Bernie Sanders’ Hollywood Jewish Problem

Despite the emergence of the first viable Jewish candidate for president, Hebrew Hollywood is on Team Hillary

Last Updated: April 26, 2016 @ 9:05 AM

Bernie Sanders might be the only viable Jewish candidate in American presidential history, but Hollywood’s Jewish community seems to think there’s something not quite kosher about him.

As Sanders sets his sights on California, which has emerged as a must-win state in the Democratic race for the White House, he may have to brace for a wave of resistance from Jewish leaders in Hollywood who view him as anti-Israel.

“He doesn’t understand the complexities of the Middle East,” Clinton supporter and one of Hollywood’s biggest Democratic donors Haim Saban told TheWrap. “It’s been proven over and over again.”

Saban, an Israeli-American media mogul, is just one on a long list of Jewish Hollywood power players increasingly underwhelmed with the senator from Vermont, particularly when it comes to his views on Israel. In fact, Hollywood’s biggest Jewish heavy hitters, including Steven Spielberg, J.J. Abrams, Jeffery Katzenberg, Barbara Streisand, Amy Schumer, Dustin Hoffman, Abbi Jacobson and Lena Dunham, are all on Team Hillary.

While Sanders does have a few recognizable Jewish celebrity backers of his own — including Sarah Silverman, Jeremy Piven, Zoe Kravitz, Art Garfunkel and Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig  — it’s nowhere near as impressive as Clinton’s.

From the beginning, Sanders has been slow to attract Hollywood’s Jewish movers and shakers, many of whom believe the Vermont senator has been deliberately downplaying his religious ancestry for political reasons.

When Sanders thanked supporters following his landslide victory in New Hampshire earlier this year, he spoke about being “the son of a Polish immigrant who came to this country speaking no English and having no money.”

The crowd cheered. But his words were like nails on a chalkboard for many Jews watching in disbelief. Rabbi Michael Paley of New York told the New York Times he was “surprised” that the Vermont senator failed to mention his father was a Polish Jewish immigrant, an important distinction.

Last month, Sanders was the only presidential candidate — Democratic or Republican — to skip the annual meeting of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the most influential pro-Israel lobby in the country. While Sanders cited a prior commitment, he was seen just hours later criticizing Israel during a CNN town hall, telling Wolf Blitzer that, “Overwhelmingly the United States time and time again has looked aside when Israel has done some bad things.”

Some believe Sanders was particularly harsh when describing Israel’s response to Gaza’s rocket attacks in 2014, which led to Operation Protective Edge, a two-month long bloody conflict.

“The kind of destruction that was wreked on Gaza during that war was way above what needed to be done for military purposes,” Sanders said.

To be fair, there are plenty of Jews and even Israelis who agree with Sanders’ assessment. But many in Hollywood believe Sanders’ condemnation lacked context. Israel did level swaths of Palestinian territory near the border with Gaza — essentially creating a buffer zone between it and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip — but, many point out, only after Hamas fired thousands of rockets on Israeli cities from those very same areas.

“A lot of people were surprised and disappointed he didn’t speak at AIPAC,” Los Angeles-based lawyer and Clinton fundraiser, Dana Perlman — whose mother is a Holocaust survivor — told TheWrap. “There was so much energy and excitement about a Jewish-American vice president when Joe Lieberman joined Al Gore’s ticket in 2000. I’m not seeing that energy when it comes to Sanders.”

Earlier this month, Sanders told the The New York Daily News that “over 10,000 innocent people were killed in Gaza. Does that sound right?” It wasn’t. In fact, it’s almost seven times the United Nations estimates. He then added that, “Hospitals, I think, were bombed.” Sanders did not mention, his critics note, that those hospitals also served as Hamas’ private launching pads for rockets aimed at Southern Israel and Tel Aviv. 

The Anti-Defamation League quickly urged Sanders to “correct his misstatements.”

“He is critical of Israel’s behavior based on misinformation,” Saban said. “If rockets are shot out of hospitals … targeting women, men, children — not soldiers — do you take out that rocket launcher … or not?”

And earlier this month, Sanders was forced to fire his national Jewish outreach coordinator Simone Zimmerman just two days into her new gig, after what some viewed as a vulgar Facebook post she wrote about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was revealed.

All that has taken a hit on Sanders’ polling numbers among Jewish voters, a problem that extends well beyond the Thirty-Mile Zone. While a recent Siena Research survey showed Clinton leading Sanders by a mere 4 percent (52-48), when it came to Jewish Democratic voters, Sanders trailed Clinton by a whopping 22 points (60-38).

“He doesn’t have a long-standing involvement with the Jewish community as Hillary does,” L.A.-based Democratic strategist and Clinton supporter Donna Bojarsky told TheWrap. “She obviously loves Israel.”

The Clintons have had a warm relationship with Israel for decades. Unlike President Barack Obama, who’s had a contentious, sometimes dismissive, relationship with Netanyahu, Hillary Clinton was able to find common ground with Israel’s hawkish leader.

“For me, it was very telling that during the Democratic debate in New York, she offered what I think was a very sympathetic portrait of probably one of the most controversial Israeli prime ministers in history,” Danielle Berrin, writer of the Jewish Journal’s weekly blog “Hollywood Jew” told TheWrap. “Her defense of Bibi came from a deep internalization of the challenges he faces.”

But Berrin does not believe Sanders hates Israel. She sees him as representing the views of an emerging generation of Jewish Hollywood power players who don’t necessarily have Israel at the top of their concerns when choosing a presidential candidate, and believe change in the Middle East will only come with intense international pressure.

Even so, Berrin says Sanders may never enjoy the kind of support and admiration from the Jewish community — in Hollywood or elsewhere — as the Clintons.

“To ask the Jewish community to get excited about Bernie Sanders when he’s not excited about the Jewish community is a tall order,” she said.

Sharon Waxman contributed to this report.