In New York, Sanders Tries to Push the Limits of Religion and Politics

The first Jewish presidential candidate with a shot at the nomination deployed a hijab-wearing spokeswoman on his behalf. But Sanders's defeat in Tuesday’s primary showed that playing down religious differences wasn't enough.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - APRIL 13:  Arab American Association of New York executive director Linda Sarsour speaks onstage at a campaign event for Democratic presidential candidate U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (not pictured) at Washington Square Park on April 13, 2016 in New York City.  (Photo by D Dipasupil/WireImage)
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - APRIL 13: Arab American Association of New York executive director Linda Sarsour speaks onstage at a campaign event for Democratic presidential candidate U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (not pictured) at Washington Square Park on April 13, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by D Dipasupil/WireImage)


This story has been updated.

NEW YORK — Linda Sarsour was growing playfully impatient as she stood among famous names — Rosario Dawson and Tim Robbins — before a swelling Washington Square Park rally for Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders. Wearing a cream leather jacket and pink hijab, the community activist tugged the ongoing speaker’s jacket to let him know it was her turn to talk, drawing a laugh from the crowd.

Standing nearby was Nathaniel Goldblum, 18, wearing a yarmulke and listening with a few friends.

“I think that a president who can unite all different faiths and cultures is all the more powerful,” said Goldblum, who supports Sanders — even if he wishes the Vermont senator’s policy toward Israel was stronger. “It could be worse,” he quipped.

As New Yorkers prepared to vote in the pivotal presidential primary here on Tuesday, Sarsour was a prominent face on Sanders’s campaign, speaking on his behalf in front of a crowd of more than 27,000 people at last Wednesday’s rally and in a post-debate spin room after the senator’s heated clashes with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton a day later.

Her efforts are interesting not only because she’s a Muslim supporting the first Jewish presidential candidate in U.S. history with a viable chance of winning the nomination. Sarsour is also an example of the excitement Sanders has generated among young voters who want to move beyond what they see as binary thinking when it comes to religion in politics.

“I’m a Palestinian-Muslim, but I’m also a progressive,” she said in an interview last week. Her cell phone rang constantly, and at one point she tucked it inside her hijab. She said Sanders’s stands on immigration, affordable education, and reproductive rights, for example, draw as much of a comparison to Clinton as the Jewish candidate’s willingness to have a hijab-wearing public advocate at a time of sometimes-fierce anti-Muslim political rhetoric.

Yet looking beyond the intersection of religion and politics has its limits — especially in New York.

Last week, Sanders suspended Simone Zimmerman, his just-hired national Jewish outreach coordinator, for making disparaging comments toward Clinton and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a Facebook posting last year. Nearly one in 10 New Yorkers is Jewish — 1.75 million statewide — and the issue of Israel is a habitually top talking point on the Empire State’s hustings.

Although Sanders is Jewish, polls indicated that Clinton would wallop him among Jewish voters in New York. On Tuesday night, she won the state convincingly, with about 58 percent of the vote to Sanders’s 42 percent.

New York billionaire Donald Trump, the Republican front-runner, also handily won the GOP primary, with the race called almost as soon as polls closed at 9 p.m on Tuesday. Trump bested his closest rival for the nomination, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who has aggressively courted conservative Jewish voters and donors, with an eye-opening 60.5 percent of the vote to Cruz’s 14.5 percent. Ohio Gov. John Kasich also beat out Cruz, with about 25 percent.

During last week’s last debate before Tuesday’s primary, Sanders and Clinton got into a heated exchange over Israel-Palestine.

Sanders reaffirmed his earlier statements that Israel’s use of force in Gaza in 2014 was “disproportionate.” At the same time, he said, Israel has the right to defend itself against attacks by the militant group Hamas, but the U.S. should take an “evenhanded” role toward Palestinians to forge a peace agreement.

“There comes a time when if we pursue justice and peace, we are going to have to say that [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu is not right all of the time.”

Clinton pointed out she had been at the table for negotiations going back 25 years, saying, “Describing the problem is a lot easier than trying to solve it.”

“I don’t know how you run a country when you are under constant threat, terrorist attacks, rockets coming at you,” she said. However, she said, a two-state solution, which she has long championed, “would give the Palestinians the rights and autonomy that they deserve.”

