Bernie Sanders, the current Democratic presidential front-runner, could become the first-ever Jewish major-party nominee. He once lived on a kibbutz. His Brooklyn accent is echoic for many Jews.
But the senator from Vermont illustrated this week why he’s a lightning rod for the Jewish community, announcing that he would boycott the massive American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference that starts Sunday and accusing its leaders of welcoming bigots.
‘‘The Israeli people have the right to live in peace and security. So do the Palestinian people,’’ Sanders tweeted. ‘‘I remain concerned about the platform AIPAC provides for leaders who express bigotry and oppose basic Palestinian rights. For that reason I will not attend their conference.’’
His decision widened a divide among American Jews over his candidacy.
The split reflects a growing left-right rift, those who study the community say. It spans questions of whether and how to support Israel and what qualifies as anti-Semitism, and whether Jewish ideals of justice are more about issues lIke prison legislation, wage gaps, and the environment, or protecting the Jewish state and Jewish identity.
‘‘Sanders is, for some Jews, the encapsulation of what they see as Jewishness. And to some he’s the antithesis,’’ said Yehuda Kurtzer, who studies Jewish identity as president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America.
‘‘Among involved Jews, I think he created a bigger problem for himself than he needed to,’’ Kurtzer said of Sanders’ decision to skip the annual Washington gathering attended by nearly 20,000 people. ‘‘He’s catering to a small percentage of his Jewish base that wants him to declare war on AIPAC.’’
AIPAC called Sanders’ tweet ‘‘truly shameful’’ and said its conference is ‘‘mainstream, bipartisan.’’
Such debates are most important to affiliated Jews — the community center directors, synagogue presidents, and rabbis from across the country who regularly attend the conference. But American Jews are changing, and AIPAC’s status as a moderate, bipartisan ally of Israel is as well.
A Pew Research poll conducted in May found that 42 percent of Jews believed the Trump administration was favoring Israel ‘‘too much’’ compared with the Palestinians. Forty-seven percent said the balance was about right. In 2013, a major Pew poll of US Jews found that 43 percent said caring about Israel is an essential part of being Jewish — about the same number as ‘‘having a good sense of humor.’’ It found that 38 percent of Jews under 29 said they were not attached to Israel, compared with 23 percent of Jews over 50.
Jonathan Greenblatt of the Anti-Defamation League tweeted that Sanders’ announcement was ‘‘offensive,’’ especially given a rise in anti-Semitism and anti-Jewish violence across the country.
‘‘At a time when we see a surge of real hate across the US, it’s irresponsible to describe AIPAC like this. @ADL proudly will be there,’’ his tweet said.
Sanders was asked about his choice in Tuesday night’s debate and what he would say to Jews who are worried. ‘‘I am very proud of being Jewish,’’ he answered, before calling Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ‘‘a reactionary racist.’’
‘‘I happen to believe that what our foreign policy in the Mideast should be about is absolutely protecting the independence and security of Israel,’’ Sanders said. ‘‘But you cannot ignore the suffering of the Palestinian people.’’
Sanders has also taken heat from some Jewish leaders for his welcoming of support from freshman Democratic Representatives Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, critics of Israel who support a boycott movement. Sanders does not support the boycott effort.
Jewish institutional leaders responded to Sanders’ AIPAC decision by emphasizing unity and dialogue.
‘‘If Sen. Bernie Sanders wants to lead the Democratic Party and the nation, I hope he can speak to, engage with, and even debate everyone,’’ tweeted Rabbi Rick Jacobs, head of the Reform Movement, the largest denomination of Judaism in the US.
But US Jews are less affiliated with denominations and institutions than other US faith groups. One third of Jews say they are not part of any Jewish denomination, Pew found in 2013. They may not particularly care whether Sanders, a frequent critic of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, speaks at AIPAC.
The organization in previous decades was seen as less partisan, but its strong support for Netanyahu during the Obama administration, even as the Israeli leader clashed with the then-president, thrilled Republicans and offended many Democrats.
In 2016, many conference attendees were surprised by the raucous welcome given to then-candidate Donald Trump, who criticized President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in his remarks. Hundreds had walked out in protest when Trump took the podium.
Sanders, who was also a candidate that year, declined to attend the conference but sent a video. AIPAC had allowed candidates in the past to address the conference that way. But the group said it had changed its policy that year and declined to play Sanders’ message.
Jeremy Burton, head of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, said he’s hearing various responses to Sanders’ decision.
The one common theme, he said, is anxiety among Jews about having a Jewish nominee or president. That’s true whether the person is Sanders or Mike Bloomberg, the media executive and former New York mayor who also is rising in polls and will address AIPAC.
‘‘At the end of the day, Jews know anti-Semitism is part of the DNA of Western civilization,’’ Burton said. ‘‘And when people are despairing or feeling at a loss, somehow Jews will get blamed.’’