As his white hair and demeanor let on, Bernie Sanders is no youngster or political novice.
He is a long-serving US senator, who seeks the Democratic nomination for president and whose words influence the public and certainly his own supporters.
But there are some who would write off his dangerous and shocking statements in that interview with the New York Daily News – in which he claimed among other things that Israel killed 10,000 innocent Palestinians in the summer of 2014. Sanders later said he’d merely made a mistake about the figure, that should be forgiven, as a mistake made by a child or an amateur would be.
The Anti-Defamation League, the primary Jewish organization which publicly demanded that Sanders issue a correction, appears to have taken this approach. It “welcomed” Sanders’ statement that he accepted the much lower number of deaths in Gaza mentioned by one of the Daily News interviewers later on in the interview.
The ADL’s attitude is essentially this: Sanders confused some numbers and then accepted he was wrong. It could happen to anyone.
It is true that much of the outrage focused on the grossly inaccurate “10,000” number Sanders gave for civilian deaths in Gaza. The ADL’s initial statement, for example, mentioned that Sander’s said Israel’s use of force was “disproportionate,” but was primarily dedicated to the highly exaggerated number of civilian deaths. David Horovitz’s attention-grabbing headline was, “Seven Times Worse than Hamas: Bernie Sanders by the Numbers,” and his article focused mostly on the claim of 10,000 killed.
Indeed, if it were just a question of getting a number right, then the indignation of Jewish organizations and Israeli politicians would be partially misplaced, as Jerusalem Post op-ed editor Seth Frantzman suggested in his recent column. It would also follow that having publicly accepted that 10,000 Palestinian civilians were not killed, those dedicated to countering the defamation of Israel should drop the matter, as the ADL has.
But Sanders’ did not just confuse numbers.
His accusation against Israel was more damning than any number could be. Sanders claimed that Israel indiscriminately killed 10,000 civilians.
“I think most international observers would say that the attacks against Gaza were indiscriminate,” Sanders said. With the technology available, “they could have been more discriminate in terms of taking out weapons that were threatening them,” he argued.
Then he gave the 10,000 number. Then he again said, “I do believe and I don’t think I’m alone in believing that Israel’s force was more indiscriminate than it should have been.”
So more than merely inflating the number of those killed by a factor of seven, Sanders essentially accused Israel of mass murder.
As to his numerical error, this too cannot be so easily written off.
Even considering how many have been slaughtered in Syria just next door, killing 10,000 people is no less of a slaughter, especially if done in the span of a few weeks, as Sanders believed.
What seems to have confused some people about whether Sanders is responsible for his statements were the myriad disclaimers Sanders tacked on to his many accusations to give himself cover, just like the politician he pretends not to be.
“My recollection is”; “Does that sound right?”; “I don’t have... [an exact] number but I think it’s over 10,000”; “My understanding is that a whole lot of apartment houses were leveled”; “Hospitals, I think, were bombed”; “So yeah, I do believe and I don’t think I’m alone in believing....”
But by going on record and repeating, exaggerating, and basing a political position on an accusation of wrongdoing, Sanders essentially endorsed that accusation, regardless of the disclaimers. If Sanders was as unsure as he made himself out to be, he ought not to have repeated such outrageous accusations at all.
At best Sanders readily accepted a claim that Israel committed mass murder. Had he any sympathy for Israel, the 10,000 number would not have left his mouth.
He might also have been aware that accusations like the one he repeated and embellished are constantly hurled at Israel to demonize it and would not have added to the anti-Semitic mob’s cry.
This was not just a misfired synapse or a lack of precise information. It was a presumption about who is terrorizing who in the conflict between democratic Israel and Palestinian terrorists.
This is not something that a little education can fix, as Sanders’ appointment of new Jewish outreach director, Simone Zimmerman, has confirmed. (In a recent op-ed in Haaretz, she wrote, “No public relations trick can save Israel’s image. The problem isn’t with the hasbara [public diplomacy]”). Sanders himself is no ignoramus. He’s a political veteran and like Zimmerman, an idealist with a definite world view. Israel just does not figure too highly in that world view.
In the Daily News interview, Sanders said he thought Israel should be recognized as a Jewish state.
But when asked why, he didn’t say, as even President Barack Obama has said, that the Jewish people need a state of their own or that Israel is their ancestral homeland.
Instead, Sanders replied, “that’s the status quo.”
The flip side of such reasoning being that if it were not the status quo, Sanders would not necessarily support the existence of a Jewish state.
Sanders’ answer to a bigoted question about “Zionist Jews” a few days later at the Apollo in Harlem, New York, seems to confirm this. Sanders responded that he was “proud to be Jewish,” but he added the proviso that “you’re not going to find any candidate running for president, for example, to talk about Zionism” – which is the rationale for the existence of a Jewish state in the land of Zion.
Sanders has also made clear how, as president, he would relate to Israel.
“[T]o the degree that they want us to have a positive relationship,” Sanders said of Israel in his discussion with the Daily News, “I think they’re going to have to improve their relationship with the Palestinians.”
According to Sanders, support for Israel should depend on how it gets along with the people who refuse to recognize its right to exist and constantly wage terrorism campaigns against it.
Under president Bernie Sanders all Palestinian terrorist groups will have to do to destroy Israel’s relationship with the United States is wage war on Israel, hide among their own civilian population to create a high level of civilian casualties and claim Israel is firing indiscriminately.
President Sanders will not doubt such claims and may even parrot them in a press conference. Palestinian spokesmen like Saeb Erekat won’t even have to falsify the casualty numbers. President Sanders might make up a number for them.
Believing, publicly repeating, exaggerating and essentially endorsing blood libels against Israel, as Bernie Sanders did and as he may do as president, is no mere error of arithmetic or memory to be quickly forgiven and forgotten.
The writer is an attorney admitted to practice law in Israel and New York.