Bernie Sanders is an Independent politician and candidate for President in 2016. He was born in New York on September 8, 1941 to Jewish working-class immigrants from Poland. Sanders was never especially religious, and according to one of his childhood friends, “Some of us went to Hebrew school, but mainly it was an identity in that it got us out of school on Jewish holidays.” Growing up, Sanders noticed innequality and economic disparity everywhere around him. After spending one year at Brooklyn College, Sanders transfered to the University of Chicago where he became heavily involved in the civil rights movement. He knew Dr. Martin Luther King personally, and worked with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). During his time at college and immediately after, Sanders participated in as well as organized many rallys, protests, sit-ins, and other activities. Bernie Sanders moved to Israel for six months following his college graduation and worked on a Kibbutz, before making his way back to the United States and settling in Vermont. For many years the identity of the Kibbutz Sanders was involved with in Israel remained a mystery, but in February 2016 an article in the Haaretz archive from 1990 was uncovered in which Sanders told israeli Intelligence correspondent Yossi Melman that he stayed on Kibbutz Sha'ar Ha'amakim in the North.
When he first arrived in Vermont Bernie lived in poor conditions in an abandoned mill with dirt floors, and made a living writing as well as doing various odd jobs. Sanders found his calling after attending a local meeting of the Liberty Union political party, and over the next decade ran two Senate campaigns and two Gubernational campaigns as the party's nominee, but was unsuccessful. In 1977 he left Liberty Union and took a break from politics, attempting to make a living producing educational films for college students. After being convinced by friends that he still had a strong base of support in Burlington, Sanders launched a mayoral campaign in 1980, and strategized to knock on as many doors as possible and address the issues that truly concerned the citizens. In his first political victory, Sanders was elected Mayor of Burlington, Vermont in 1981. He won the election by a margin of only 12 votes. After serving as Mayor, in 1990 he successfully ran a campaign for the U.S. House of Representatives and was elected as an Independent. While serving as a Representative, Sanders earned a reputation for taking risks and tackling issues that others were not willing to touch. He was vehemently against the Iraq war, citing the adverse consequences it may have on the economy and the human cost as well. Despite his opponent's far superior funding structure, Sanders defeated Richard Tarrant in the 2006 Senate race.
Bernie Sanders has made a career out of being an unorthodox politician, fighting for middle and working class Americans, and against the influence of big money in politics. He has vocally opposed the Citizens United decision and has raised all campaign funds from private citizens and labor unions. Bernie has a reputation for not talking to lobbyists or special interest groups, instead taking on issues that the average American cares about.
His platform places a primary focus on equality issues, increasing tax rates for the wealthy, and providing increased oversight of Wall Street. He has proposed many times that the United States adopt a free college tuition system similar to the ones used in some European nations, is a proponent of marriage equality, and supports Planned Parenthood. Sanders has long worked for racial equality, and earned the endorsement of prominent African-American civil rights activist Dr. Cornell West in August 2015. After two terms as Vermont's Senator Sanders announced his candidacy for President in May 2015, seeking the Democratic party's nomination. Should he win the presidency, he will be the United State's first Jewish President.
Bernie Sanders held meetings with the Jewish community of Iowa, a pivotal primary state, during late September 2015. During these meetings he compared himself to Israel's first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, claiming that he believes Ben-Gurion was a Democratic socialist, a label he identifies with. The biggest obstacle facing Sanders is name recognition, and his campaign heavily focused on introducing him to voters who may not know who he is.
While reminiscing on his life and upbringing on NPR in early November 2015, Sanders recalled, “in the community that I grew up in, seeing people in the community who had numbers that were on their arms (pulls up sleeve) and these were the Nazis' identification numbers that they put on prisoners in the concentration camps. And I, certainly, was aware of the fact that much of my father’s family was killed in the Holocaust.” Speaking of his recent visit to the Poland village where his father grew up, he said, “it was a very traumatic experience for me as a young man to know that my father’s family was killed by Nazis - killed by Hitler. And that left - if not intellectually - at least an emotional part of me that would say: God, we have got to do everything we can to end this kind of horrific racism and anti-Semitism, and I’ve spent much of my life to fight that.”
