In last week’s Democratic presidential debate, Senator Bernie Sanders again showed that while he is not anti-Israel, he is the kind of “friend” better sidelined as a marginal backbencher flailing about in the Senate chamber than making foreign policy as president in the White House.
In a normal world, his remarks would sound innocent, reasonable, supportive.
He affirmed Israelis’ “right not only to defend themselves, but to live in peace and security without fear of terrorist attack.” He supported treating “the Palestinian people with respect and dignity.” And he said, equally reasonably, “that [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu is not right all of the time.” But just as when Sanders called himself the “son of Polish immigrants” – Poppa Sanders was a Jew, not a Pole – Sanders’ Middle East riff was technically true but actually brimming with hostility toward the Jewish people.
Sanders echoes the Blame Israel Firsters’ code words and false phrases. Preferring an “even-handed” American approach sounds fair but would be anything but. Calling Israel’s self-defense “disproportionate” overlooks Israel’s repeated attempts to minimize civilian damage and Hamas’s cowardly, dastardly use of civilians as human shields.
Hillary Clinton’s counterpunch balanced out Sanders’ self-righteous sermonizing by offering context. Invoking “25 years” of experience with “Israeli officials,” she said: “They do not invite the rockets raining down on their towns and villages.” She blasted “a constant incitement by Hamas aided and abetted by Iran against Israel.”
She reminded Sanders and his millennial groupies that “Israel left Gaza.... They turned the keys over to the Palestinian people... And what happened? Hamas took over Gaza” creating “a terrorist haven.”
And, most boldly, rejecting the claims that Israel undermined the two-state solution, she added “if Yasser Arafat had agreed with my husband at Camp David in the late 1990s to the offer then prime minister [Ehud] Barak put on the table, we would have had a Palestinian state for 15 years.”
This exchange mapped out the Israel debate’s current contours among mainstream Democrats. Sanders belongs to the Barack Obama faction: pro-Israel in theory but fed up with Netanyahu’s Israel in fact.
These Blame Israel Firsters don’t want to see the Jewish state destroyed but don’t want to see how their one-sided finger-pointing could get the Jewish state destroyed. Taking a tough-love approach, they allege Israel is too quick to attack and too slow to make peace. They emphasize, as Sanders does, the destruction in Gaza, overlooking what triggered it – ignoring immediate causes like Kassams, and the ultimate cause, Palestinian rejectionism and terrorism.
By contrast, Hillary Clinton is embracing her husband Bill Clinton’s approach that realizes Israelis respond better to love love, not tough love. Most Democrats envision the same two-state solution, following the (Bill) Clinton parameters, replicating the 1967 borders, with some land swaps. But, as Hillary Clinton’s answer indicated, these Two Staters acknowledge that while Israel may err occasionally, the Palestinians have behaved abominably. Rather than being blindly “even handed” – which often means bash Israel and excuse Palestinians – these people make moral distinctions. They respect Palestinians enough to hold them responsible for sabotaging chances of peace repeatedly, especially during Oslo.
In the 1990s, and as Barack Obama’s secretary of state, Hillary Clinton was a tough-lover. But as senator, and now as a candidate courting Jewish votes and money, she’s just showing her loving side.
More ominously, beyond these two schools, the debate risks being Europeanized, as academic anti-Semitic anti-Zionism festers on the far Democratic Left. This “no love” school is passionately anti-Israel.
These people reject Israel’s right to exist, often explicitly, sometimes implicitly. The boycotters claim they “only” target Israel’s presence in the territories. However their rhetoric, leadership, hysteria and disproportionate targeting of democratic Israel reveal an obsession with the Jewish state that is anti-Semitic, and a hatred for Israel that is exterminationist, validating the Palestinian-Iranian-Hezbollah axis of evil calling for Israel’s destruction.
Unfortunately, because the world is so hostile to Israel and America has been so supportive of Israel, American tough-lovers encourage the no-love activists. Just as Republicans must take responsibility if their rhetoric riles up racists, people like Obama and Sanders must take responsibility for this “dog whistling,” how their seemingly friendly cover words embolden the haters.
Of course, pro-Israel doesn’t mean proeverything- Israel-does-all-the-time. But this debate occurs in a context. Pretending that the “Free Palestine” calls for Bernie Sanders in Brooklyn did not also come from Israel haters is naïve. The Democratic Party must affirm that anti-Semites and anti-Zionists aren’t welcome in the party of Harry Truman and John Kennedy, of Eleanor Roosevelt and Betty Friedan, of Martin Luther King and John Lewis – all proud, passionate, pro-Israel Progressives.
Democrats must learn from the conservative William F. Buckley who outed the anti-Semitism lurking in Pat Buchanan’s anti-Zionism in the 1991, and banished it from the Republican Party.
Whoever wins the nomination fight must lead this fight for the Democratic Party’s soul. It goes beyond Americans’ self-interested fight for Israel, even though two-thirds of Americans appreciate Israel as a rare, stable, democratic ally in a chaotic neighborhood of dictators and terrorists.
It goes beyond the noble fight against anti-Semitism, even though true Progressives must repudiate this PC prejudice, the one acceptable expression of bigotry in a world that is increasingly and admirably intolerant of intolerance.
Ultimately, the fight over Israel is a fight about foreign policy and America’s role in the world. Anti-Zionism and anti-Americanism are overlapping phenomena.
Hatred or self-hatred of Israel often parallel hatred or self-hatred of America. Radicals rejecting a powerful Israel often reject American power. Ultimately, then, this fight is about American pride, American dignity and Americans’ collective sense of their mission, place and value in this world, yesterday, today and tomorrow.The writer is the author of The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s, just published by Thomas Dunne Books of St. Martin’s Press. His next book will update Arthur Hertzberg’s The Zionist Idea. He is a professor of history at McGill University. Follow on Twitter @GilTroy.