Hillary Clinton may have had trouble getting through a subway turnstile, but Bernie Sanders is the one who’s having a rough ride in New York.
His troubles began on April 4th in a sit down interview with the NY Daily News editorial board. Sanders delivered his usual spiel; starting with the banks, continuing with trade agreements, and finishing with his case for electability. An editorial board sit down for an hour-long, recorded interview is often a recipe for disaster for presidential candidates, which proved to be true when Sanders made a significant slip-up regarding Israel.
Sanders suggested the death toll during the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict was at least 10,000 Palestinian civilians, approximately seven times more than Hamas’ highest estimate. This led to an instant backlash from Israel and the American Jewish community and a number of op-eds, such as David Horovitz’s piece in the Times of Israel entitled Seven times worse than Hamas: Bernie Sanders by the numbers.
The Sanders campaign took three days to issue a clarification, which could at best be considered acceptable, though it seemed like it was more of an effort to disregard what Sanders had said in the first place. What’s more astonishing, however, is that only 24 hours later, he went on MSNBC and suggested the figure was “well over 2,000 civilians”, which also does not line up with the facts on the ground.
Bernie Sanders is not anti-Israel and I have no problem with him being critical of the Jewish state. On the contrary, I think Sanders makes important points that many American Jews should consider. Most importantly, working toward a two-state solution, stopping settlement construction outside major settlement blocs, and working to ease the siege on Gaza are all vital to Israel’s security interests.
Yet, there is a deeper problem here. Bernie Sanders knows very little about foreign policy. Make no mistake, taking strong positions is important, but doing so without a strong knowledge of the facts is irresponsible. And thus far, Sanders has consistently demonstrated that his foreign policy expertise is not worthy of the presidency. Nearly every time Sanders has been asked a foreign policy question in an interview or debate his answer is: “unlike Senator Clinton, I voted against the Iraq War, and I think that’s a pretty good indicator,” or something along those lines. That is simply not good enough.
As Yair Rosenberg correctly pointed out in Tablet Magazine, “Contrary to the fulminations of the radical anti-Zionist left and hawkish pro-Israel right, Sanders’s mistake had nothing to do with his being anti-Israel, and everything to do with his not knowing much about foreign policy.” This was further evident on CNN’s State of the Union Sunday morning with Jake Tapper, when Sanders did not even know who former Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren was. This by no means justifies Oren’s accusing Sanders of perpetrating a “blood libel,” but it illustrates Sanders’s major problem as Jeffrey Goldberg tweeted: “[the] Guy pays no FoPo attention.”
But if you thought this was the end of Bernie’s complicated week, think again. At a campaign event at Harlem’s Apollo Theatre in New York City, a blatantly anti-Semitic question came his way. “As you know, the Zionist Jews–and I don’t mean to offend anybody–they run the Federal Reserve, they run Wall Street, they run every campaign.” Just as Sanders began dismissing the remarks the questioner concluded with, “What is your affiliation to your Jewish community? That’s all I’m asking.”
Sanders had an opportunity to issue a powerful rebuke to a foul question, just as he did in October when he gave a heartfelt answer to a question from a Muslim American student regarding Islamophobia and the bigotry coming from some Republican candidates. But he did not. “I am a strong defender of Israel, but I also believe that we have got to pay attention to the needs of the Palestinian people,” he said. Interestingly, the question had nothing to do with Israel.
That moment at Apollo Theatre also made me think back to September, when Donald Trump refrained from confronting an anti-Muslim questioner. Trump could have distanced himself from racist bigotry, something he obviously did not to do, just as Sanders had the chance to stand up to one of the oldest forms of anti-Semitism. Yair Rosenberg did a good job of laying out what his answer should have looked like.
“What you just heard was outlandish and unacceptable, but I am glad that you did, because it gives me an opportunity to utterly repudiate it. The lie that a secret Jewish conspiracy controls this country or others has been used to justify the persecution and murder of Jewish people for centuries, including my own family in the Holocaust. It is an ancient anti-Semitic canard whose bigotry is not lessened by prefacing it with the word “Zionist.”
I completely reject that question and the prejudice behind it, just as I have stood on stages like this one and rejected the systemic racism in our society and the rising tide of Islamophobia in this election. There are those who traffic in hateful stereotypes and seek to pit us against each other–black and white, gay and straight, Jew and non-Jew–and I will always stand against them, and for all of us.”
Sanders fears people will automatically associate his Jewish roots with unconditional support for Israel. For that reason he has been apprehensive to talk about his Jewish identity and that is precisely why he panicked and failed to properly confront the question at the Apollo theatre. Throughout the campaign, Sanders has tied himself in knots when discussing his foreign policy and his Jewish identity. When it comes to foreign policy, the solution is to surround himself with expert advisors, something he only began to do in late February. With regard to his Jewish identity, he must be able to stand up against anti-Semitism with the same kind of vigor and resolve that he shows against income inequality, education costs, and Islamophobia.
A lot of what we know about Sanders in this campaign is connected to his New York experience, from his Flatbush accent to his upbringing in a family of Jewish immigrants from Poland. It is fitting that these issues have come to light in Sanders’ state of birth. Sanders left Brooklyn for Vermont when he was 18 and being unsure of your identity and uninformed on global issues may be okay for an 18 year-old, but it’s unacceptable when you’re running for president of the United States. If Sanders truly wants to be president, he is going to have to demonstrate that there is some actual substance behind the sloganeering.