The man with the best chance right now to be the first Jewish president of the United States is someone who thinks the prime minister of Israel is a racist. To say that is not to predict that Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders will win the presidency. But with polls showing that the Democratic Socialist remains in the top tier of his party’s presidential hopefuls for 2020, the 77-year-old’s chances of being the person that Democrats will nominate to challenge U.S. President Donald Trump shouldn’t be underestimated.
Prior to his giving Hillary Clinton a run for her money in the 2016 Democratic primaries, few would have thought the aging radical who had spent a lifetime on the margins of American political life would still find himself in the middle of a similar conversation. But among the many interesting questions his success raises is what impact his positions on Israel will have on a Democratic Party that is increasingly divided about whether to support the Jewish state.
At a CNN town hall event broadcast this week, Sanders was asked how he planned to maintain the U.S.-Israel relationship while being among the Jewish state’s most outspoken critics. His response was to claim that there was no contradiction between support for Israel and opposing its government.
In answering the question, Sanders noted, as he often does, his experience working for months on an Israeli kibbutz when he was a young man. More to the point, he said, “I have family in Israel. … You know I am not anti-Israel. I am 100 percent pro-Israel. Israel has every right in the world to exist, and to exist in peace and security and not be subjected to terrorist attacks.”
But he also said he thought the goal of U.S. policy should “deal with the Middle East on a level playing-field basis. In other words, the goal must be to try to bring people together and not just support one country, which is now run by a right-wing, dare I say, racist government.”
In speaking in this manner, Sanders seemed to be articulating views that were not dissimilar to those of the leaders of Reform and Conservative Judaism, as well as a number of liberal groups, that wrote a letter following Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decisive victory in the April 9 Israeli elections to disassociate themselves from him and to urge the U.S. government to pressure the Israelis to accept a Palestinian state and to refrain from extending Israel’s laws to West Bank settlements. As such, Sanders’s position would seem to be, as he put it, “not radical” and in line with the criticisms many of the other Democratic contenders have lodged against Israel.
Sanders is right when he says that one can be “100 percent pro-Israel” and not be a fan of Netanyahu. Just as Americans can bitterly oppose their own government—whether run by Trump or Barack Obama—while still being patriots, the same is true of Israelis.
The Vermont senator also deserves credit for at times standing up to fellow left-wing radicals who oppose Israel’s existence, and for sometimes pointing out that the goal of Hamas is to destroy the Jewish state and slaughter its people.
But the problem is that the debate about Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians isn’t about Netanyahu’s platform. It’s about the existence of Israel. When those who claim to support its existence characterize its government in such a way as to delegitimize it and the large majority of Israelis who support it, then they are setting the stage for a debate in which its right to existence will be questioned in a way that no other state on the planet is treated.
It’s true that Netanyahu got some well-deserved criticism for enabling one of his right-wing partners to form a pact with an extremist party led by followers of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, some of whom might be termed racist. But none of them wound up winning Knesset seats, let alone a place in the prime minister’s government. The claim that Netanyahu is tainted by their existence is no different from arguments that those Democrats willing to work with Sanders are now by definition Socialists. Does the fact that two of the Democrats’ young rock stars—Representatives Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.)—are supporters of the BDS movement and guilty of spewing Jew-hatred mean that all Democrats, including their leaders who benefit from their votes, are anti-Semitic?
Claims that Netanyahu’s statement about applying Israeli law to existing settlements in the West Bank is akin to setting up an apartheid-like situation are equally disingenuous; doing so would not prevent the Palestinians from having a state if they were prepared to accept one alongside a Jewish state. Love him or hate him, Netanyahu is the head of a democratic government that upholds the rule of law and equal rights for all.
When Sanders balances his avowed support for Israel with false claims of racism, in addition to advocacy for lifting the blockade on Hamas-run Gaza that would facilitate more terrorism, and false accusations that the Israeli army has committed atrocities, he isn’t being even-handed. Instead, he’s providing ammunition to those who wish its destruction. The same is true of Jewish groups that echo such stands.
Calling Netanyahu’s government racist is the moral equivalent of terming Zionism racism. That is a calumny—not the act of someone who is “100 percent pro-Israel.”
Democrats like Sanders, as well as Jewish groups that echo his equivocal stands, are entitled to disagree with Israel’s government as much as they like. But when they ignore the truth about Palestinian intransigence and seek to lecture Israel’s voters rather than to listen to them, they aren’t acting as supporters or friends. When they cross the line that separates legitimate criticism from words that call into question Israel’s right to exist, they are doing more to help those who wish to see it destroyed than to defend its existence.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.