Underscoring the urgency of how to foster peace between Israel and Palestine — a challenge that has bedeviled U.S. diplomats for generations — a terrorist attack blew up a bus in Jerusalem on Monday. Clinton was quick to offer words of outrage and condolences; Sanders’s campaign did not put out a statement.

Abe Foxman, national director emeritus of the Anti-Defamation League and a Holocaust survivor, is one of several Jewish leaders who called for Sanders to fire Zimmerman. “It’s not about liking Bibi Netanyahu or not,” he said in an interview. “It’s part of growing up in an environment where these things are not as relevant, where they don’t still carry the memories, the scars of history.”

That’s exactly where the movement of young adults who are surging behind Sanders is coming from.

Carlos Menchaca, the first Mexican-American elected to New York’s City Council, first met Sarsour nearly a decade ago through community organizing. He said she is not shy about “confronting the old guard.”

“Their dividing walls are a sham and can be destroyed by powerful rhetoric,” Menchaca said, paraphrasing Sarsour.

Fellow community organizer Tarek El-Messidi, a Muslim Egyptian-American, said he urged Sarsour to support the senator, believing her influence in the community would inspire other Muslims to follow. “The whole fact that he was a Jewish candidate and put Linda in a spotlight not only destroys stereotypes about Muslims, but also destroys the stereotypes that Muslims and Jews can’t work together,” El-Messidi said.

Even Laura Rosenberger, who worked at Clinton’s State Department and now is her foreign policy advisor, said, “We cannot see this community simply through this lens.”

Sarsour says the 74-year-old Vermont socialist is the same incorrigibly “regular guy” under the spotlight’s glare. Before he goes on stage, “he just goes like this,” she said, imitating Sanders patting down his mad-scientist white hair, though hers is covered.

Born as one of seven children to parents she describes as Palestinian nationalists, Sarsour decided to wear a hijab at age 20, a year before the 9/11 attacks. At the time, it didn’t feel like much of a statement.

But after walking for hours after the planes crashed into the World Trade Center towers, she arrived home to find her mother without her own hijab. “We can’t wear it right now,” she told Sarsour.

In the days that followed, the newly created Arab American Association of New York called up Sarsour, then an aspiring English teacher, to help. In Sarsour’s first exchange, a woman from Morocco, with her infant son, said that men had come to her home and taken her husband. Herself a mother of three — wed in an arranged marriage at 17 — Sarsour eventually discovered he had been detained by the FBI due to mistaken identity. She is now executive director of the advocacy group.

“That was the beginning of my journey into post 9/11 America,” she quipped.

The journey continued over the next 15 years as she and others worked toward criminal justice reform on what she sees as the interconnected issues of Muslim surveillance, immigration, and the “Black Lives Matter” movement. Sarsour has predictably attracted some criticism from pro-Israel blogs and anti-Islam activists for her outspokenness.

But she is also critical of the state and federal government — and Clinton – for what she called tending to engage Muslims only to help law enforcement counter terrorism. “It reinforces this stereotype that Muslims have some kind of direct path to radicalization,” she said.

She was part of the media outreach team for Sanders following last week’s debate, and called him “the first presidential candidate who has gone as far as he has in humanizing the Palestinians.” She said Clinton sounded even more hard-line for Israel than President Barack Obama.

The Clinton campaign pushed back on Sanders’s attacks as unfair, and unrealistic. “Secretary Clinton believes that the U.S. and Israel are going to have their differences, but that those differences should be managed privately,” Rosenberger said. “Doing so in public could allow our enemies to exploit them.”

On April 12, the Sanders campaign announced Zimmerman’s hiring. Two days later, just hours before the April 14 debate, it suspended her; the campaign did not respond to Foreign Policy’s repeated requests for comment. But in between, on April 13, Sarsour seemed to hint at trouble in a tweet. “We are so proud of @simonerzim. We stand with her unequivocally & together we #FeelTheBern. We got you,” she wrote.

Sanders’s language on the enduring conflict between Israel and Palestine appears directed at younger, more liberal voters, Foxman said. He also said it is intended to divide.

Sanders “is playing to a certain attitude Israel is too strong, too aggressive,” he said. “This campaign this year is anti-establishment. So in many ways, support for Israel becomes an anti-establishment issue as well.”

Photo credit: D Dipasupil / Contributor