In his book Why Bernie Sanders Matters, author Harry Jaffe delves into the background of the Vermont Senator. Bernie grew up in a tight-knit area of Brooklyn that was 80% Jewish, but did not live in an observant household. Jaffe described Sanders as a cultural Jew, explaining that he did have a Bar Mitzvah but his family did not have weekly Shabbat dinners. During an interview with Moment Magazine about the book, Jaffe stated based on interviews with Bernie's friends and family, “Bernard Sanders is not a practicing Jew in any way, shape or form. He's not an observant Jew in any way, shape or form. He married a Catholic woman. I would seriously doubt that he raised his one natural son as a Jew.” Throughout the book Jaffe explores how Bernie's upbringing in a liberal, heavily immigrant neighborhood, as well as his experience working on a yet unidentified Kibbutz in Israel, shaped his socialist-liberal values.
Sanders stated in People Magazine on January 20, 2016, “I am proud to be Jewish, and it's a very important part of my life.” Despite this, Bernie has painted himself as a non-participant in much of the Jewish faith, even professing to the Washington Post in January 2016 that he is, “not actively involved with organized religion.” The Presidential hopeful stated, “I think everyone believes in God in their own ways. To me, it means that all of us are connected, all of life is connected, and that we are all tied together.” When asked on the Jimmy Kimmel show about his religious beliefs, Sanders skirted the question and confidently said, “I am what I am. And what I believe in, and what my spirituality is about, is that we’re all in this together.” Bernie's brother Larry has been quoted describing his brother as “quite substantially not religious.”
Sanders is in favor of a negotiated 2-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and as mayor of Burlington, Vermont, in 1990 he called for the establishment of a Palestinian homeland alongside Israel. At the time it was quite novel to hear an elected official in the United States supporting this sort of action, and his position on the issue has not changed. At a press conference in 1988, Sanders allegedly told students at the University of Vermont that, “It is wrong that the United States provides arms to Israel. We are not going to be the arms merchant for Middle Eastern nations.” When questioned about these answers in 2015, Sanders campaign staff said that the school newspaper, who ran a story on Sanders visit to the University and the press conference, had misinterpreted and misrepresented the quote.
In 2001 Sanders was the only Jewish member of the House who disagreed with a resolution blaming all of the violence of the Second Intifada on Palestinian terrorism. Bernie Sanders was one of 45 representatives in 2004 who voted against a resolution expressing support for Israel's wall annexing Palestinian land in the West Bank, after the wall was deemed illegal by the ICJ. Sanders was one of 21 U.S. Senators who did not sign onto a resolution espousing unconditional solidarity with Israel during 2014's Gaza War.
Sanders told CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer on February 3, 2016, that he did not believe his identity as a Jew would hinder his ability to work with and compromise with Arab nations in the fight against ISIS.
An interview was uncovered from 1990 in the Haaretz newspaper archive, in which he said he would like to see the United States press Israel harder on the Palestinian issue, three years before the Oslo Accords. Sanders also stated during the interview that as a Jew he was embarassed by the Israeli's trade with Latin American dictators.
During early 2016 Bernie was continously questioned about his foreign policy experience, or percieved lackthereof. Shooting back at detractors, Sanders stated over and over, “The most important foreign policy issue in the modern history of this country was the war in Iraq. I was right on that issue, Hillary Clinton was wrong.”
Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton effectively tied at the Iowa caucus, with each candidate pulling in 50% of the vote. Although Hillary gave what amounted to a victory speech as 95% of precincts were reporting, the Iowa Democratic party stated that the race was in fact too close to call. At the 2016 Iowa caucus Bernie received more delegates than any non-Christian candidate ever has in American history. Bernie Sanders made history on February 9, 2016, when he became not only the first Jewish individual, but the first non-Christian individual, to ever win a Presidential primary in the United States. In the New Hampshire primary Bernie received 60% of the vote and 13 delegates, and Hillary Clinton received 38.3%. Bernie carried every demographic group in the primary. On “Super Tuesday” Sanders won the Democratic primaries in Colorado, Minnesota, Oklahoma, and his home state of Vermont. “Super Saturday” brought Bernie three more victories in Maine, Kansas, and Nebraska. Bernie won a huge upset on March 8, 2016 in Michigan, where the most recent polls had him down by 20 points. On March 22, 2016, Bernie scored victories in Utah and Idaho, after winning the Americans Abroad primary earlier in the week. After scoring a come-from-behind victory in Wisconsin on April 5, 2016, Sanders had won six of the previous seven states. Sanders momentum was brought to an abrupt halt on April 26, when Hillary Clinton defeated him in four out of five states, with Bernie only winning Rhode Island. In early May Sanders won the Indiana and West Virginia primaries, defeating Clinton in both by margins of over 5%.
Trying to downplay Sanders ties to Israel, the Clinton campaign stated following Sanders New Hampshire victory, “Bernie is a secular Jew, and I don’t think his religion influenced his stance on Israel.” Paul Hodes, a Clinton campaign spokesman, compared this to Hillary's “unshakeable bond with Israel.”
The Sanders campaign met with retired U.S. Army Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson in early 2016, who has an extensive record of criticizing Israel and her actions. Wilkerson has speculated that Israel may be behind chemical weapons attacks in Syria, suggesting that chemical weapons attacks by the Syrian government against their own people in 2013 may have been an “Israeli false flag operation.” He has described U.S. Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham as having their “hands out to the Jewish lobby,” and has referred to Israel as “predatory.”
A group of 40 Rabbis from all denominations of Judaism penned a letter endorsing the economic policies of Bernie Sanders on March 4, 2016. The Rabbis admired Sanders plans to address growing poverty and wage gaps, as well as raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour. The petition, posted by a group called Jews for Bernie, expresses “support for the economic reforms expressed by Senator Sanders in the hope that all candidates for public office will embrace the goal of an economically just society.”
When asked about reports that he was downplaying his Jewishness during the campaign at the March 6, 2016 Democratic debate in Flint, Michigan, Sanders responded that he is, “very proud to be Jewish,” and that being Jewish is, “so much of what [he is].”
A poll of Israelis conducted in February 2016 that included 499 Jews and 102 Arabs, concluded that Israelis strongly favor Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election. The poll found that 38% of Israelis support Clinton for President, while 23% support Donald Trump, and 7% support Bernie Sanders.
Sanders told MSNBC that he believes that anti-Semitism is inherent within the BDS movement. “I think there is some of that, absolutely,” Sanders said on March 22, 2016, when questioned about whether anti-Semitism is a driving force behind BDS. Sanders defended his stance, stating, “Israel has done some very bad things, so has every other country on earth. I think the people who want to attack Israel for their policies, I think that is fair game. But not to appreciate that there is some level of anti-Semitism around the world involved in that I think would be a mistake.”
During an interview with the editorial board of the New York Daily News in early April 2016, Bernie Sanders stated his recollection stands that Israel killed “over 10,000 innocent people” in Gaza during Operation Protective Edge. The CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, Jonathan Greenblat, issued a statement following the interview's publication in which he asserted that “even the highest number of casualties claimed by Palestinian sources that include Hamas members engaged in attacking Israel is five times less than the number cited by Bernie Sanders.”
The candidates choices for the Democratic Party Platform Drafting Committee were announced on May 23, 2016, and Bernie Sanders chose five out of fifteen. His choices included Dr. Cornell West, a vocal supporter of the BDS movement and Palestinian self-determination who has referred to Gaza as “the hood on steroids,” Dr. James Zogby, the President of the Arab-American Institute, and Democratic Representative from Minnesota Keith Ellison. Ellison has close ties to his home-state's Jewish community and is a supporter of Israel, but has also raised the call for greater consideration of Palestinian rights.
