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A Changing Discourse: Why Bernie Sanders’ Critique of Israel Matters

Bernie Sanders’ calculated decision to criticize Israeli abuses was timid yet unprecedented, reflecting evolving views in the US.

Bernie Sanders' calculated decision to criticize Israeli abuses was timid yet unprecedented, reflecting evolving views in the US. (Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)

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Bernie Sanders’ criticism of Israel at the Democratic debate in Brooklyn, New York, on April 15 was not especially harsh. The presidential candidate said “we are going to have to treat the Palestinian people with respect and dignity” and that Israel used “a disproportionate attack” during the 50-day war in Gaza in 2014. These comments, as Ali Abunimah said on the Real News Network, are “really the minimum we should hear from any honest person.” Still, the fact that Sanders willingly said these things — in a presidential debate in the state with the highest Jewish population in the country — is both unprecedented and historic. “In the context of US politics, this exchange was extraordinary,” Abunimah said.

For more original Truthout election coverage, check out our election section, “Beyond the Sound Bites: Election 2016.”

This kind of critical dialogue, however modest, was previously unthinkable in presidential politics. It reflects a significant and developing change in how the country — especially young people, including young Jewish people — perceive Israel and its relationship with the United States. Sanders did not speak candidly about Israel in spite of political realities, but because of them. In this sense, Sanders’ debate performance in Brooklyn may turn out to be one of the more important moments of his campaign, and could have a lasting impact on the national debate about the Middle East. Sanders also declined to be among the 83 members of the Senate who sent President Obama a letter on April 25, urging him to increase the already massive amount of aid the US gives to Israel each year.

“The discourse has changed dramatically,” said Phyllis Bennis, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, in an interview with Truthout. “There is no longer a monolithic bloc of voters that support everything Israel does … the Jewish community is as diverse as it ever was.”

A New Political Calculus

Much of the left, broadly speaking, has been disappointed by Sanders’ reluctance to sharply criticize Israel for its war crimes and human rights abuses since he was elected to Congress in 1991. Prior to coming to Washington, Sanders had been rather critical of the Israeli government, as Rania Khalek observed in The Electronic Intifada. In 1988, while still serving as the mayor of Burlington, Vermont, Sanders called Israel’s treatment of Palestinians “an absolute disgrace,” and suggested the United States attempt to “change the behavior” by withholding aid to Israel. But since coming to Washington, Khalek writes, Sanders has “struck a very different tone.”

“The discourse has changed dramatically. There is no longer a monolithic bloc of voters that support everything Israel does.”

For most of his career in DC, he has answered questions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with the same vague response, urging “both sides” to work toward peace. At times his timidity resulted in heckling, even in front of friendly crowds in Vermont. On several occasions he has supported one-sided resolutions in Congress that supported Israel’s most destructive attacks in Lebanon and Gaza that didn’t contain a word of concern for the many innocent civilians who were on the receiving end of Israel’s weapons, which are paid for, in part, with US tax dollars. This has understandably frustrated some on the left, such as the Socialist Worker’s Ashley Smith, who in May 2015 argued that Sanders “supports Israel consistently, even after its recent escalations of the slaughter of Palestinians in Gaza.”

Some, however, have suspected that Sanders’ approach is about political survival in a toxic environment. One such person is Norman Finkelstein, a well-known scholar and critic of Israel’s policies. Finkelstein has written numerous books and papers that have taken on orthodoxies in the academic world, leading to very public debates with apologists for Israeli crimes such as Harvard University’s Alan Dershowitz. These controversies led to Finkelstein being denied tenure at DePaul University in 2007.

“My guess is that Sanders knows the truth but for political reasons he can’t say it. I [kind of] don’t have a problem with that,” said Finkelstein in an interview from February. “If you’re going to say some bromides and clichés every once in a while so [you] can be spared yourself the wrath of the lunatic Israel lobby, it’s OK in my book.”

