The voters who delivered Bernie his primary win in Israel

'Anybody who says that Bernie Sanders is against Israel does not know what they’re talking about'

Michael Stokes/Flickr

Bernie Sanders attends a rally at Hahnemann Hospital in Philadelphia on July 15, 2019.

When the votes were counted up in Israel this month, the result was too close to call. 

That was the case in not just the country’s third consecutive national election, but also among the votes cast in the Democrats Abroad primary in the Jewish state. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) beat out former Vice President Joe Biden by just two votes, leaving them each with 37% of the vote share.

To many, a Sanders victory among Israeli voters may have come as a surprise. After all, the senator boycotted AIPAC’s conference this year, calling it a “platform for bigotry,” and allies of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have said supporters of Israel could never back Sanders.

Jewish Insider spoke with a handful of Sanders supporters in Israel to better understand why they are backing the senator from Vermont who once spent several formative months on a kibbutz in northern Israel. 

Eli Cook, 38, who moved to Israel with his family at age 12, said he spent months trying to convince his Israeli-American friends to vote for Sanders — posting on Facebook and Twitter and even hosting a “victory party” after his New Hampshire primary win. 

He was hopeful that the senator’s outlook on social and economic issues would be able to “shift the narrative” in both the United States and Israel. And Cook rejects any claims that Sanders would be dangerous for Israel as president.

“Anybody who says that Bernie Sanders is against Israel does not know what they’re talking about,” Cook, a professor and historian at the University of Haifa, told JI. “I think that Bernie Sanders’s success is great for Israel, the best possible thing for Israel… We need a president in the White House who will be more even-handed.” 

Cook said a more balanced mediator would benefit not just the Palestinians but also Israel. “At the end of the day, the occupation is going to be disastrous for Israelis,” he said. “I think the path that we’re going down right now is going to be disastrous for Israel.”

That sentiment was echoed by Moshe Chertoff, a peace activist who made aliya to a kibbutz in 1974 through Hashomer Hatzair — the same socialist-Zionist youth movement that brought Sanders to a kibbutz for several months in the 1960s. 

Chertoff claimed that the Israeli government and the mainstream Jewish establishment in the United States have pushed the idea “that if you are anti any Israeli government policies, you automatically are anti-Israeli, which also means you’re automatically antisemitic,” he said. “And I think that is a horribly, horribly wrong approach to dealing with the issues in Israel and in the United States.”

The 66-year-old political organizer, who also serves as a conference committee member and field organizer for Meretz, said he strongly identifies with the vast majority of Sanders’s opinions. 

“I realized as this guy talks, I have to feel my lips to see if they’re moving or not, because he’s saying everything exactly as I — a kibbutznik — would say,” Chertoff said. “I was enthralled that somebody in the United States is talking about this stuff,” referencing Sanders’s social and economic policies as well as his attitude toward Israel. 

But not all of Sanders supporters in the Jewish state are quite as gung-ho. New Jersey native Becky Rowe, who now lives on a moshav in northern Israel, isn’t a huge fan of the Vermont senator, but nevertheless voted for him this year. 

“I agree with him but I don’t like him,” she told JI, citing as drawbacks his refusal to register as a Democrat, his advanced age and his recent war against AIPAC. “I was pissed off that he didn’t go to AIPAC,” she said. “I thought he had an opportunity to have a progressive person tell the truth — tell it like it is. Pick up the gauntlet — you could have gone and you could have represented the many, many, many American Jews who agree with you.” 

But Rowe, 60, said her adult sons — who all voted for Sanders — ultimately convinced her to cast her ballot for the senator. 

“I listen to them, I learn a lot from them,” she said of her children. “I agree with [Sanders] politically and economically… and the system has become so ugly. The wealth of the wealthy has changed over the past 10 years so exponentially.” The appeal of Sanders, she said, is that “he tells it like it is.” 

David Vanunu, 18 — born in Israel to American parents — is a first-time voter this year in both the U.S. and Israel. And Vanunu’s concern for the future of the Jewish state was a major factor in their support of Sanders. 

“I think he’ll be a perfect president for Israel and the region should he be elected to office,” Vanunu said. “Israel for the past two decades has not been at its best. We have a very problematic government here and the U.S. can’t be aiding it blindly. I think America should stand with Israel, but at the same time it has to push Israel and its government in the right direction — and none of the previous administrations have done that.”

Kibbutz Sha’ar Ha’amakin, where Sanders spent several months in the 1960s. (Wikimedia Commons)

The results in Israel position the country as an outlier among expats who voted in the Democrats Abroad primary. Among all votes cast in that primary, Sanders won 58% of the vote, compared to 23% for Biden, while in Israel the vote was a statistical tie. That didn’t particularly surprise Heather Stone, the chairwoman of Democrats Abroad Israel. 

“I think that the people here [in Israel] are a little bit more conservative rather than progressive,” she said. A more interesting outlier in Israel, Stone pointed out, was former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who received 8% of the vote among Israelis, compared to just 2% among all votes abroad.

“A candidate like Bloomberg sort of changes the mix,” she said. “It was an interesting primary period.” 

The Bloomberg campaign conducted outreach among Democratic voters in Israel, though he dropped out of the race on March 4. Voters in the Democrat Abroad primary were able to cast their ballots online beginning February 18, and in-person voting events were held March 3 in Tel Aviv and March 6 in Jerusalem.

The results of the Democrats Abroad primary in Israel don’t necessarily reflect the views of all American primary voters in the country. Most voters can also choose to cast absentee ballots with the states they — or their parents — last lived in. Voting via Democrats Abroad is a draw for some, as their vote is generally more powerful, with approximately 40,000 Americans living abroad sending 13 pledged delegates to the convention.

With Biden leading Sanders 1,217 to 914 among pledged delegates, most analysts believe the race is all but a done deal. But both Vanunu and Chertoff rejected the idea that Sanders’s shot at the presidency is over. 

“I don’t think it’s inevitable,” Chertoff said. “Everybody has become socialist because of this virus,” he said of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. “So I’m not sure it’s over.”

And while the kibbutznik said he’ll be voting for whoever becomes the Democratic nominee, Vanunu has yet to make up his mind. 

“Based on everything so far — like [Biden’s] lack of leadership throughout the pandemic response and his current policies — no, I can’t say he’s earned my vote at the moment,” the teenager said. “And he has to earn it.”

Cook, meanwhile, believes it is clear Biden will become the nominee — and says the former vice president will have his vote come November. 

“The race is over — Bernie’s not going to win,” Cook admitted. “I will hold my nose and vote for Joe Biden. Just like I held my nose and voted for Hillary Clinton,” he said. “Clearly Biden and Clinton are light years better than Trump. There’s no debate there.”

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