April 21, 2024
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Candidate Analysis: The Bernie Sanders Effect

If you have an affinity towards Israel and its close bond with the U.S., listening to the opposing side can be sobering.

James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, summed it up best, saying there is a “dialectic relationship” between the rise of Sanders and Democratic voters’ shift on Israel. Wihad al-Tawil, a graduate student of Middle East studies and strong Sanders supporter offered a similar analysis. “He made it a mainstream issue. Before Bernie Sanders, I think it was off limits or taboo to speak out against Israeli atrocities against Palestinians.” A HuffPost headline following the October J Street conference declared, “Bernie Sanders Just Proved It’s a New Era for How Democratic Candidates Talk About Israel.”

Sanders’ impact since coming onto the national scene cannot be overstated. In 2016, he was the first major candidate to boycott an AIPAC convention, paving the way for most others to follow suit this election cycle. He recently was also the first to suggest conditioning aid to Israel based on its policies, forcing Elizabeth Warren to keep pace and nudging other candidates leftward in their public statements.

In a 2016 CNN candidate debate in Brooklyn with Hillary Clinton, Sanders railed about the disproportionate use of force by Israel in its 2014 war with Hamas. Clinton responded with a spirited defense of the Jewish state. She spoke of Hamas placing its weapons in civilian enclaves and reminded Sanders, “Israel left Gaza. They took out all the Israelis. They turned the keys over to the Palestinian people. And what happened?” Although considered mainstream talking points at the time, few if any Democratic candidates would dare go that route in today’s climate. They simply can’t afford to risk the ire of the party’s substantial progressive wing. It’s just one more example of the new reality Sanders has helped create.

It’s not totally black and white, though.

Raised as a secular Jew, Sanders has said he’s not actively involved in any organized religion. However, he did have a bar mitzvah and attended afternoon Hebrew school growing up. His interest in politics began at a young age. He noted that Hitler won an election “and 50 million people died as a result, including 6 million Jews.” It energized him to always support what he considers the disenfranchised and powerless, often unconditionally. As we know, the path he chose for this mission was a lifelong involvement in socialist organizations and causes. Despite his almost total embrace of the Palestinian narrative—his claim several years back that “over 10,000 innocent people were killed in Gaza” during the 2014 conflict, seven-fold higher than even the disputed Palestinian count, is a stark example—he vehemently denies that his criticism of Israel makes him anti-Semitic. There is little evidence to suggest he is.

In fact, while mayor of Burlington, Vermont, he was one of the first local city officials in the country to approve what has become a Chabad tradition of placing a large menorah in front of city hall on Chanukah. This was allowed despite strong objections from the ACLU, his close ideological allies. Invited by Chabad, he even presided over the ceremony, recited the brachos and lit candles, and fought in court against the ACLU and other local activists when they continued to challenge his decision in subsequent years. He offered that his belief in religious freedom was his reason, but perhaps his need to defend the perceived underdog, in this case a tiny Jewish population, was part of it.

Although Sanders may be able to maintain his highly critical stance on Israel without being anti-Semitic, many of his most vocal supporters and surrogates can’t or won’t make that distinction. Either because he doesn’t want to alienate his base or is ideologically blind to its reality, Sanders has not challenged statements or tweets that clearly cross the line. In fact, in a window into a potential future Sanders presidency, the senator noted regarding Rashida Tlaib, “I will look to her for her leadership in congress under a Sanders’ administration.” When Linda Sarsour declared how proud she would be to “elect the first Jewish-American president this country has ever seen,” she clearly didn’t have a Joe Lieberman or Mike Bloomberg in mind.

As the Democratic Party has moved further left, remarks from Sanders have become noticeably more provocative. During his 2016 debate with Hillary Clinton, Sanders commented, “There comes a time…we are going to have to say that Netanyahu is not right all of the time.” Just three years after that benign assessment, he now charges that Israel is run a by a “right-wing, racist government.” During the J Street conference, where Sanders received the loudest welcome of any candidate (that’s a whole other story), he extended himself further than anyone with that eye-opening recommendation that some of the annual aid to Israel be earmarked for Gaza and “go right now into humanitarian aid,” failing to address Hamas’ history of intercepting such funds again and again.

Incensed at the Trump administration’s assessment that Israel’s West Bank settlements aren’t illegal, Sanders tweeted that the president is “pandering to his extremist base.” Since white nationalists, his acknowledged extremist base, don’t stand to benefit from a change in settlement status, he seems to be placing evangelicals and ardent Zionists into that same bucket. In the latest Democratic candidate debate in November, there was no letup. When the topic turned to Saudi Arabia, Sanders used the opportunity to segue into yet another attack on Israel.

Although it is unlikely Sanders will be successful in his bid for the White House, it almost doesn’t matter. The latest annual Gallup poll on attitudes towards Israel and the Palestinians, conducted earlier this year, revealed that although 59% of Americans sympathize more with Israel, vs. 21% with Palestinians, the former figure was the lowest since 2009. Most dramatic was the gap among progressives, where almost as many now sympathize more with Palestinians (38%) than with Israel (41%), a far cry from the average 17-point differential enjoyed by Israel from this segment during the 2013-2016 period. Although the backlash against Trump and his policies, the pounding Netanyahu has received from the press and the relentless demonization of Israel by the BDS movement could be contributing factors, there is no denying James Zogby’s observation about the Sanders effect.


Robert Isler is a freelance writer who lives in Fair Lawn. He can be reached at [email protected].

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