On a warm day last month at a Bernie Sanders campaign office in San Francisco, Joel Rubin was the only person wearing a suit.
It was a Wednesday, and the office — on Mission Street, surrounded by taquerias, vibrant murals and stores selling electronics and knick-knacks — was calm. About 10 volunteers were planning events and taking inventory of boxes of mailers, stickers and campaign posters in multiple languages. A young man named Dan, wearing a beard and shorts, sat by the door greeting walk-ins looking for something to do.
The job of Jewish outreach director for the Sanders campaign is not an easy one; Rubin serves as a liaison between Sanders and a contingent that, on the main, has been reluctant to support the Democratic Socialist from Vermont (by way of Brooklyn).
J. sat down with Rubin for an exclusive interview the day after his candidate’s first outright win of the primary season, in New Hampshire on Feb. 11.
At the time, Sanders was the Democratic frontrunner. Now, after a consolidation of the field behind Joe Biden, it has become the former vice president’s race to lose.
Rubin had just flown in from Los Angeles, where he participated in a panel discussion on Jewish issues with representatives from four other campaigns. “They all agreed with me on policy,” he said, referring to diplomacy in dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and supporting a two-state solution. “All I was saying was that we need an active American president to actually do it.”
Rubin, 49, is a progressive and a lifelong Democrat who has spent a career in foreign affairs. In 2008 he helped found J Street, the progressive pro-Israel organization that positions itself as a counterweight to AIPAC.
He was hired as a State Department official in the early 2000s, later becoming deputy assistant secretary of state for legislative affairs in the Obama administration. In that role, he worked to sell the Iran nuclear deal to Congress; he called the pact the “best, most verifiable way to prevent Iran from building a nuclear bomb.” He gained experience working as national security adviser for Sen. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey. And for three years he worked for the Ploughshares Fund, an anti-nuclear proliferation think tank.
Today he lives with his wife and three daughters in the D.C. suburb of Chevy Chase, Maryland, where he heads the political consulting firm the Washington Strategy Group.
He’s also an elected official himself. He serves on his town council.
Rubin checks every box for someone raised in the mainstream American Jewish community. He grew up in Pittsburgh and went to Hebrew school from kindergarten through 12th grade. He went to Brandeis University, where he majored in politics with a minor in Near Eastern studies, and studied abroad in Israel. His mother taught writing to Holocaust victims and edited a compendium of their stories. The largest synagogue in Pittsburgh, Beth Shalom, was co-founded by a group that included his great-grandfather.
And yet with all of Rubin’s establishment bona fides, his boss is one of the most polarizing figures in America — the one who most unsettles (and sometimes enrages) scores of op-ed writers, pundits and mainstream American Jews, particularly those who favor a muscular approach to issues surrounding Israel and Zionism.
As to being both an establishment figure and a committed progressive, Rubin laughed: “Welcome to my schizophrenia.”
Certainly, many progressive American Jews support Sanders, finding affinity in his social justice vision of the world, and seeing their own family’s story in his. Sanders’ worldview was shaped by the Holocaust, he often says — his father’s Polish family was wiped out by the Nazis.
And yet, according to a Pew Research Center poll released in January, only 11 percent of American Jews said they preferred Sanders among the candidates then running in the Democratic field, while a plurality, 31 percent, said they supported Biden.
A February poll from the Jewish Electorate Institute showed Jewish voters would still overwhelmingly support Sanders over Trump, but Sanders had the highest unfavorability rating of any Democratic candidate then running .
Rubin, though, sees things very differently.
Speaking about his own values, he says his Jewish upbringing is precisely what led him to his politics.
“It’s because I paid attention,” he said. “Everything I learned brought me to be a progressive on my values as an American. “
To the question of why I’m attracted to Bernie,” he said, “It’s because this is the fight of our time.
“We’re at a crisis moment in this country.”