Whatever Sanders’ reasoning has been in the past, his performance on the debate stage in Brooklyn indicated that the political climate has changed. Sanders wanted this debate, as was evidenced by him being the only candidate in either party to turn down an invitation to speak at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s (AIPAC) annual conference. He then gave a speech from Utah that was addressed to AIPAC, a staunch supporter of Israel’s most hawkish policies and one of the more powerful lobbying groups in the United States. Sanders’ speech from Utah, like his comments in New York, indicated a calculated decision to raise the issue of abuses committed by the Israeli government. In the speech, he lamented the expansion of settlements in the West Bank, which he said “undermines the peace process,” and decried “disproportionate responses to being attacked.” Sanders clearly wanted to further emphasize his differences with Hillary Clinton, who gave a speech at the AIPAC conference that Slate writer Michelle Goldberg described as a “symphony of craven, delusional pandering.”

The fact that criticism of Israel is now seen by the Sanders campaign as a shrewd political move is a clear indicator of just how significant the changes in US discourse on Israel have been.

The Surprising Media Reaction

Another clear indicator of how much the debate about Israel has changed was the reaction to Sanders’ remarks from various media outlets, as well as advocacy groups. Of course, the usual suspects smeared him. National Review proclaimed, “Bernie Smears Israel — it’s worse than we knew.” Alan Dershowitz wrote an op-ed for Fox News, arguing that Sanders demonstrated “abysmal ignorance” and a “pervasive bias.” Anne Bayefsky said on Twitter, “Jewish #BernieSanders slanders Jewish state to win Democratic votes. Pathetic.”

“Once the silence is broken, the floodgates open. You can see how frightened the establishment is.”

But those types of articles were inevitable. What was truly surprising — and telling — was the surprisingly receptive way in which many mainstream media outlets reacted to Sanders’ comments. For many years, the dominant media has demonstrated a major bias in favor of Israel. For instance, The New York Times was tenacious in covering and criticizing Iran for not being transparent for its International Atomic Energy Agency inspections. Yet, when Israel flat-out refused the agency’s requests to have its nuclear arsenal placed under oversight, the paper of record made no mention of it. The Times also buried reports about two separate Human Rights Watch reports that blamed Israel for war crimes in 2006, devoting less than 400 words to both reports combined, all printed deep in its back pages. Yet, later that year, when the American Jewish Congress published a report by the Center for Special Studies, chaired by Efraim Halevy, former head of Israel’s Mossad and other former Israeli intelligence officials, the Times devoted a front-page story of 42 paragraphs and 1,500 words to the report.

These are just two examples of what amounts to decades of an institutionalized bias in favor of Israel. Volumes have been written about the subject and Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting also has scores of articles documenting instances of pro-Israel bias in most of the dominant media in the United States.

So it was natural to expect Sanders to be maligned in articles and columns across the corporate media after he made his critical comments. But, in many instances, this was not the case. The Washington Post, which has hardly been a haven for pro-Sanders coverage this year, published an article by Paul Waldman praising Sanders’ exchange for having “widened, just a little, how we talk about this issue. And in the process, it demonstrated the value of Sanders’ candidacy.” Roger Cohen, in a New York Times op-ed, wrote, “Sanders struck a blow for honest and more open debate by raising issues seldom broached in an American presidential campaign.”

ABC News quoted Sarah Yerkes, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, saying, “The way Sanders humanized the Palestinians is, frankly, remarkable for a major presidential candidate.” An article on CNN Politics remarked that “Sanders’ nationally televised stance could represent a watershed moment in Democratic politics, as the sole Jewish candidate in the race — and only one to have lived in Israel — smashed a taboo that could lead others to follow suit.”

Sanders also received praise from a number of Jewish groups, including J Street, which called his statement “a groundbreaking moment for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans,” and Jewish Voice for Peace, which stated that Sanders “showed that the movement for Palestinian rights is shifting the discourse at the highest political levels.”

This level of praise from news outlets that can generally be counted on to provide coverage that is biased in favor of Israel — and against Sanders’ candidacy — is a surprising development. It also backs up the notion that Sanders’ comments about Israel were of historical significance and reflect a significant change in how Americans discuss the Middle East.

Shifting Attitudes on the Middle East

Noam Chomsky, who has been writing about these issues for decades, said that what stood out to him most during the debate was the audience’s reaction to Sanders’ remarks.

“I was struck by the applause,” he told Truthout. “Attitudes are definitely shifting among younger people.”

