Bernie, Hillary, the Primary, and the Jews

I had started to tune out the US presidential election cycle a bit. It goes on and on and on and on and on. I’m not registered to a party so I don’t vote in primaries anyway, and, of course, I’m in Sweden, the land where Nordic Bernie(TM) (Bernt Sandersson?) has already won, right? I’ve been supporting Bernie from afar, but let’s say that a number of factors have been working together to take the edge off.

But Friday, April 15 was momentous. Really, it was April 14th that was momentous, but, being 6 hours ahead of ET, I didn’t know until the next day.

In the debate, on national TV, Bernie had apparently said some sensible things about Israel and Palestine. This would be huge.

If you’re an American Jew who still cares about Israel, and are also opposed to the occupation, you die a little bit in every election cycle. Every time, you hope that your candidate is going to get up there and say something, anything, that will provide a little bit of daylight, that will demonstrate to the world that the inherent right of self-determination for all peoples isn’t just some naive gentile trickery.

You want some external force to help heal the community, to make rational conversations about Israel possible, and to re-engage yourself with the idea that Israel could be symbol of possibility, and not one of fear and alienation. Since you believe that the occupation is leading Israel off a cliff, and with it the whole idea of a secular Jewry, you want to some hope that all of us lemmings will somehow turn in another direction before we go over.
In every election the candidates get their moment. And at this moment, each of these candidates, regardless of party, does exactly the same thing. They get in front of the American people, often in front of AIPAC, and preach fealty to Israeli policy. They pronounce that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East, bemoan the absence of a partner for peace, and say the word ‘terror’ a bunch of times. All the obligatory notes are hit. The nihilistic policies continue. The situation the Middle East gets worse, and Israel becomes increasingly irrelevant to diaspora Jews without a strong religious foundational devotion to it.

The affirmation of key shared points is an important ritual of the campaign cycle, and Israel certainly isn’t the only policy shibboleth in the US portfolio. Taxes, defense, crime, education, energy policy, transportation policy are other areas where the candidates are expected to repeat (typically Reaganist) mantras while wearing their lapel-flag pins. We speculate whether they actually meant what they said and whether they’ll pivot and show their true colors after they get elected. It turns out that it doesn’t matter very much, since they constrain their working area so much just by repeating these points.

So, whatever the Bern said, yeah, it sounded like a big deal. A even bigger deal coming from a Jew, from Brooklyn, born in 1941. Noam Chomsky notwithstanding, Sanders has the demography to be the person to be person pulling out self-hating Jew schtick in this situation.

Since this seemed important, Angie and me set to spend our Saturday night watching the debate. Here we were, thanks to the instant asynchronicity of TV watching brought to us by AppleTV and YouTube, able to witness the elevation of American political discourse to new heights.

It was not to be. Bernie finger-wagged excessively and cut a sclerotic figure bemoaning Hillary’s subservience to Wall Street and something that never quite connected about ‘judgement’. Hillary stared at Bernie while he spoke with a saccharine smile that suggested a corporate executive version of the Manchurian Candidate. She did, however, know the details and make coherent points, although in hindsight I’m not really sure what they were. Bernie felt sour and frustrated and fussy. If I had to pick one adjective for Sweden it might well also be fussy. Maybe it is the lot of the democratic socialists to turn fussbudget. We fell asleep.

I did eventually catch Bernie’s points on Israel and Palestine, which was actually more tightly circumscribed about the 2014 war in Gaza, but helpful nonetheless. Bernie was measured and evenhanded. The crowd cheered. This may have been the best moment of the debate. I’m sorry I missed it.

I’m back to leaning undecided (although I grant that the stance is largely academic for me). Either of these candidates will be fine. Bernie speaks from the heart and possesses a moral depth worth yearning for. Hillary will be a great manager and I think she has more principle than she gets credit for. Whomever our next President is, I (and you) will need to be a force of change and vision in each of our own small ways. No one is going to deliver it to us.

Happy Passover!