In mid-July 2016, emails released by Wikileaks showed how Democrat party leaders tried to undermine Bernie's campaign by trying to question his religion. In an email dated May 5, 2016, the CFO of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), Brad Marshall, asked in an email to the CEO of the DNC, Amy Dacey, if they could “get someone to ask his [Sanders's] belief.” Marshall went on, writing “does he believe in a God. He had skated on saying he has a Jewish heritage. I think I read he is an atheist. This could make several points difference with my peeps. My Southern Baptist peeps would draw a big difference between a Jew and atheist.” In the wake of the release of these emails, DNC chairwoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz resigned her position, and was hired by the Clinton campaign.
Sanders has been married twice: his first wife was Jewish but his current wife, Jane O'Meara Driscoll, is not.
Bernie Sanders conceded the nomination to Hillary Clinton at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on July 28, 2016, after receiving 1,894 delegates to Clinton's 2,807.
U.S. - Israel Relationship
- “I gotta tell you, I am not a great fan of President Netanyahu. I did not attend the speech that he gave before the joint session of Congress. I think it was opportunistic. I think he was using it as part of his campaign for re-election. I think he was being used or did use the Republicans to go behind the president’s back. And I think in that region, sadly on both sides, I don’t think we have the kind of leadership that we need.”
(Times of Israel, February 1, 2016)
- “The United States has got to work with the Palestinian people in improving their standard of living, which is now a disaster, and has been made much worse since the war in Gaza.”
(Times of Israel, November 18, 2015)
- “The United States will support the security of Israel, help Israel fight terrorist attacks against that country and maintain its independence. But under my administration, the United States will maintain an evenhanded approach to the area.”
(Haaretz, November 9, 2015)
- “Let me be very personal here if I may. I’m Jewish. My father’s family died in the concentration camps. I will do everything that I can to rid this country of the ugly stain of racism which has existed for far too many years.”
(Jewish Insider, October 29, 2015)
- “The United States of America is pouring billions of dollars into arms and into other types of aid in the Middle East. Has the United States of America used its clout, the tremendous clout that it has by providing all kinds of aid to the Middle East, to demand that these countries sit down and talk about a reasonable settlement which will guarantee Israel's sovereignty, which must be guaranteed, but will begin to deal with the rights of Palestinian refugees.”
(Alternet, July 2, 2015)
- “A Zionist? What does that mean? Want to define what the word is? Do I think Israel has the right to exist? Yeah, I do. Do I believe that the United States should be playing an even-handed role in terms of its dealings with the Palestinian community in Israel? Absolutely I do. Again, I think that you have volatile regions in the world, the Middle East is one of them, and the United States has got to work with other countries around the world to fight for Israel's security and existence at the same time as we fight for a Palestinian state where the people in that country can enjoy a decent standard of living, which is certainly not the case right now. My long-term hope is that instead of pouring so much military aid into Israel, into Egypt, we can provide more economic aid to help improve the standard of living of the people in that area.”
(Haaretz, August 18, 2015)
- “I have a problem with appropriating $2 billion dollars to Egypt and $3 billion dollars to Israel. Let’s take care of some of the problems we have at home first.”
(House Floor, 1991)
- “It is wrong that the United States provides arms to Israel. We are not going to be the arms merchant for Middle Eastern nations.”
(Press Conference at University of Vermont, 1988)
- “Please don't suggest that I think we normalize relations with Tehran tomorrow. We don't. But I would like to see us move forward, and hopefully some day that will happen.”
(Democratic Presidential Debate, February 4, 2016)
- “In terms of Iran and in terms of Saudi Arabia, of course they hate each other. That's no great secret. But John Kerry, who is I think doing a very good job, has tried to at least get these people in the room together because both of them are being threatened by ISIS.”