Chomsky’s observations are confirmed by polling, and the changing dynamics have become a cause for alarm among Israel’s most hawkish supporters. “Shifting demographics are reshaping American politics, and supporters of Israel must understand how these trends stand to reshape U.S. public opinion toward Israel,” concluded a report by the Jewish Policy Center’s inFocus Quarterly in 2013. The paper argues that a trending ­”generational gap in support for Israel” presents “substantial challenges for the longstanding, solid, bipartisan support for Israel in U.S. public opinion — a critical pillar of the U.S.-Israel relationship.”

It has long been considered career suicide for a politician to utter a critical word about Israel.

A 2014 Pew report showed that people between the ages of 18 and 29, polled during Israel’s strikes on Gaza, blamed Israel for the current violence, more than Hamas — a remarkable statistic given that Israel is an ally that gets $3 billion in support from the US, while Hamas is officially labeled a terrorist group by the US State Department. A Gallup poll published around the same time revealed that 51 percent of millennials viewed “Israel’s actions in the current Middle East conflict” as “unjustified.”

It is not just millennials whose views are shifting. A 2014 study by the Brookings Institution showed that 67 percent of Americans oppose Israeli settlements in Palestine. This number is 75 percent among Democrats. (Notably, young people are far more likely to affiliate with the Democrats than the Republicans.) Moreover, 39 percent of Americans believe the United States should impose sanctions on Israel if the settlements continue to expand. These trends are all the more jarring when one considers how one-sided the debate on US-Israel relations has been among politicians and the dominant media in the US to date.

Israel has not helped its cause, as it has often acted too recklessly and dangerously to be ignored or credibly defended. For instance, its raid on a Freedom Flotilla — a raid that killed nine activists in international waters as the flotilla approached the Gaza Strip — was strongly condemned by virtually every nation in the world except the US. And with the rise of social media, the world was able to watch much of this raid take place online.

In 2011, shortly before his death, the British historian Tony Judt had the following reaction to Israel’s raid on the Freedom Flotilla: “Israel behaved in a way that suggests it is no longer fully able to estimate, assess or understand the way other people think about it,” said Judt, a former Guggenheim fellow and recipient of the 2007 Hannah Arendt Prize, in an interview with Haaretz (republished in The Atlantic). “In short, this is the action of a country which is fast losing touch with reality.”

The Next Generation of Activists

Another key part of the changing perspective has been the strong work done by activists across the countries, especially among young Jewish groups on college campuses. As Bennis noted, in the past there was not a diverse array of Jewish organizations that were critical of Israel: For years, Tikkun magazine and its founder, Rabbi Michael Lerner, offered some of the most consistent and ongoing critiques of Israel from within the Jewish community. But now there are many such groups, including the centrist J Street, the campus-based Open Hillel movement, the left-leaning Jewish Voice for Peace and If Not Now, a group consisting of young members of the Jewish community who, according to its website, wish to “be the generation that ends our community’s support for the occupation.” Activist groups like If Not Now have been credited with pushing Sanders to engage more critically on these issues. “Sanders’ shift on Palestine is a credit to all those who’ve challenged and educated him,” said Ali Abunimah on Twitter during the Democratic debate.

“Our group is a movement led by young American Jews who are working to end our communities’ support of the occupation,” said Lissy Romanow, a member of If Not Now’s Boston chapter, in an interview with Truthout. “You have to ask: Is endless occupation going to be a viable strategy?” Romanow said the capacity for critical discussion has greatly increased in recent years as more young people have gotten involved. “Once the silence is broken, the floodgates open. You can see how frightened the establishment is.”

The Danger of Silence in the Face of Injustice

Of course, Sanders’ comments are just words. US policy in the region remains the same, and further, it may well be Sanders’ opponent — a darling of AIPAC — who is running the US next year. But words do matter. Since an honest discussion of these issues has thus far been impossible in Washington, the US helped to enable a great many of Israel’s misdeeds without so much as a public debate. This is despite Israel’s contemptible record in relation to human rights and international law. At the top of the list is Israel’s nearly 50-year-long, illegal occupation of the Palestinian territories, deemed illegal by the International Criminal Court, the United Nations and the High Court of Justice­­ in Israel.

