Bernie Sanders and the Plight of Jews Who Criticize Israel

Oct 8, 2015 | Elections - Presidential (2016), Foreign Policy, Jewish Experiences

Published: The Good Men Project (October 8, 2015)

When you’re a Jewish person who is willing to criticize the State of Israel, you quickly discover three things:

  1. To many other critics of Israel, the authenticity of your position will be constantly questioned. Indeed, whereas a non-Jewish critic of Israel can easily acknowledge that the situation is complicated, a Jewish critic is often held in suspicion if he or she makes any concessions whatsoever to points made by the Israeli government or pro-Israel camp. If you aren’t as radically anti-Israel as possible, in their eyes, you’re a covert Zionist.
  2. Even if you don’t initiate conversations about Israel, frequently you will be expected to discuss it by simple virtue of your heritage. Because you are a Jew, the expectation is that you should be held particularly accountable for the actions of a government on the other side of the Atlantic.
  3. None dare call it anti-Semitism.

This issue came to mind because of a recent incident at a Bernie Sanders rally. Apparently a staffer ordered that several activists from Boston Students for Justice in Palestine be ejected from the event after they were seen holding a sign saying, “Will Ya Feel The Bern For Palestine?” Although the campaign immediately apologized and explained that this was an error from an individual staffer—and Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver has since removed the staffer from his position, reiterating that the Sanders organization has always been open to protests—this didn’t stop Murtaza Hussain of The Intercept from condemning Sanders as a “not-entirely-progressive” supporter of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories.

To paraphrase Daniel Patrick Moynihan: Hussain has the right to his own opinions, but he doesn’t have the right to his own facts. Hussain starts by claiming that during a town hall meeting last year, Sanders told audience members to “shut up” when they tried to “question him about U.S. support for Israel” and accuses him of “attempting to change the subject to ISIS.” If you watch a video of the event, what you’ll actually see is Sanders offering a nuanced analysis of the Israel-Palestine conflict—he criticizes Israel for its overreaction and bombing of UN facilities but acknowledges their legitimate security concerns about Hamas – and only getting frustrated when hecklers tried to make it impossible for him to answer their questions.

Similarly, Hussain depicts Sanders as a defender of Israel’s 2014 campaign against the Gaza Strip, only qualifying his accusation with a glib aside about Sanders saying Israel “overreacted. In fact, Sanders denounced the Gaza attacks quite strongly, blasting Israel for having “killed hundreds of innocent people – including many women and children” and referring to the bombings as “disproportionate” and “completely unacceptable.” Although Hussain tries to elide this fact by claiming that “Sanders was part of the unanimous Senate consent supporting Israel’s actions,” he ignores that the resolution was passed by unanimous consent because no roll call was taken on the measure – and, notably, that Sanders was actually among the 21 Senators not to co-sponsor a resolution expressing support for Israel during that conflict. He also decides not to mention that Sanders was the first Senator to announce that he wouldn’t attend Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress because of his disapproval of the prime minister’s policies.

Even when Hussain makes a begrudging concession about Sanders, he can’t do it without slipping in a logically tenuous criticism. While admitting that Sanders had advocated a two-state solution “before it became mainstream U.S. orthodoxy” (an assertion that a large number of Republicans and Democrats would certainly challenge), he qualifies that by blasting Sanders for not supporting “a more radical one-state solution.” This is a neat trick for minimizing the significance of Sanders’ willingness to criticize Israel in controversial ways as far back as the 1980s, and is similar to the tactic he uses to make it seem like Sanders has “a tendency to marginalize, rather than engage, critics”—namely, by criticizing his response to the #BlackLivesMatters protesters who rushed onstage during a Sanders rally in Seattle, even though on that occasion he handed the microphone over to them and allowed them to vent their concerns (pretty much the exact opposite of marginalizing or dismissing critics).

If anything, Israel seems rather low on Sanders’ radar (the Vermont Senator is best known for his focus on economic issues). As Josh Nathan-Kazis of Forward explains, “a search of the Congressional Record reveals very few statements about Israel by Sanders on the floor of the House or the Senate,” noting that pro-Israel lobbyists describe Sanders as elusive and complain that he is one of the only Senators who won’t guarantee appointments with them. Nevertheless, Hussain manages through implication to make it seem like Israel is a front-and-center concern for Sanders. His argument calls to mind the reasoning employed by NPR’s Diane Rehm when she confidently insisted that Sanders had dual American-Israeli citizenship, even though the “list” she claimed to have found came from hate groups on Facebook and other online forums. Like Rehm, Hussain seems awfully sure that because Sanders is Jewish, he is deep down a conservative when it comes to Israel’s mistreatment of the Palestinians; if he scratches around the Senator’s record for the pro-Israel stuff, and acts like his criticisms of Israel either don’t exist or are somehow inconsequential, he can expose him for the dual loyalties that he deep down “knows” the man possesses.

The problem here isn’t that Hussain is criticizing Sanders, but rather that he goes to such extraordinary lengths to paint Sanders as a Zionist when the objective record says something very different.

One of the worst thing about pundits like Hussain and Rehm is that they actually make it more difficult for Jews to criticize Israel rather than less so. For one thing, they create an environment where a Jewish critic of Israel needs to either be absolute in his or her denunciations or else be accused of secretly being a right-winger on that issue. Notice how, even though Sanders took a leftist stance on the Gaza bombings, Hussain focuses not on the points that Sanders emphasized but on his recognition that maybe, just maybe, Israel also felt legitimately threatened. Because the Israel-Palestine conflict is complicated, the chances are most reasoning adults will have criticisms of both sides; by denying a Jew the right to have a balanced approach without being lumped in with outright Zionists, they make it harder rather than easier for healthy debate on this issue to occur both within and outside of the Jewish community.

Perhaps the worst part of all this, though, is that they inject covert bigotry into a debate that needs none of it. Make no mistake about it: It is entirely possible to criticize the Israeli government, military, and right-wing political establishment without being anti-Semitic. Indeed, I’d go so far as to say that one of the biggest problems with America’s foreign policy in the Middle East is that pro-Israel hawks have successfully stifled opposition by lobbing the “anti-Semite” charge at their critics even when it doesn’t apply (which is most of the time). By relegating Palestinians to a state of second-class citizenship, stealing Palestinian land through building settlements, and engaging in disproportionate warfare that takes thousands upon thousands of Palestinian lives, Israel has developed an appalling human rights record that is deplored by decent people everywhere.

At the same time, when a Jewish person who recognizes these things is automatically assumed to be pro-Israel simply because of their background, that is anti-Semitic. It may not be chic to say as much (I am certain, if nothing else, that I will receive considerable backlash for being a “Zionist” for making this point, despite my own views on Israeli policy) but it’s true nevertheless. Whether they realize it or not, the people who can look at the record of a Jewish critic of Israel – be it Bernie Sanders or anyone else – and only see evidence that they’re too pro-Israel is operating from a bigoted assumption.

This kind of prejudice needs to be called out. The time to start is now.