(Democratic Presidential Debate, February 4, 2016)
- “I think what we've got to do is move as aggressively as we can to normalize relations with Iran, understanding that Iran's behavior in so many ways is something that we disagree with: their support for terrorism, the anti-American rhetoric that we're hearing from some of their leadership is something that is not acceptable. On the other hand, the fact that we managed to reach an agreement, something that I very strongly supported, that prevents Iran from getting a nuclear weapon - and we did that without going to war - and that I believe we're seeing a thaw in our relationships with Iran is a very positive step. So if your question is, do I want to see that relationship become more positive in the future? Yes. Can I tell you that we should open an Embassy in Tehran tomorrow. No I don’t think that we should. But I think the goal has got to be, as we have done with Cuba, to move and warm relations with a very powerful and important country in this world.”
(Democratic Presidential Debate, January 18, 2016)
- “It's so easy to be critical of an agreement which is not perfect. But the United States has to negotiate with, you know, other countries. We have to negotiate with Iran. And the alternative of not reaching an agreement, you know what it is? It's war. Do we really want another war, a war with Iran? An asymmetrical warfare that will take place all over this world, threatening American troops? So I think we go as far as we possibly can in trying to give peace a chance, if you like. Trying to see if this agreement will work. And I will support it.”
(Haaretz, August 18, 2015)
- “The United States must do everything it can to make certain that Iran does not get a nuclear weapon, that Israel is not threatened by a nuclear Iran and that a nuclear arms race in the region is avoided.”
(The Hill, August 7, 2015)
- “I congratulate President Obama, Secretary Kerry and the leaders of other major nations for producing a comprehensive agreement to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. This is a victory for diplomacy over saber-rattling and could keep the United States from being drawn into another never-ending war in the Middle East. I look forward to learning more about the complex details of this agreement to make sure that it is effective and strong”
(Bernie Sanders Campaign Website)
- “While much more work remains to be done this framework is an important step forward. It is imperative that Iran not get a nuclear weapon. It also is imperative that we do everything we can to reach a diplomatic solution and avoid never-ending war in the Middle East. I look forward to examining the details of this agreement and making sure that it is effective and strong.”
(PoliticsUSA, April 2, 2015)
- “At this point, harsher sanctions won’t stop Iran’s nuclear program. Neither would a dangerous resort to military action. The sanctions currently in place have brought Iran to the bargaining table and current negotiations resulted in Iran freezing its nuclear program. And for the past year, Iran has been subject to heightened international inspections. All of those things have made us safer.”
(Response to Netanyahu's Congressional Address, March 3, 2015)
Hamas and the Situation in Gaza
- “The bottom line is that Israel must have the right to exist in peace and security, just as the Palestinians must have the right to a homeland in which they and they alone control their political system and their economy.”
(Bernie Sanders Campaign Website)
- “I think that Israel overreacted and caused more civilian damage than was necessary. They make the case, and I respect that, that they do try to make sure that civilians are not damaged. But the end result was that a lot of civilians were killed and a lot of housing was destroyed. There was terrible, terrible damage done.”
(Haaretz, November 9, 2015)
- “You have a situation where Hamas is sending missiles into Israel... and you know where some of those missiles are coming from? They’re coming from populated areas... Hamas has very sophisticated tunnels into Israel for military purposes. Hamas is very clear: their view is that Israel should not have a right to exist.”
(Mondoweiss, May 1, 2015)
- “I have always and will always be 100 percent supportive of Israel’s right to exist and live in peace and security. I also believe that lasting peace in the region will not occur without fair and respectful treatment of the Palestinian people. I believe that most Democrats agree with that position and that a strong consensus will be achieved at the Democratic National Convention.”
(Haaretz, May 27, 2016)
- “ I think that we will not succeed to ever bring peace into that region unless we also treat the Palestinians with dignity and respect, and that is my view... You can’t ignore that fact. And you can’t just be only concerned about Israel’s needs. You have to be concerned about the needs of all of the people of the region.”
(CNN, April 10, 2016)
- “I grew up in a Jewish neighborhood, I have lived in Israel, I'm a strong defender of Israel. But let me also say this, I think we cannot continue to ignore the needs of the Palestinian people and I would hope very much that I could move us forward in what has been so intractable over the years, bringing Palestinians, bringing Israelis together, bringing peace finally to the Middle East.”
