Bernie Sanders may become the first Jewish president of the United States. But what does being a Jew mean to him?
Sanders’s youthful Jewish credentials are impeccable. Born to Jewish immigrants from Poland, he grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he saw people with numbers tattooed on their arms. Members of his father’s family were murdered in Nazi concentration camps. He developed a strong emotional feeling that “we have got to do everything we can to end this kind of horrific racism and anti-Semitism.”
After college graduation Sanders spent several months on kibbutz Sha’ar Ha’amakim in northern Israel. There he “saw and experienced … many of the progressive values upon which Israel was founded.” In turn, he urged “progressives to acknowledge the enormous achievement of establishing a democratic homeland for the Jewish people after centuries of displacement and persecution.” He subsequently described himself as “proudly Jewish.”
Relocating to Vermont and entering the political arena in a state with a tiny Jewish population, his once enthusiastic embrace of Israel evaporated over time, replaced by unrelenting criticism. As early as 1988 he expressed his belief that “it is wrong that the United States provides arms to Israel.” In a Haaretz interview, he stated his wish that the United States would exert more pressure on Israel to resolve the Palestinian conflict.
A decade later, he was the only Jewish member of the U.S. House of Representatives to dissent from a resolution holding Palestinians responsible for suicide bombings and extreme violence during the five years of the Second Intifada (2000-05), when nearly 1,000 Israelis were murdered. He subsequently voted against a resolution supporting Israel’s security barrier, built after waves of Palestinian terrorist attacks. He was one of 21 senators who declined to endorse a resolution of support for Israel during the Gaza war in 2014. In a newspaper interview two years later, he asserted that Israel had killed “more than 10,000 innocent people” during “Operation Protective Edge” in the Gaza Strip—a number five times higher than even Hamas claimed.
Sanders’s vitriol towards Israel began to boil over once Benjamin Netanyahu became prime minister. At first merely accusing him of “reactionary policies,” the senator eventually descended into depths of loathing. He would not support the “right-wing, racist government” in Israel, he declared in April 2019. At the J Street Conference last October, he claimed: “It is not anti-Semitism to say that the Netanyahu government has been racist; it is a fact.” At a Democratic debate in December, he reiterated: “We must understand that right now in Israel we have leadership under Netanyahu … who, in my view, is a racist.”
Just this week, in the Feb. 25 Charleston presidential debate, Sanders amplified his slander, labeling Netanyahu a “reactionary racist.”
Sanders supports the establishment of a Palestinian state in pre-1967 borders, removing biblical Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) from Israeli control. Jewish settlements, now home to more than 400,000 Israelis, would vanish because, Sanders claims, they are illegal according to “international law and multiple United Nations resolutions.”
That is flagrantly incorrect. International law dating back a century to the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine guaranteed to Jews the right of “close settlement” throughout “Palestine,” defined as comprising land east and west of the Jordan River. British Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill gifted the land east of the River to King Abdullah; there was no restriction on the right of Jewish settlement west of the River.
Bernie Sanders clearly does not know this. Responding to questions by The New York Times to Democratic presidential candidates, Sanders said that U.S. military aid to Israel should be “conditioned on Israel taking steps to end the occupation and move toward a peace agreement” (which, to be sure, Palestinians have repeatedly rejected). Like many fellow leftists, he does not seem to understand that Israel is “occupying” its own biblical homeland.
Speaking at the recent town hall meeting in Nevada, his criticism of Israel boiled over: “To be for the Israeli people and to be for peace in the Middle East does not mean that we have to support right-wing, racist governments that currently exist in Israel.” He added: “It cannot just simply be that we’re just pro-Israel, and we ignore the needs of the Palestinian people.”
All of this raises the question whether American Jews should anticipate with elation or foreboding the prospect of Bernie Sanders as their first Jewish president. For assimilated Jews of a liberal persuasion who are as critical of Israel as Sanders, his election doubtlessly would be cause for celebration. But for American Jews who embrace and defend Israel, a Sanders presidency is likely to elicit sour memories of former President Barack Obama, whose disdain for the Jewish state remains a conspicuous legacy of his White House tenure. Based on his own statements, Sanders is likely to compete with his Democratic predecessor for recognition as Israel’s most unrelenting presidential critic since the birth of the Jewish state.
The American presidents who have been most generous in their support for Israel have been Harry S. Truman, the first world leader to recognize the birth of Israel, and Donald Trump, who has announced Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, relocated the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights and indicated his intention to acknowledge Israeli sovereignty over Judea and Samaria—the biblical homeland of the Jewish people stretching from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River.
If elected, Bernie Sanders surely would not follow in their footsteps.
Indeed, Sanders recently tweeted that he would not attend the forthcoming AIPAC annual policy conference because, he claimed, it provides a platform “for leaders who express bigotry and oppose basic Palestinian rights.” If he gets to the White House (whose name Sanders might want to change as it can be construed as offensive to African-Americans), Sanders could likely surpass Obama as the U.S. president who would be most remembered by Jews for his hostility to the State of Israel.
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of “Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel 1896-2016,” which was recently selected for Mosaic by Ruth Wisse and Martin Kramer as a “Best Book” for 2019.