Once it had become clear Sen. Bernie Sanders had lost out to former US vice president Joe Biden for the Democratic Party presidential nomination, many in the pro-Israel establishment began breathing a huge sigh of relief. But they should not be, for we have not heard the last from the senator from Vermont. Not when it comes to his misguided views on Israel.
As the Democratic runner-up for the second-consecutive time, Sanders will hold considerable sway over the Democratic Party platform, including the planks dealing with US foreign policy. One need look no further than the most controversial figures Sanders had recruited to his 2020 campaign to understand why his influence could be highly problematic.
Last September, Sanders named Palestinian-American political activist Linda Sarsour as a surrogate for his campaign. Sarsour, who supports the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, infamously tweeted in 2012, “Nothing is creepier than Zionism.”
At the “March for Racial Justice” in the fall of 2017, she attacked Jews who had brought signs proclaiming that they were both progressive and Zionist, declaring adherents of a “racist ideology” were not welcome. Not even Sarsour’s resignation as co-chair of the national Women’s March over accusations of antisemitism last year was sufficiently compelling for Sanders, who says he is “proudly Jewish,” to find her objectionable.
It was therefore hardly surprising that in February, Sanders appointed Phillip Agnew, a civil-rights activist who has accused Israel of ethnic cleansing and genocide, as a senior adviser. Like Sarsour, Agnew calls Zionism a “racist, exploitative and exclusionary ideology.”
Responding to his tweets of more than a decade ago, in which he called former first lady Michelle Obama “ugly,” Agnew apologized “for when my words harm.” Unless, apparently, the harm is done to Jews.
Lastly, there’s Matthew Duss, who was Sanders’s foreign policy adviser, another outspoken critic of US policy toward Israel. Duss called the Israeli blockade of Hamas-ruled Gaza “a moral abomination,” comparing it to “segregation in the American South.”
The experience of 2016, too, is indicative of what’s likely to be a robust debate over Israel during the lead-up to the Democratic convention in August. That year, Sanders, runner-up to Hillary Clinton for the Democratic Party nomination, named three prominent critics of Israel to the party’s platform drafting committee, among them, Cornel West, a professor of philosophy at Harvard. Although the committee managed to thwart an effort to insert one-sided language into the platform demanding “an end to occupation and illegal settlements,” the vote was close.
West has long supported the BDS movement. During a C-SPAN debate in December 2017 with Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, West argued Israel is a “colonialist-settler” state and that the West Bank is under an “apartheid” system, which, he claimed, is “worse” than it was in white-ruled South Africa.
Besides West and Duss, Sanders would have several other options for appointing Israel critics to the platform drafting committee. Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, for example, both strong supporters of BDS, had enthusiastically endorsed Sanders.
Sanders’s own views on Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are reflective of the people with whom he surrounds himself. The senator likes to wax nostalgic about his stay on Kibbutz Sha’ar HaAmakim near Haifa 57 years ago, as if that qualifies him to pass judgment on Israel today.
Sanders has repeatedly called Netanyahu-led governments “racist,” which must be music to the ears of BDS activists who falsely accuse Israel of apartheid. He also has proposed leveraging the $3.8 billion of military aid the US provides Israel each year – for such things as the Iron Dome missile defense system – to force the Jewish state to “fundamentally change [its] relationship with the people of Gaza,” even siphoning off some of that assistance to give to Gaza.
Just exactly how aid to Gaza would be used for actual humanitarian purposes, as opposed to the construction of Hamas terror tunnels or weapons factories, Sanders has never bothered to explain.
Even when it was obvious in March that Sanders had no realistic path to the nomination, the Jewish anti-occupation (some would say anti-Israel) group IfNotNow endorsed the senator, who eagerly welcomed their support. IfNotNow has signaled its intention to try to influence the forthcoming Democratic Party debate over Israel.
The pro-Israel community needs to be ready for “Platform Battle, the Sequel.” It’s one thing to express opposition to unilateral Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank. It’s quite another to call for a cut in military aid to Israel or include imbalanced language referring to Israel’s “immoral occupation.”
A warning: If the Sanders forces prevail, this may be only the beginning of the Democratic Party being pulled further and further to the left on Israel. n
The writer is director of community relations and public Affairs at the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland