Analysis: 2020 U.S. Presidential Election

Record at a glance: Controversial stances by Sen. Bernie Sanders on US-Israel relationship

Leaning towards the far-left fringes, which has appealed to younger voters, he has criticized Israeli actions against the Palestinians in Gaza, though recognizes the Jewish state’s right to defend itself.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) at a rally on April 26, 2017. Credit: Office of Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) at a rally on April 26, 2017. Credit: Office of Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) announced on Tuesday his second run for the White House.

While Sanders, 79, became the most successful Jewish candidate to run for president—what the late conservative intellectual and pundit Charles Krauthammer called “a rare sign of the health of our republic that no one seems to much care or even notice”—since joining Congress, first sworn-in as a congressman in 1991 and then as a senator in 2007, the self-described Socialist’s record on the Jewish state has been and continues to remain controversial.

Most recently, despite his opposition to the anti-Israel BDS movement, Sanders denounced and voted against Senate-passed legislation that would allow state and local governments the right to punish state or local contractors from engaging in boycotting Israel, labeling it “absurd” and as “legislation which punishes Americans who exercise their constitutional right to engage in political activity.”

In 2016, he became the most successful Jewish candidate to run for president.

Similar legislation at the state level has been ruled constitutional by a federal judge, as there has been a precedent for such laws.

A hard line on Israeli government and military policies

Sanders has also questioned Israel’s military actions and government policies, though he upholds the Jewish state’s right to self-defense.

In response to rioting along the Gaza-Israel border in May 2018, he told a reporter that the Israel Defense Forces committed “terrible actions.”

“Instead of applauding Israel for its actions, Israel should be condemned,” he continued. “Israel has a right to security, but shooting unarmed protesters is not what it is about.”

At the time, he tweeted, “Over 50 killed in Gaza today and 2,000 wounded, on top of the 41 killed and more than 9,000 wounded over the past weeks. This is a staggering toll. Hamas violence does not justify Israel firing on unarmed protesters.”

Sanders, who was joined by 12 other Democratic senators, also penned a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to “do more to alleviate the ongoing humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip.”

The previous month, the senator told J Street’s annual conference that Israel had “massively overreacted” to Gaza riots. “Though the overwhelming majority of these protesters were non-violent, we know that some of them were not, and when Israeli soldiers are in danger, we can all agree that they have a right to defend themselves,” he said. “But I don’t think that any objective person can disagree that Israel has massively reacted to these demonstrations.”

In 2014, amid Hamas launching rockets from Gaza into Israel, Sanders said at a Vermont town hall that Israel “overreacted” in its response.

At that meeting, Sanders also was accosted by pro-Palestinian activists who yelled expletives at him for condemning Hamas for firing rockets at Israeli civilians, Sanders responded to the hecklers with pro-Israel comments.

“You have a situation where Hamas is sending missiles into Israel… and you know where some of those missiles are coming from? They’re coming from populated areas,” Sanders said. “Hamas is very clear. Their view is that Israel should not have a right to exist.”

After the activists replied to him, “Bullshit, F**k Israel,” Sanders went on to explain that there are more pressing issues in the Middle East, such as the Islamic State terror group, which he condemned for attempting to turn parts of Iraq and Syria into a “7th Century caliphate” that is suppressing women’s rights.

He did, however, overestimate the number of Palestinian civilians killed that year. Sanders told The New York Daily News in 2016 that, based on his memory, “over 10,000 innocent people were killed in Gaza.” However, estimates from the Israeli army and United Nations have that figure, respectively, between 1,000 and 2,104 Palestinians.

The Anti-Defamation League slammed Sanders for his analysis, and said that “even the highest number of casualties claimed by Palestinian sources that include Hamas members engaged in attacking Israel is five times less than the number cited by Bernie Sanders.”

After talking with the senator, who clarified what he said, ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt stated: “We appreciate his responsiveness on this issue, especially at a time when there are many false and incendiary reports blaming Israel for applying disproportionate force in its struggle for self-defense.”

Moreover, despite voting in favor of a 2017 resolution commemorating the 50th anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem in the aftermath of the Six-Day War, Sanders, who spent several months on a kibbutz in northern Israel during the 1960s, condemned America’s officially recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, announced by Trump in December 2017.

“There’s a reason why all past U.S. administrations have avoided making this move, and why leaders from all over the world, including a group of former Israeli ambassadors, have warned Trump against doing it: It would dramatically undermine the prospects for an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, and severely, perhaps irreparably, damage the United States’ ability to broker that peace,” said the senator in a statement. “What the U.S. should be doing now is bringing adversaries in the Middle East together to seek common solutions, not exacerbating tensions in this highly volatile region.”

‘We have to negotiate with Iran’

Sanders supported the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, telling CBS’s “Face the Nation,” that while it was not “a perfect agreement,” the United States “has to negotiate with other countries. We have to negotiate with Iran.”

“And the alternative of not reaching an agreement, you know what it is? It’s war,” he continued. “Do we really want another war, a war with Iran? An asymmetrical warfare that will take place all over this world, threaten American troops?”

“I think we go as far as we possibly can in trying to give peace a chance, if you like,” he added. “Trying to see if this agreement will work. And I will support it.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks at a rally in Raleigh, N.C., in March 2016. Credit: Scott Pelkey ne014x/Flickr.

Unsurprisingly, Sanders blasted U.S. President Donald Trump for withdrawing America from the deal in May 2018, calling the choice “the latest in a series of rash and reckless moves that make Americans less safe,” in addition to labeling the course of action “the worst possible thing” in combating the Iranian threat.

