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)
For many years now, support for Israel has been a rare point of bipartisan consensus in an increasingly polarized political climate.
Bernie Sanders apparently seems determined to undermine that consensus.
Sanders has demonstrated a consistent bias against the nation-state of the Jewish people and surrounded himself with foreign-policy “experts” who often describe Israel as an apartheid state, and have repeatedly accused the IDF of committing war crimes. Sanders has clearly absorbed some of this rhetoric, as demonstrated in a series of recent interviews, in which he grossly overstated the number of Palestinian civilian deaths in Operation Protective Edge, and accused Israel of using disproportionate force in response to Hamas’ rocket attacks.
Following these statements, primary voters in New York and across the Northeast decisively rejected Sanders’ candidacy, and effectively ensured that Hillary Clinton will be the next Democratic presidential nominee. But Sanders’ efforts to end the Democratic Party’s support for Israel may well endanger Clinton’s prospects in the general election.
Rather than modify or moderate his positions on Israel, Sanders now seems intent on remolding the Democratic Party to reflect the views of his most radical anti-Israel (and anti-American) supporters. Sanders apparently wants to use his newfound political clout to revise the language of the Democratic Party platform as regards the only true democracy in the Middle East.
Sanders claims that he wants Democrats to embrace a more “balanced approach” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but his appointment of James Zogby and Cornel West to the Democratic Platform Committee suggests anything but. Indeed, both Zogby and West are notorious for espousing policy positions that are extremely critical of Israel, and for using rhetoric that sometimes borders on anti-Semitic.
Zogby, for example, has frequently used provocative and even bigoted language when commentating on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He has compared the plight of the Palestinian people to that of the Jews during the Holocaust. He has described Gaza as “the world’s largest concentration camp,” and has repeatedly accused the Israeli government of perpetrating crimes against humanity. Comparing Israel’s self defense actions to the Nazi genocide against the Jews is a not-so subtle form of Holocaust denial: if all Nazi Germany did was defend itself against Jewish aggression, then there were no gas chambers, no rounding up of Jews from the most far-flung corners of Europe and transporting them to Auschwitz, and no genocide.
Moreover, Zogby has endorsed the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which calls for the boycott only of Israeli goods and institutions, until Israel allows for the so-called “right of return,” which would turn Israel into yet another Arab-Muslim majority state. In effect Zogby is supportive of a group whose stated objective is to undo over 30 years of negotiations, and end the existence of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people.
Zogby, however, seems like a moderate in comparison to West, whose frequent diatribes against Israel at times speaks to a propensity for borderline anti-Semitic stereotypes. According to West, for example, the Iraq War was caused by “the close relationship between American imperial elites and Israeli political officials.” He has repeatedly accused Israel of killing Palestinian babies – an allegation that echoes historic attacks on Jews for “blood libel” – and frequently claims that Israel is deliberately seeking to annihilate the Palestinian people.
Like many hard-left anti-Israel bigots, West also has disdain for America and its current president, whom he has accused of being a war criminal for supporting Israel’s military interventions in Gaza, and for escalating the use of drones in operations against Islamic State (ISIS) and al-Qaida.
He has also called President Barack Obama “the first niggerized president of the United States,” a remark which was widely condemned by Republicans and Democrats alike. West justified his criticisms of President Obama by explaining that the president “feels most comfortable with upper middle- class white and Jewish men who consider themselves very smart, very savvy, and very effective in getting what they want” thereby invoking another anti-Semitic stereotype, that of the savvy Jewish businessman.
West has a long history of accusing Jews of being racist. He claimed that “large numbers of Jews tried to secure a foothold in America by falling in step with the widespread perpetuation of anti-black stereotypes and garnering of white-skin privilege benefits to non-black Americans.”
Yet it is West who is doing the stereotyping: when West angrily left Harvard for Princeton in 2002 because of a feud with Harvard’s then-president Larry Summers, he said that Summers had “messed with the wrong Negro” and called Harvard’s Jewish president “the Ariel Sharon of higher education.” West also called Black Lives Matter a “marvelous new militancy...
with courage, vision,” and believes that the shooting of Michael Brown was a manifestation of “American terrorism.” West also does not shy away from associating himself with 9/11 conspiracy theorists, going even himself so far as to suggest that one cannot be certain whether Muslims were behind the attacks.
Sanders’ decision to elevate radicals like West and Zogby to positions of power within the Democratic Party speaks to either a stunning lack of judgment or an underlying hostility toward the nation-state of the Jewish people. Either way, it must be resisted by the much-maligned Democratic Party establishment come the convention in July.
Hillary Clinton has already made significant concessions to the so-called progressive wing of the party represented by Sanders. On issues like free trade, the minimum wage and regulation of the financial industry she has moved toward Sanders in meaningful ways. As far as Israel is concerned, however, Clinton must stand her ground and oppose the fringe positions of the far-left. If she does not, she may well suffer among centrist voters in several swing states.
Sanders seems determined to turn Israel into a partisan issue by appointing surrogates like Zogby and West to rewrite the Democratic Party platform.
It is up to centrist Democrats, who still represent a majority of the party, to resist this attempt, and to ensure that support for Israel remains a point of bipartisan consensus. Weakening this historic consensus would be bad for Israel, for America, for peace – and for the electoral prospects of the Democratic Party.