Bernie Sanders and Ehud Barak are 74-year-old secular Jews who probably never met. One is Israel’s most decorated soldier and former prime minister, and the other a US senator, socialist and presidential candidate. Barak was born on a kibbutz; Sanders lived on one briefly in his 20s. Differences aside, each in his own way is opening a window on Israel’s future relations with American Jewry.
While they seem to have little in common, they agree on something important, namely that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is leading his country in the wrong direction and is causing a schism in US-Israel relations.
Sanders shocked many, especially in the Jewish community, when he said in a Brooklyn debate with Hillary Clinton, “Netanyahu is not right all the time.”
That view was echoed more emphatically in recent speeches by Moshe Ya’alon, who like Barak is a former defense minister in Netanyahu’s cabinet and former IDF chief of staff.
It also sounds a lot like something candidate Barack Obama told a Jewish audience eight years ago: “There is a strain within the pro-Israel community that says unless you adopt an unwavering pro-Likud approach to Israel that you’re anti-Israel.”
Ehud Barak was a lot tougher, using words like weak, feeble, deceitful, extreme, obtuse, blind and hubristic to describe the prime minister.
Most damning was his charge that the “roots of fascism” have taken hold in the Netanyahu government.
On the right, Ya’alon said “racist and extremist elements” are taking over Israel and the Likud and Netanyahu is “inflaming passions and causing fear between Jews and Arabs.”
Barak, reflecting what many Jewish leaders here fear in private but won’t say in public, said Netanyahu is swinging Israel so far to the Right that it is alienating young American Jews. That can be seen in recent polls and other studies here and was evident in the Sanders campaign.
The senator’s call for a more even-handed approach toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict frightened many in the Jewish establishment, but there was barely a ripple among the millennials, Jews and non-Jews, backing his campaign. His followers are younger, more liberal and more fed up with the status quo. To this generation of Jews being pro-Israel does not mean giving unqualified support to Israeli policies any more than they would give to the policies of their own government.
Sanders defines himself as “100 percent pro-Israel,” has spent time there, has family living there and is a proud Jew, but says that doesn’t mean obsequiously following Netanyahu. And he will try at next month’s Democratic Convention in Philadelphia to make the party platform more even-handed. To that end he appointed to the platform committee two pro-Palestinian activists, James Zogby and Cornel West. They’re already running into strong resistance from Clinton forces. Ultimately it will make no substantive difference because if Clinton is elected she will pursue her own policy, as all presidents do.
Sanders may not change US Mideast policy but he is focusing needed attention on the growing gap between American Jews and Israel, and between US and Israeli policy. His critics unfairly accuse him of being anti-Israel, a self-loathing Jew and trying to put “Israel-bashing language in the platform.”
What he’s really done is much more serious than the hysterical rhetoric from the far Right, which insists being pro-Israel really means supporting their extreme ideological positions. Like Barak, he has revealed some inconvenient truths.
What Sanders and his progressive followers, notably a younger generation, see is an Israel that marches steadily rightward toward intolerance and domination by religious and nationalist extremists.
They see a prime minister who, Barak said, only talks about two states but really want does not want to see a Palestinian state, and is just waiting for the rest of the world to lose interest in the conflict so he can impose his one-state solution.
Polls show support for Israel is diminishing among Democrats and growing among Republicans, where it is bolstered by Evangelicals and a growing number of Orthodox Jews. Some may try to blame the change on Obama’s supposed “hostility” toward Israel, but the real problem lies 6,000 miles away.
Netanyahu’s contemptuous treatment of the first African-American president, endorsing his opponent four years ago and last year’s leadership of the Republican lobbying campaign against the president’s nuclear agreement with Iran, alienated many African Americans, Hispanics and other minorities, to say nothing of traditional Democrats.
To younger and progressive Jews the treatment of Reform and Conservative movements – the majority of American Jews – by ultra-Orthodox rabbis on the Israeli government payroll sends a message: This is not your Israel.
Dov Waxman, professor of Israel studies at Northeastern University and author of Trouble in the Tribe, writes growing numbers of American Jews, although they still care about Israel, have become increasingly critical of Israeli government policies, especially concerning the Palestinians. Many want Israel to stop expanding West Bank settlements and start seriously negotiating peace with the Palestinians.
Sanders will press his call to “treat the Palestinian people with respect and dignity” at the convention, and Clinton will say that is standing US policy, but it is unlikely to be much of a campaign issue beyond some wild accusations and incendiary rhetoric from Donald Trump.
When Jews go to the polls on November 8, three out of four can be expected to vote Democrat, although Trump could send that number higher.