The list doesn’t end there. The US government and media have largely ignored, defended and enabled many other injustices. These include: war crimes in Lebanon in 2006 and in Gaza in 2009 and 2014, which are clearly documented by numerous human rights organizations; Israel’s rapidly expanding illegal settlements; Israel’s systematic military censorship; its refusal to allow any oversight of its nuclear weapons; its “separation wall,” which was deemed illegal by the International Court of Justice in 2004; and the aforementioned deadly raid on a boat full of humanitarian goods and activists, who were trying to ease the massive suffering caused by Israel’s immoral and illegal blockade that is making the land “uninhabitable.”

But even in the face of these well-documented abuses, it has long been considered career suicide for a politician to utter a critical word about Israel, which Hillary Clinton calls “a beacon of hope and freedom.” In fact, not only has criticism been virtually absent, but the United States — through its veto power in the UN Security Council and through acts of Congress — has enabled all of these crimes with billions of dollars in foreign aid each year and by denying any motion in the United Nations that Israel objects to, no matter how isolated it is among the world community.

Due to the hard work of activists, Sanders has managed to insert some critical dialogue on the Middle East into the mainstream.

For example, every year the UN General Assembly votes on something called the “Peaceful Settlement of the Palestine Question,” demanding that Israel withdraw to its pre-1967 borders. The vote is passed overwhelmingly each year, with just the United States, Israel, Australia and some tiny states that are very dependent on the US (Palau, Micronesia) voting in opposition. In 2015, the resolution passed by a vote of 155 in favor and seven opposed. The results of this resolution and virtually every resolution that calls for Israel to honor the world consensus for a two-state solution are comparable each year. Even Hamas has said it would accept these borders as part of a 10-year peace-for-land deal, but the US and Israel continue to defy international consensus on the matter.

As Rashid Khalidi, a professor of modern Arab studies at Columbia University, said of the US stance on the conflict: “Every other single place on the face of the earth is in support of the Palestinians, yet all of them together aren’t a hill of beans compared to the United States and Israel, because the United States and Israel can basically do anything they please. They are the world superpower, they are the regional superpower.”

Voting in the US Congress is not much different. Lawmakers in the House routinely pass resolutions, often unanimously, showing their unconditional support for Israel’s bombing campaigns, without an utterance of the plight of the innocent Palestinians who are killed by Israel’s military. Such resolutions were passed during Israel’s attack on Gaza in 2014 (unanimously); its devastating attacks in Lebanon in 2006 (410-8, with then-Representative Sanders’ support) and in condemning the UN investigation, which reported on Israel’s war crimes in 2009, after Operation Cast Lead in 2009 (344-36). This is just a small sample of many such acts, some symbolic, others binding, that involve millions of US taxpayer money.

Sanders has supported many of these resolutions (such as HR867, S.498 and HR921) although sometimes with reluctance. For instance, in 2014, the Senate passed a resolution supporting Israel’s 2014 Gaza attacks by unanimous consent. The resolution was predictably worded as if Palestinian suffering were a non-factor. Sanders was one of only 21 senators not to cosponsor the bill, but he had the option to make a formal objection, which he did not do. “Sanders’ refusal to cosponsor the measure [was] something like a whisper of disapproval,” wrote Matthew Pulver in Salon. “And whispers don’t stop wars.”

Simone Zimmerman and the Battles Ahead

Sanders’ whispers clearly got much louder during the debate. And this, along with changing public opinion and an impressive generation of young activists fighting to end the occupation, are all reason for optimism. But, as Romanow says, “There is still a lot of work to be done.”

For proof of this, consider the case of Simone Zimmerman. In truth, Sanders gave his speech in Brooklyn just a day after he suspended Zimmerman, his recently hired Jewish outreach director, under pressure from the same right-wing forces that stunted debate in DC for decades. Zimmerman’s offense, if it can be called that, was having posted insults and criticisms of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Facebook years ago. Her language was a bit coarse, but removing her from the job was an unfortunate capitulation from Sanders, who, despite all the changing circumstances, still felt immense pressure from pro-Israel forces.

Thankfully, Zimmerman is not alone and without support, as she may have been had this occurred in a different era. Activists across social media are proclaiming #IStandWithSimone in her defense. Hopefully Sanders will see the error of his decision and bring her back into the campaign.

We don’t know if he will. Politicians are a cautious bunch. But thankfully, due to the hard work of organizers, activists and advocates, Sanders has managed to insert some critical dialogue on the Middle East into the mainstream. This is major progress, though clearly, the hard work is still ahead.

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