(NBC, March 31, 2016)
- “I spent many months on a kibbutz on Israel, so I know something about Israel. Israel has got to be defended, has a right to exist, but you cannot ignore the needs of the Palestinian people.”
(JTA, March 22, 2016)
- “All I can tell you is I will make every single effort to bring rational people on both sides together so that hopefully we can have a level playing field, the United States treating everybody in that region equally. I know, I know there are people of good will in Israel and the Arab communities, this is not an easy task, but it is a task that we must pursue. We cannot continue to have for another 60 years with the kind of hatred and conflict that exists in the Middle East.”
(Jerusalem Post, March 9, 2016)
- “What is going on in the Middle East right now is obviously a tragedy, there’s no question about it. The sight of Israeli soldiers breaking the arms and legs of Arabs is reprehensible. The idea of Israel closing down towns and sealing them off is unacceptable. You have had a crisis there for 30 years, you have had people at war for 30 years, you have a situation with some Arab countries where there are still some Arab leadership calling for the destruction of the State of Israel and the murder of Israeli citizens. I don’t have a magical solution to that problem.”
(Times of Israel, February 1, 2016)
- “I believe in a two-state solution, where Israel has security and the Palestinians have a state of their own. The United States has got to work with the Palestinian people in improving their standard of living, which is now a disaster, and has been made much worse since the war in Gaza.”
“War is terrible unto itself. But I think that Israel overreacted and caused more civilian damage than was necessary (during 2014's Gaza war). They have very sophisticated weapons systems. They make the case, and I respect that, that they do try to make sure that civilians are not damaged. But the end result was that a lot of civilians were killed and a lot of housing was destroyed. There was terrible, terrible damage done.”
(Times of Israel, November 18, 2015)
- “Palestinians are entitled to a state of their own, and the United States should do what it can to make sure that state has a strong economy. Israel is entitled to live in security, not be attacked.”
(Washington Post, August 4, 2015)
- “I wholeheartedly support the new Obama administration is its commitment to expand our diplomatic presence in the region and to take a more active role in facilitating negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian leadership. A two-state solution must include compromises from both sides to achieve a fair and lasting peace in the region. The Palestinians must fulfill their responsibilities to arrest terrorists, confiscate terrorists’ weapons, dismantle terrorist organizations, halt all anti-Jewish and anti-Israel incitement, and recognize Israel’s right to exist. In return, the Israelis must end their policy of targeted killings, prevent further Israeli settlements on Palestinian land, and prevent the destruction of Palestinian homes, businesses and infrastructure”
- “Has Israel overreacted? Have they bombed U.N. facilities? The answer is yes, and that is terribly, terribly wrong.”
(Haaretz, August 18, 2015)
- “We are pouring billions of dollars in arms into Arab countries. We have the clout to demand they and Israel, who we’re also heavily financing, to begin to sit down and work out a sensible solution to the problem which would guarantee the existence of the State of Israel and which would also protect Palestinian rights.”
(Haaretz, August 18, 2015)
- “My plan is to tell Saudi Arabia that instead of going to war in Yemen, they, one of the wealthiest countries on Earth, are going to have to go to war against ISIS... To tell Qatar, that instead of spending $200 billion on the World Cup, maybe they should pay attention to ISIS, which is at their doorstep.”
(Third Democratic Debate)
- “ISIS is a brutal, awful, dangerous army and they have got to be defeated. But, Candy, this is not just an American problem. This is an international crisis. This is a regional crisis. And I think the people of America are getting sick and tired of the world and the region, Saudi Arabia and the other countries saying hey, we don't have to do anything about it. The American taxpayer, the American soldiers will do all the work for us.”
(Real Clear Politics, October 12, 2014)
Key Staff & Advisors
- Jeff Weaver: Campaign Manager
- Michael Briggs: Communications Director
- Revolution Messaging: Digital Media Firm
- Tad Devine: Senior Advisor
- Simone Zimmerman: Jewish Outreach Director