Bernie Sanders is trying to make Jewish and political history.
The senator from Vermont is one of three Jewish candidates vying to become president of the United States in 2020 — the other two being former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg and author Marianne Williamson.
But barring a strong showing from Bloomberg, who joined the fray late, Sanders, the self-described democratic socialist from Brooklyn, currently has the best chance to become our first Jewish president.
His father was a Jewish immigrant from Poland, and his mother was born in America to immigrant Jewish parents from Poland and Russia. In 1963, he lived and worked on Kibbutz Shaar Haamakim in northern Israel.
Sanders has said he is proud to be Jewish. In a June 2015 interview, Sanders said being Jewish taught him “in a very deep way what politics is about.”
“A guy named Adolf Hitler won an election in 1932. He won an election, and 50 million people died as a result of that election in World War II, including 6 million Jews. So what I learned as a little kid is that politics is, in fact, very important,” he said.
(Quick fact check: Hitler didn’t really win an election, but we get Bernie’s point.)
What has Bernie Sanders said regarding anti-Semitism?
He wrote an entire essay on the subject in Jewish Currents in November 2019, “How to Fight Antisemitism”:
“The threat of anti-Semitism is not some abstract idea to me. It is very personal. It destroyed a large part of my family. I am not someone who spends a lot of time talking about my personal background because I believe political leaders should focus their attention on a vision and agenda for others, rather than themselves. But I also appreciate that it’s important to talk about how our backgrounds have informed our ideas, our principles, and our values,” Sanders wrote.
His essay also shows that Sanders views anti-Semitism as a universal, intersectional threat and calls opposing it a “core value of progressivism.”
“Like other forms of bigotry — racism, sexism, homophobia — anti-Semitism is used by the right to divide people from one another and prevent us from fighting together for a shared future of equality, peace, prosperity and environmental justice,” he added.
He also outlines what his plan would be to fight anti-Semitism:
In Bernie’s words, he will:
- “direct the Justice Department to prioritize the fight against white nationalist violence.”
- “appoint a Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism…immediately.”
- “rejoin the United Nations Human Rights Council, which Trump withdrew from.”
The U.S. left the UN Human Rights Council in 2018 largely for what then-U.S. ambassador to the international body Nikki Haley called “chronic bias against Israel.”
What else has Sanders said on anti-Semitism?
In November 2015, Sanders spoke to NPR about visiting the Polish village where his dad grew up. “It was a very traumatic experience for me as a young man to know that my father’s family was killed by Nazis — killed by Hitler. And that left — if not intellectually — at least an emotional part of me that would say: God, we have got to do everything we can to end this kind of horrific racism and anti-Semitism, and I’ve spent much of my life to fight that.”
After Rep. Ilhan Omar was criticized for making what some saw as antismitic remarks about Jewish wealth and influence in February, the House voted on a resolution to condemn antisemitism. It was largely seen as a rebuke of Omar’s comments.
Sanders said that Omar should be more careful in how she speaks to the Jewish community, but that the resolution was part of an effort to unfairly silence Israel critics.
What is Bernie’s relationship like with Jewish groups?
MoveOn, the liberal activist group, called on Democratic presidential candidates to boycott the AIPAC conference in 2019 — an odd call, because AIPAC avoids asking presidential candidates to participate until primaries have begun. MoveOn tried to claim victory for the uninvited no-shows. Sanders was the single candidate who played along, saying that if he had been invited, he would not have attended.
On the other hand, he has addressed J Street, the liberal pro-Israel lobby, numerous times — U.S. News reported he got a “hometown welcome” at the 2019 conference.
Where does Sanders say about the movement to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel — commonly referred to as BDS?
Unlike many other progressives, Bernie is against BDS. He has stated that anti-Semitism is a driver of the anti-Israel movement:
“Israel has done some very bad things, so has every other country on earth,” Sanders said on MSNBC in March 2016. “I think the people who want to attack Israel for their policies, I think that is fair game. But not to appreciate that there is some level of anti-Semitism around the world involved in that I think would be a mistake.”
Sanders also said in May 2017 that he did not respect BDS as a tactic.
However, Sanders voted against the recent anti-BDS bill in Congress, telling the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, “While I do not support the BDS movement, we must defend every American’s constitutional right to engage in political activity. It is clear to me that this bill would violate Americans’ First Amendment rights.”
In September, Sen. Sanders named Linda Sarsour, a Palestinian-American activist, outspoken critic of Israel and BDS supporter, as a surrogate for his campaign.
What are Bernie’s general policies on Israel?
