysis on NPR here.

There were ample reasons for Clinton to have been upset and to passionately defend his legislation and to not, as the Wall Street Journal editorialized, “kowtow to radical children with a political megaphone but no historical memory.” He firmly stood his ground and demonstrated backbone and a willingness to not bend to harassment, catcalls or ignorance.

Clinton’s conduct is in stark contrast to Sen. Sanders’ appearance at the Apollo Theater in Harlem a couple of days later. Sanders delivered his stump speech and proceeded to entertain questions from the audience.

Predictably, he criticized Bill Clinton’s defense of the 1994 crime bill, “I think the president owes the American people an apology for trying to defend the indefensible.” He clearly was not interested in the underlying realities of what prompted the legislation or its impact. But, Sanders is in a heated primary contest, he can ignore facts and arguments that don’t buttress his case, that’s politics and not terribly surprising.

But what he did later in the program is inexplicable and may well have turned off a large chunk of Jewish voters in New York.

The last audience question he took was from John Prince, who was wearing a Black Lives Matter pin:

You went to Israel for a year. As you know, Zionist Jews—I don’t mean to offend anybody—-they running the Federal Reserve, they running Wall Street, they’re running everything. What is your relationship to your Jewish community?….they are buying Harlem. If you’re in Bed-Stuy, Williamsburg, you see them—they are playing Monopoly. He’s part of them, yes, he’s part of them. That’s like saying ‘I don’t want to help the blacks out when I get the presidency.’

Sanders began, “Brother, brother…”—hardly the way to introduce a firm response to undisguised bigotry. Then he proceeded to say, “No, no, no, no, no that’s not what you are asking. I’m proud to be Jewish….my friend..” He then pivoted to his set piece on the Arab-Israeli dispute and why America has to “treat both sides with respect and equality.”

No indignation, no response to Mr. Prince that decried his stereotyping, his bigotry and his classical anti-Semitic tropes (“they’re running everything”); not a whisper of strength or backbone or anger. If Sanders is “proud to be Jewish” then simply saying “No, no, no” and reverting to his “I’m not soft on Israel” polemic was a strange way to evidence pride.

The weakness of his approach to hate was further reflected in the response to Prince by Sanders’ press secretary, Symone Sanders (a Black Lives Matter activist), who engaged with the bigot,
We can talk about it tomorrow…Bernie Sanders cannot speak for all Jewish people, but he’s more than willing to have a conversation…..I’m so glad we’ve had a robust conversation. [Emphasis added]
To the press secretary’s overture, Prince responded, “Why don’t we talk about the Zionist Jews that own every major corporation and media company?….I want to know why a 74-year-old Jewish man doesn’t want to talk about his religion…When have you ever met a Jew that did not care about other Jews?” he continued.

Having been in the world of combatting hate for over four decades, we have learned that “conversations” with bigots have no payoff. They view the world in stereotypes and traffic in irrational conspiracies— neither data nor “enlightenment” will alter their views. As Rabbi David Wolpe of LA’s Sinai Temple noted this week in reference to the Passover Seder, “Judaism has always recognized that evil in the world must not be reasoned with, but fought.” There is nothing to have a dialogue about with haters.

As a seventy four year old Jewish man, Bernie Sanders undoubtedly has had his encounters with anti-Semitism. But he seems not to have learned a basic life lesson about bigotry—that its purveyors have to be ostracized, exposed, denounced and embarrassed among the folks they appeal to—not proclaimed a “brother” or a “friend” and admonished in private (e.g. “we’ll have a conversation tomorrow”) away from the crowds that heard the venom.

The senator’s absence of backbone in the face of bald and undisguised hate may well have told New York’s Jewish voters all they needed to know about what is at the heart and spine of Bernie Sanders.