Rubin cited climate change, the rise of white nationalism, problems surrounding health care, a yawning wealth gap and trouble abroad. On international affairs, Sanders “is just right, ” he said. He mentioned Sanders’ support for the Iran nuclear deal (“the best nuclear agreement ever negotiated by the United States with a hostile country,” Rubin said) and how Sanders advocates for a diplomacy-first doctrine and against “regime-change policy.”
And he said he prizes Sanders’ consistency. “These are not ideas he came up with because they were poll tested last month,” Rubin said “I’m looking at a candidate who makes it clear about what he’s trying to advance.”
Sanders transformed American politics in 2016 with an insurgent presidential campaign that moved the entire Democratic party to the left. But this year, with moderates uniting behind Biden following a dominant performance in South Carolina, the former vice president held a more than 150-point delegate lead as of March 13, and was polling well in many of the remaining primary states.
Even if Sanders does not win the nomination, it is likely that with a broad and passionate base of support he will put pressure on the Democratic Party’s official platform to move to the left, as he did four years ago. And that discussion will certainly involve Israel.
In 2016, Sanders appointed platform committee members who argued for inserting the word “occupation” into the party’s position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The effort failed.
Though he supports a two-state solution, and both Israeli and Palestinian rights to “live in peace and security,” Sanders has been highly critical of the Israeli government among the Democratic candidates.
There are a lot of Jews in America who want us to really lean in on promoting peace, and not just show deference to a right-wing Israeli government.
The 78-year-old, who spent time on a kibbutz in his 20s, has called the Netanyahu government “racist.” He skipped the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference because, he said, the lobbying group provides a platform for people who “express bigotry and oppose basic Palestinian rights.” Jonathan Greenblatt, national director and CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, called Sanders’ statement “offensive.”
Among Sanders’ supporters are sharp critics of Israel who have become lightning rods within the American Jewish community. One of Sanders’ supporters, Minnesota Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, was provocatively crowned “anti-Semite of the year” by the hardline website stopantisemitism.org. Last February, she tweeted that support for Israel in Congress was “all about the Benjamins.” In 2012, years before her election to Congress, she tweeted about the “evil doings” of Israel and wrote it had “hypnotized the world.”
Of Sanders’ controversial backers, Rubin’s response is straightforward: “Bernie is setting the policy.”
“These are our allies and surrogates and supporters,” he said of figures like Omar, activist Linda Sarsour and Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib, the first woman of Palestinian heritage to serve in Congress. “Bernie’s been very clear about his policy,” Rubin said. “He supports Israel; he supports its right to exist. He supports a two-state solution. He supports aid to Israel. And he does not support BDS [the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against Israel].”
“There is an idea, prevalent among some, that there are people on the left who “we need to excommunicate from the conversation.” he said. “I say it with pride. The level of excitement that I’ve seen from these communities about Bernie being Jewish is clear. It’s not in the background.
“He’s a champion for working communities, he’s a champion for diversity and he’s inspiring people.”
On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Rubin thinks there already is broad support for a diplomacy-first approach within the American Jewish community. And he’s asking some American Jews to think hard about what it means to be pro-Israel.
“The Jewish community has been having these internal convulsions now for a number of years,” he said. J Street added a “new layer for that debate.”
“There are a lot of Jews in America who want us to really lean in on promoting peace, and not just show deference to a right-wing Israeli government,” he said. “Which is what’s been the trend for a number of years.”
So what does the future hold for Rubin? Maybe electoral politics beyond his current town council. He has tried before; in 2016 he ran for Congress in a bid that earned about 1 percent of the vote. In 2018 he sought a seat in the Maryland House of Delegates, getting more than 5,000 votes in the Democratic primary.
Whether Rubin ends up with a foreign affairs job in a Sanders administration, continues his political consulting career or again seeks statewide office, his political vision has remained constant throughout his career, he says.
It is one shared by his current boss.
“I believe we all have the agency to shape the world around us,” he said. “It’s the truest of Jewish values that I’ve learned.”