His public record on Israel goes back to 1988, when Sanders was mayor of Burlington, Vermont. The First Intifada had begun a year earlier, and Sanders said, “What is going on in the Middle East right now is obviously a tragedy, there’s no question about it. The sight of Israeli soldiers breaking the arms and legs of Arabs is reprehensible. The idea of Israel closing down towns and sealing them off is unacceptable.”
However, he continued, “You have had a crisis there for 30 years, you have had people at war for 30 years, you have a situation with some Arab countries where there are still some Arab leadership calling for the destruction of the state of Israel and the murder of Israeli citizens.”
It’s now been closer to 50 years, but Sanders remains a politician who has continued to express both support for Israel and critique of the country’s policies.
In March 2016, Sanders said,“We have also got to be a friend, not only to Israel, but to the Palestinian people… When we talk about Israel and Palestinian areas, it is important to understand that today there is a whole lot of suffering among Palestinians and that cannot be ignored.”
He wants both Israelis and Palestinians to recognize each other’s pain:
“The founding of Israel is understood by another people in the land of Palestine as the cause of their painful displacement. And just as Palestinians should recognize the just claims of Israeli Jews, supporters of Israel must understand why Palestinians view Israel’s creation as they do,” Sanders wrote in his Jewish Currents essay.
Speaking with Al Jazeera in 2017, Sanders said that while there are “many problems” with Israel, and that he would continue to be critical, he believes that Israel is unfairly singled out for criticism, especially in relation to other middle eastern countries.
He has also criticized Palestinian leaders.
“While I am very critical of Netanyahu’s right-wing government, I am not impressed by what I am seeing from Palestinian leadership, as well. It’s corrupt in many cases, and certainly not effective,” Sanders told The New Yorker in April 2019.
So what does he think about solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
In an interview with Council on Foreign Relations, Sanders said, “Ultimately, it’s up to the Palestinians and Israelis themselves to make the choices necessary for a final agreement, but the United States has a major role to play in brokering that agreement. My administration would also be willing to bring real pressure to bear on both sides, including conditioning military aid, to create consequences for moves that undermine the chances for peace.”
What about conditioning aid to Israel?
Let’s let Bernie tell you: “I would use the leverage, $3.8 billion is a lot of money, and we cannot give it carte blanche to the Israeli government or to any government at all. We have the right to demand respect for human rights and democracy.” He said this at J Street’s conference in October 2019, and went on to add that aid money should go towards humanitarian aid in Gaza.
That wasn’t the first time he brought up conditioning aid or the idea of using aid as leverage. When Jon Favreau asked Sanders on Pod Save America in July 2019, “We spend a few billion dollars on aid to Israel. Would you ever consider using that aid as leverage to get the Israeli government to act differently?”
Sanders replied, “Absolutely.”
But here’s what he said next: “Let me let me back it up before the tweets start flowing in. I lived in Israel. Actually, I worked in a kibbutz for a number of months. I have family in Israel. I am Jewish. I am not anti-Israel. Okay? I believe that the people of Israel have, absolutely, the right to live in peace, independence and security. End of discussion… The role of the United States — and this is not easy, you know, believe me, Clinton tried it, Obama tried it, Jimmy Carter tried it, this is not easy stuff — is to try to finally bring peace to the Middle East and to treat the Palestinian people with a kind of respect and dignity they deserve. Our policy cannot just be pro-Israel, pro-Israel, pro-Israel.”
What is Sanders’ relationship with Benjamin Netaynahu?
“Well, I gotta tell you, I am not a great fan,” Sanders said in 2015. He’s been vocally critical of the Israeli prime minister and called his policies racist and his government extreme right wing.
He’s also named Netanyahu as part of a new “authoritarian axis,” a group including Russia’s Vladimir Putin, the Saudi royal family, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and President Trump.
Where does Sanders stand on Israeli settlements, occupation and the Palestinian territories?
Sanders tweeted in November 2019 that “Israeli settlements in occupied territory are illegal.” He’s also called the occupation unsustainable, telling the AJC forum in June 2019: “Ending that occupation and enabling the Palestinians to have independence and self-determination in a sovereign, independent, economically viable state of their own is in the best interest of the United States, Israel, the Palestinians and the entire region.”
Jewish fun fact?
Bernie went to same high school as Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Chuck Schumer, Judge Judy and several Nobel Prize winners: James Madison High School in the Sheepshead Bay neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York.
Extra Jewish fun fact:
Bernie Sanders and Larry David are actually distant cousins! Now go rewatch those “Saturday Night Live” parodies, again.