“Trump’s decision also isolates the United States from some of its most important allies,” he said. “France, the U.K. and Germany all continue to support the agreement and have consistently said that it is in their own national security interests.”

“Breaking the Iran agreement would not only free Iran from the limits placed on its nuclear program, it would irreparably harm America’s ability to negotiate future nonproliferation agreements,” continued Sanders. “Why would any country in the world sign such an agreement with the United States if they knew that a reckless president might simply discard that agreement a few years later?”

The senator added, “Ultimately, we must seek a better relationship with the Iranian people and a more constructive role for Iran in the region. … It will alienate Iran’s people and strengthen the regime’s hardliners, who are much more comfortable dealing with a hostile America than with a reasonable, peace-seeking one.”

Supporting freshmen House Democrats, despite anti-Semitic rhetoric

Despite Sanders acknowledging in 2016 that the BDS movement is driven by hatred of Jews, Sanders has not seriously condemned anti-Semitism, both nationally and abroad.

For instance, in 2017, Sanders said that “what [Jeremy] Corbyn has tried to do with the [British] Labour Party is not dissimilar with what some of us are trying to do with the Democratic Party; and that is make it a party which is much more open and inviting for working people and young people and not have kind of what we call a ‘liberal elite’ making the decisions from the top on down, but making decisions from the bottom on up.”

“I don’t think Jeremy Corbyn needs my advice,” he told The Guardian. “I think he is doing quite well. Nor do the people of the U.K. need my advice on who to vote for. I think they understand. But I have been very impressed by the campaign that he has been running and I wish him the very best.”

More recently, regarding the widespread backlash against Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) for her anti-Semitic and anti-Israel tropes via tweet and otherwise, Sanders has stood alongside the Somali-American congresswoman.

Reportedly, Sanders called Omar to offer his support in the aftermath of the congresswoman, who last week accused the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the largest pro-Israel lobbying organization, of paying members of Congress to back Israel.

Afterward, Sanders reportedly told Arab American Institute founder and anti-Israel activist James Zogby, “I talked to Ilhan last night to give her my personal support. We will stand by our Muslim brothers and sisters.”

Shortly after Tlaib accused Republican lawmakers of dual loyalty, a common anti-Semitic trope, Sanders happily dined with the congresswoman.

Moreover, his 2016 campaign invited activist Paul Bustinduy to the Democratic National Convention. Bustinduy is Secretary of International Relations of the Spanish far-left and anti-Semitic political party, Podemos, which, despite finishing in third place in the Spanish elections that year, “is a political force to be reckoned with in Spain,” according to Hudson Institute adjunct fellow Ron Radosh, a former Marxist.

Podemos supports BDS, “the anti-Israel flotillas that attempted to sail to Gaza in support of Hamas in its war against Israel, as well as virtually all measures the anti-Israel European left-wing has proposed,” wrote Radosh. “Podemos is so anti-Israel, that it defends [the] publication of a notorious anti-Semitic Spanish magazine, El Jueves. An English independent socialist internet magazine, Shiraz Socialist, recently had an article about El Jueves written by Yves Coleman, appropriately titled: ‘Spanish radical left tolerates anti-Semitism.’ ”

Closer to home, however, in the aftermath of the Oct. 27, 2018 shooting of Jewish worshippers by a lone gunman inside the Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Sanders tweeted: “If this country stands for anything it has got to stand for the right of people to practice their religion, to live their lives without bigotry, without fear and certainly within their houses of worship.”

Standing against anti-Israel bias at the United Nations

Sanders did sign onto a letter to U.N. Secretary General António Guterres calling for the end of the world body’s animosity towards the Jewish state, though he tempered his action somewhat.

“I didn’t write that letter. I signed onto the letter. It’s not a letter that I would’ve written. There are many problems with Israel, and I have been critical and will be critical of a lot of what Israel does,” Sanders told Al Jazeera’s AJ+ in May 2017.

“On the other hand, to see Israel attacked over and over again for human-rights violations, which may be true, when you have countries—Saudi Arabia or Syria—Saudi Arabia I’m not quite sure a woman can even drive a car today,” he continued. “So I think the thrust of that letter is not to say Israel has human-rights issues, it does. But to say, ‘How come it’s only Israel’ when you have other countries where women are treated as third-class citizens. Where in Egypt, I don’t know how many thousands of people [are] lingering in jail. That’s the point of that. Not to defend Israel, but say, ‘Why only Israel?’ You want to talk about human rights, let’s talk about human rights.”

Whether Sanders is able to replicate and add to the momentum he garnered during his 2016 run remains to be seen. What has already been determined is that, compared to many of his competitors in the primary field, such as Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Sanders will unlikely pander to certain groups to get their votes.

The pro-Israel community is no exception, though it is to be determined whether Sanders would address the AIPAC Policy Conference in 2020, despite skipping it in 2016, when the remaining presidential candidates addressed the annual event. (In 2016, Sanders reportedly offered to address the conference remotely, citing scheduling conflicts, but was denied by AIPAC. Instead, Sanders released a speech of what he would’ve said had he been in attendance).

You have read 3 articles this month.
Register to receive full access to JNS.

Just before you scroll on...

Israel is at war. JNS is combating the stream of misinformation on Israel with real, honest and factual reporting. In order to deliver this in-depth, unbiased coverage of Israel and the Jewish world, we rely on readers like you. The support you provide allows our journalists to deliver the truth, free from bias and hidden agendas. Can we count on your support? Every contribution, big or small, helps remain a trusted source of news you can rely on.

Become a part of our mission by donating today
Thank you. You are a loyal JNS Reader.
You have read more than 10 articles this month.
Please register for full access to continue reading and post comments.
Never miss a thing
Get the best stories faster with JNS breaking news updates