Comment: Accusing Bernie Sanders of ‘blood libel’ - the future of US-Israel relations

Sanders and his supporters likely won’t win this election, but it’s probable the Sanders phenomenon will have long-term impact.

By
April 11, 2016 13:17
Bernie Sanders

Democratic US presidential candidate and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders waves at the start of the Democratic U.S. presidential candidates' debate in Flint, Michigan, March 6, 2016. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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‘He accused us of a blood libel. He accused us of bombing hospitals. He accused us of killing 10,000 Palestinian civilians. Don’t you think that merits an apology?” asked former ambassador to the US and current MK Michael Oren. He was reacting to an April 4 interview with US Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders in The New York Daily News in which Sanders made chopped liver of the facts regarding death tolls in Israel’s 2014 war with Hamas in Gaza.

Like some scene from the ‘80s classic A Fish Called Wanda, more Israeli politicians jumped on the “apologize!” bandwagon. On Saturday Ofir Akunis, science, technology and space minister, told attendees at a cultural event in Rishon Lezion, “Sanders has spread horrible lies against the State of Israel and he needs to apologize as soon as possible.”

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Listening to the way some Israeli politicians talk about Sanders one gets the sense they have an outsized view of Israel’s importance in the US political landscape. That view is fed by events like recent AIPAC conference in Washington where 18,000 pro-Israel supporters turned out and all the candidates except Sanders wooed them. While it’s easy to listen to the kind words of Ted Cruz and Hillary Clinton, or Donald Trump and John Kasich, the reality is that Israelis and pro-Israel supporters should be listening to Sanders, not because he is right, but precisely because he is wrong and his supporters don’t care.

Since the Sanders phenomenon caught on last year, the Brooklyn-born Jewish candidate from Vermont and avowed socialist has been romping home the youth vote. In Iowa he won 84 percent of the vote among those age 17-29. According to ABC Sanders has won 70% of the vote among those under 29 in all primaries through April 9. Clinton’s support is a mirror image – she does better among older voters, African- Americans and women. Even though the under- 29 demographic won’t bring Sanders victory in the Democratic convention which Clinton is still likely to win, the generational trend is important. According to Nate Silver at fivethirtyeight.com, those under 29 have a more favorable view of the label “socialist” and aren’t bothered by Sanders’ perceived radicalism that has even The New York Times’ Paul Krugman whining.

The generation of voters born between 1982 and 2000 consists of 83 million people. It is powerful and it will eventually become more so. When Sanders skipped AIPAC after his offer to provide a televised address was panned by the organizers, his supporters didn’t care. His March 21 press release on the “speech not given” is interesting. “I am probably the only candidate for president who has personal ties with Israel.

I spent a number of months there when I was a young man on a kibbutz,” read the release. While he said Israel deserves security, he argued Palestinians deserve “self-determination, civil rights and economic well being.” He noted that “I, along with many supports of Israel, spoke out strongly against the Israeli counterattacks [on Gaza in 2014] that killed nearly 1,500 civilians.”

But how did this Jewish candidate for president who lived in Israel become a maligned “blood libeler” whom a Jewish Press oped derided as “not a Jew”? How did he end up being described as “seven times worse than Hamas” by an Israeli online newspaper and illustrated as being hit in the face with a bagel by The Village Voice as a Jewish heretic? He has “Israel hating advisers,” the Free Beacon claims. Evidence? He sought advice from J Street.

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Most observers characterize Sanders as uninterested in foreign policy and say Sanders has been “taken in,” as Yair Rosenberg noted, by some bad advice. J. J. Goldberg felt that Sanders was simply being co-opted and portrayed as an anti-Zionist, when in fact he is a “Labor Zionist.” But the Daily News interview seemed to indicate that Sanders’ disinterest in foreign affairs might lead to dangerous claims.

“My recollection is over 10,000 innocent people were killed in Gaza. Does that sound right?” he asked the interviewer. More odd than the inflated figure, Sanders twice claimed Israel’s “attacks against Gaza were indiscriminate.”

This sets off alarm bells in the pro-Israel community.

The Anti-Defamation League expressed displeasure, and Sanders admitted he erred. His spokesman claimed that no candidate supported Israel’s “right to exist” as strongly as the man from Vermont.

The problem for those concerned about Israel-US relations remains that although Sanders might have clarified his statements, his supporters are not deeply troubled by them. There is only one poll of Jewish support for Sanders, which shows it at around 18% last September. However there is evidence that among young American Jews, his brand of progressive values strike a cord. So for those shouting “apologize” and “blood libel,” they should be wondering how many Sanders supporters have changed their minds over the “10,000” error? A candidate who doesn’t care and won’t apologize? In some ways that’s the most worrisome thing for Israel and the pro-Israel community. The ease with which any comment critical of Israel, or mistake in characterizing its wars, is melodramatically labeled anti-Semitism has the potential to do long-term harm to Israel’s relationship with young Americans.

When I posted the Sanders comments on Facebook some of the replies against them compared his comments to having sold out Jews during the Holocaust.

It is part of this knee-jerk “anti-Semitism” refrain that has been cultivated in Israel circles, where exaggerating every criticism of Israel into anti-Semitism is seen as a good way to defend Israel. But accusing the one Jewish candidate for president, someone who lived in Israel and has always supported Israel, of committing a “blood libel” shows how out of touch Israelis are becoming. How long will accusations of anti-Semitism against Jewish candidates, against Jewish left-wing groups and Jews who have a radical critique of Israel or even loathe the country the way Tony Judt did, continue to be greeted with relevance? Sanders and his supporters seemed to greet them with a shrug.

For some reason many in the pro-Israel community have become addicted to the flattery of candidates who promise them outright lies, such as “I will move the US embassy to Jerusalem.” Instead of seeing sycophantic speeches for what they are, they want more. It would behoove this crowd to listen more to Sanders and his supporters. They likely won’t win this election, but just as Eugene McCarthy inspired many people to get into politics in 1968, it’s probable the Sanders phenomenon will have long-term impact. If the impact is that more politicians decide they will be more ambivalent on Israel and not be afraid of accusations of “blood libel,” there will be long-term consequences. More Israel supporters should listen to Ze’ev Elkin’s response to Sanders: Politicians make mistakes, “what is important is what candidates do and not what they say.”

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