columnBoycott, Divestment & Sanctions (BDS)

Don’t let Bernie Sanders get away with redefining ‘pro-Israel’

Supporting Israel’s existence while being allied to those who wish to destroy it and engage in anti-Semitic invective doesn’t work.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at a campaign rally in Iowa on Nov. 10, 2019. Source: Facebook.
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at a campaign rally in Iowa on Nov. 10, 2019. Source: Facebook.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

Linda Sarsour did it again. The Palestinian-American BDS activist/anti-Trump “resistance” activist spoke at a conference of American Muslims for Palestine and let loose with another rhetorical missile at the Jews. In a speech aimed at arguing that pro-Israel Jews could not also be accepted in progressive circles, she said the following:

“How can you be against white supremacy in America and the idea of being in a state based on race and class, but then you support a state like Israel that is based on supremacy, that is built on the idea that Jews are supreme to everyone else?”

She later attempted to clarify that remark to say that she didn’t mean to say that all Jews thought they were superior to others. Rather, she said she meant it as a critique of the “racist” nation-state law passed by Israel in 2017, which merely reaffirmed the fact that Israel’s mission is to serve as the national home of the Jews. So instead of walking back the insult, she actually doubled down on the notion that support for Zionism—the national liberation movement of the Jewish people—is racism. Such anti-Zionist invective is inherently anti-Semitic since Sarsour and others who voice such sentiments are seeking to deny rights to Jews that are not denied to others.

That she made this statement at a conclave where attendees heard about plans to redouble efforts to isolate and stigmatize Jews and supporters of Israel on college campuses only made it worse. The fact that Sarsour is a vicious anti-Semite is not news. Indeed, it is possible that far too much attention is paid to someone who is, for all of her noisy advocacy against both Trump and Israel, not a person of any great significance. But what makes her latest outrage newsworthy is that the presidential candidate for whom she serves as a surrogate—Sen. Bernie Sanders—had absolutely nothing to say about any of it.

For many supporters of Israel, that’s not surprising since they dismiss the Vermont Socialist as an equally bitter foe of the Jewish state, if not an anti-Semite himself. But while Sanders is so critical of Israel and so supportive of the Palestinians that it is easy to mistake him for an enemy of Zionism, that is not, strictly speaking, an accurate characterization of his position. As he made clear in a recent op-ed in the left-wing magazine Jewish Currents, he supports the existence of Israel and takes pride in it. Nor is this the first time he has said so publicly. It’s also true that saying such things is not popular among the leftists who support him. Indeed, Sarsour has said it is one issue on which she disagrees with Sanders.

There was much that was wrong with Sanders’s essay, especially his blind spot with respect to anti-Semitism that emanates from his fellow leftists. But I don’t doubt that Sanders believes himself to be supportive of Israel. Nor do I disagree with his assertion in his op-ed that criticism of Israel’s government is not anti-Semitic. Of course, one can—as most Israelis do—criticize the policies of any Israeli government. The real problem is that he is attempting to effectively redefine the term “pro-Israel” in such a manner as to make it possible to claim that someone supports the Jewish state while being neutral about anti-Zionists and the anti-Semitic rhetoric they spout.

This is a discussion that is more important than Sanders’s presidential hopes. It speaks instead to the future of an American Jewish community that prioritizes progressive politics and a social-justice agenda in such a way as to treat Israel as a secondary issue. The refusal of some on the left to recognize that the intersectional ideology to which many progressives subscribe simply leaves no room for Jews to assert that Jewish rights to self-determination in their ancient homeland is the fatal flaw in the idea of contemporary liberal Zionism.

It is entirely possible to be an ardent friend of the Jewish state and to be as critical of its government and its policies as Sanders has always been. There’s no contradiction between Zionism and modern political liberalism.

Sanders refuses to cut ties with people like Sarsour or Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), who have engaged in anti-Semitic incitement as bad as that of Sarsour. He also refuses to repudiate many others in the ranks of his supporters, campaign surrogates and officials who agree with them about Israel, all of which is incompatible with the idea that he is someone who supports Israel or the struggle against anti-Semitism in any meaningful sense of those terms.

For too long, many American Jews have been caught up in battles between conservative and liberal Zionists in which American partisan political battles were mixed up with those going on in Israel between right- and left-wing factions. The real issue facing American Jews heading into the 2020 campaign isn’t about settlements or a two-state solution that Congress and most Jews still want, but about which Palestinians have little or no interest. Instead, it’s whether the vast majority of American Jews who identify as liberals and Democrats are willing to draw a line in the sand and utterly reject people like Sarsour, Omar and Tlaib.

The answer coming from Sanders and all too many others is that the common ground they share with such people on Trump and other issues is more important than any residual affection for Israel or even sensitivities about anti-Semitism. If so, then they are not merely redefining “pro-Israel” in such a way as to render it meaningless, but also fatally undermining the struggle against anti-Semitism.

To understand the consequences of such a stand, you need only to look at Britain, where radical anti-Semites seized control of the Labour Party. Here on the opposite side of the pond, we can only tremble for the future of a Jewish community in which Sanders’s comfort level with anti-Semites becomes normative behavior for American Jews.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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