The contest over the presidential nomination in the Democratic party has become exciting of late, at least when it comes to the Israel issue. The excitement has centered on Bernie Sanders’ approach to the American relationship with Israel. Calling for a much more critical position regarding Israeli policy, Sanders also calls for a more “even-handed” approach that would help ensure an independent Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel. Certainly events have been interesting, but they have given rise to two general myths that need to be debunked.
The first myth is tied to the Sanders’ campaign of hiring then firing (“suspending”) Simone Zimmerman as the liaison to the Jewish community. The reasons for her dismissal have already been picked at multiple times, and while pundits are correct that Sanders and Zimmerman share a similar outlook on Israel, often such claims are accompanied by accusations that the Jewish establishment has fought hard against the appointment in order to have Zimmerman let go.
At least in the public domain, that’s just not the case. The campaign against Zimmerman came from far-right commentators associated with the Emergency Committee for Israel and the Washington Free Beacon (plus a lot of unaffiliated trolls on social media). The only establishment figures who commented on the hiring were Abe Foxman (now retired) and Ronald Lauder (who may not even count as the American Jewish establishment). Two individuals—these two individuals—do not make the establishment. Unless there is evidence of a behind-the-scenes campaign against Sanders and Zimmerman, it looks like the establishment reacted with more uncertainty than malice.
The second, and bigger, myth is that by calling out Israel for not respecting Palestinian rights and dignity in last week’s Democratic debate, Sanders broke an American “taboo” on Israel: presidential candidates do not express concern for Palestinians, especially during the nominating process.
It’s a qualified taboo. There is no doubt that presidential candidates, in both their party primaries and in the general election, pander to the voting blocs most likely to help them; that’s not an Israel thing, it’s a politician thing. Jewish voters, donors, and activists are far more numerous and active in American politics than Arab or Palestinian voters, donors, and activists. Jewish advocacy organizations are more acclimated to the American political system, and have been around much longer, leading to closer relationships and trust with American politicians. Support for Israel, especially compared to support for the Arab states or the Palestinians, continues to play well with voters across the religious, political, and ideological spectrums.
Still, Barack Obama, as the liberal candidate for the 2008 election, did express some criticism of Israel. According to Jeffrey Goldberg, Obama told him that he wouldn’t “blindly adhere” to the same old “pro-Israel” line. Obama also said that “the parties [would have to] move beyond a rigid, formulaic or ideological approach and take a practical approach” if they are to achieve peace, and that “aggressive settlement construction would seem to violate the spirit at least, if not the letter, of agreements that have been made previously.”
These statements seem mild in comparison to some of what Sanders has said, although it’s worth noting that Sanders has also spoken of being “100%” pro-Israel. Still, the idea of criticizing Israel was already out there before Sanders began his run.
On the other hand, Sanders has stood firm on his argument that Israel’s military activities in the 2014 Gaza war were “disproportionate” (though he hasn’t been clear on what would constitute proportionality; few people are), and his hints that Israel is as obstructionist when it comes to peace talks as the Palestinians, if not more.
But this type of criticism isn’t the issue. It’s probably true that by sticking to his contention even during a public debate in New York, Sanders is opening up space for criticism on Israel in American politics. That, though, isn’t a taboo-breaker so much as a reflection of existing trends in American politics and in Jewish politics: a more active and critical Jewish grassroots, increasing lack of interest in pandering to Israel within the Democratic Party, and the ongoing occupation and its effects on Palestinians, which are available for viewing every hour of every day through the Internet.
What Sanders did say, though, that is worth highlighting is this: “There comes a time when if we pursue justice and peace, we are going to have to say that Netanyahu is not right all of the time.” Though he moved away from this point in the rest of his comments, what he was really saying is that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu isn’t Israel; and we should not, ever, assume he is. In other words, Sanders was drawing a clear distinction between Israel and Israeli policy, and between Netanyahu and his policies. It doesn’t go far enough—Netanyahu is beholden to a number of right and far-right politicians and parties, and he plays on the Israeli electorate’s fears—but by calling out Netanyahu specifically rather than Israel, Sanders does help pry open space for criticism of the Israeli government specifically, rather than Israel.
This, in turn, will be more palatable to many American Jews who are uncomfortable with questions about Israel’s morality and behavior, but can tolerate criticism of its rightist politicians who have clearly pushed legislation and policies at odds with American Jewry’s liberal preferences.
If Sanders can keep pushing this distinction, he might well contribute to a major change in the conversation in American politics about Israel. If he—and the Jewish activists and organizations that support him—can’t or won’t, then they are unlikely to make much headway in the political arena.