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Sanders Boycotts AIPAC Convention, Angering Many Jewish Voters


Bernie Sanders is still confident, despite his second-place finish last night in South Carolina. And if that confidence carries him all the way to the White House, he'd be America's first Jewish president. And yet, that prospect is dividing American Jews. Some welcome a Sanders presidency. Others have concerns. NPR's Tom Gjelten reports.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Jews have dealt with anti-Semitism for centuries. Among the tropes, the mythical notions is the idea that Jews are out to control the world. Some Jews fear that having a Jewish president in America would just give fuel to that idea.

Amanda Berman is CEO of Zioness, a progressive Jewish organization.

AMANDA BERMAN: To have a Jew as president is definitely a cause for concern for a lot of Jews. Jewish power tropes and, you know, questions of dual loyalty for Jews - are they loyal to America or for Israel? - those will be compounded by the fact of a Jewish president.

GJELTEN: But this fear may be felt mostly by older U.S. Jews, for whom the reality of anti-Semitism is most worrisome. David Harris, CEO of the American Jewish Committee, recalls when Joe Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew, was the Democrat's vice presidential candidate in 2000.

DAVID HARRIS: My parents' reaction was, oy, oy, oy. If something goes wrong, they're going to blame the Jews. The reaction of my wife and myself, the middle generation, was, isn't this wonderful? Look at how far America has evolved. It no longer matters if it's a Jew or not. And for my children, the reaction was, Mom, Dad, what's the big deal?

GJELTEN: These days, any Jewish anxieties about a Bernie Sanders presidency probably have more to do with his views on Israel, the security of which is important to most U.S. Jews. Sanders is boycotting this year's convention of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby group. He says the meeting, which opens today, will be a platform for bigotry.

Amanda Berman thinks Sanders is making a mistake.

BERMAN: Why are you attacking this organization that is so Jewishly associated? It doesn't really make a lot of sense why he wouldn't want to actually speak to the 20,000 Jews and allies who go to AIPAC and feel free to criticize the Israeli government if that's what he feels he needs to do.

GJELTEN: Sanders' call for a review of U.S. support for Israel goes well beyond what most other Democrats say. David Harris says some U.S. Jews fear Sanders' advocacy for that position is especially dangerous for Israel precisely because Sanders is Jewish.

HARRIS: They might fear that he would weaponize his Jewishness to kind of validate things that otherwise are not in the mainstream.

GJELTEN: But here, too, there may be a generational divide.

JOEL SWANSON: I agree with what he said about AIPAC.

GJELTEN: Joel Swanson, 32 years old, is a graduate student in Jewish history.

SWANSON: He said that AIPAC is hosting speakers who are bigoted against Muslims and are anti-Palestinian rights. And I think he's right about that.

GJELTEN: An AIPAC spokesman declined comment. A new poll shows younger Jews are far more likely than older Jews to view Sanders favorably. Swanson thinks Bernie Sanders is reviving another Jewish tradition, one that pre-dates the state of Israel - support for socialism. He says it was associated especially with the East European Jews who dominated New York Jewish culture in the early years of the 20th century.

SWANSON: A number of factors made Jewish socialism less salient as a political force in the latter half of the 20th century than it was in the first half. But I think we do see growing influence in reclaiming that tradition and in saying there are ways of being Jewish that don't center the state of Israel as formative to that identity.

GJELTEN: If that's true, it's unlikely to be reflected at the AIPAC conference opening today. The lobby promotes support for Israel no matter the changing political winds.

Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Gjelten reports on religion, faith, and belief for NPR News, a beat that encompasses such areas as the changing religious landscape in America, the formation of personal identity, the role of religion in politics, and conflict arising from religious differences. His reporting draws on his many years covering national and international news from posts in Washington and around the world.