During Thursday night’s Democratic presidential debate, Vermont senator Bernie Sanders did something that no major candidate in recent memory has dared to do.
Defying the bipartisan pro-Israel consensus that dominates American politics, Sanders forcefully defended the humanity of Palestinians and delivered perhaps the most blistering indictment against Israel’s right-wing government ever uttered by a US senator.
And he did so in front of a New York audience, with millions more watching on CNN, just days ahead of a heated primary race in a state where Jewish voters are expected to make up 16 to 19 percent of the electorate.
It was a stunning response from a candidate who just two summers ago had angrily shouted down his constituents who supported Palestinian rights at a Vermont town hall, where he defended Israel’s 2014 military assault on the besieged Gaza Strip.
And it was a huge risk. Though Sanders is the first Jewish candidate in US history to win a single primary state, Jewish voters aren’t feeling the bern.
According to an NBC 4 New York/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll, Clinton is leading among Jews in New York with 65 percent support to Sanders’ 32 percent.
While the relative lack of Jewish enthusiasm for Sanders isn’t necessarily related to his position on Israel, his performance last night likely alienated some in this crucial voting bloc even more. In other words, Sanders had little to gain from saying what he said when he said it.
If anything, it was a demonstration of his more principled commitment to equality, a trait his opponent, notorious for shifting her positions with the political winds, clearly lacks.
“Respect and dignity”
During the national security portion of the debate, moderator Wolf Blitzer asked Sanders, “What do you say to those who believe that Israel has a right to defend itself as it sees fit?”
Despite coming under heavy attack for calling Israel’s 2014 military assault on Gaza “disproportionate,” Sanders stood by his comments on the debate stage.
“Israel was subjected to terrorist attacks, has every right in the world to destroy terrorism. But we had in the Gaza area – not a very large area – some 10,000 civilians who were wounded and some 1,500 who were killed,” Sanders replied.
“If you’re asking not just me, but countries all over the world, ‘was that a disproportionate attack,’ the answer is that I believe it was,” added Sanders, to an eruption of cheers from the audience.
“If we are ever going to bring peace to that region which has seen so much hatred and so much war, we are going to have to treat the Palestinian people with respect and dignity,” he continued, prompting another round of roaring applause.
Describing Gaza as “decimated,” Sanders urged “the United States and the rest of the world” to “work together to help the Palestinian people.”
“That does not make me anti-Israel,” he argued. “That paves the way, I think to an approach that works in the Middle East.”
Hillary echoes her donor
Asked whether she agreed with Sanders that Israel’s response was disproportionate, Clinton recited her usual pro-Israel talking points, insisting that Israel is “under constant threat” of terrorism with “rockets raining down on their towns and villages.”
She accused Hamas of “constant incitement … aided and abetted by Iran” and promoted the long-debunked myth of Palestinians turning down Israel’s generous offer at the 2000 Camp David summit convened by her husband President Bill Clinton.
When Sanders called her out for evading the question, Clinton proclaimed that “even the most independent analyst will say” that Hamas disguises “its fighters in civilian garb” and fires from civilian areas.
There is absolutely no evidence to support Clinton’s repeated assertion that Palestinian fighters dress in civilian clothing to inflate the civilian death toll, certainly not from any independent analyst.
It’s a complete fabrication designed to justify mass killing in Gaza, which Clinton referred to as “a terrorist haven.”
There is, however, a long and documented history of Palestinians being used as human shields, but by Israel not Hamas.
And there are mountains of evidence, including the report from the UN Human Rights Council’s independent commission of inquiry, headed by a former New York State Supreme Court justice, documenting Israeli crimes in Gaza.
But facts matter little when your campaign is dependent on moneyed interests.
Clinton was simply echoing the views of her billionaire mega-donor Haim Saban, who freely admits that his number one priority is to influence US foreign policy in Israel’s favor by donating to politicians, establishing think tanks and buying up media outlets.
Saban has poured over $6 million into efforts to get Clinton elected president.
“I heard virtually no discussion at all about the needs of the Palestinian people. Almost none in that speech,” said Sanders, putting Clinton on the defensive.
“There comes a time when if we pursue justice and peace, we are going to have to say that Netanyahu is not right all of the time,” he proclaimed. “We cannot continue to be one-sided. There are two sides to the issue.”
Clinton, by contrast, has vowed to make cozying up to Netanyahu one of her top priorities as president.
The evolution in Sanders’ rhetoric is a testament to the hard work of the Palestine solidarity movement in mainstreaming justice for Palestinians among progressives.
While Sanders’ position on Israel is hardly revolutionary, he is trying to reflect a stance more closely in line with his overwhelmingly youthful base.
His forceful challenge to Clinton over support for Israel signals a serious departure from the narrow constraints of what establishment orthodoxy permits. It potentially creates space for other American politicians to speak out against Israel’s criminal behavior.
Sanders represents the future of liberal politics in America.
Israel’s hardline supporters recognize the danger these shifting dynamics pose to their agenda, which is why they’ve declared war on Sanders.
Most recently, they targeted his newly appointed director of Jewish outreach, Simone Zimmerman.
Zimmerman is a co-founder of If Not Now, a protest group formed in the wake of Israel’s 2014 war on Gaza by young Jews angered by the hawkish support shown for the onslaught by mainstream American Jewish institutions.
Though she identifies as non-Zionist, Zimmerman has been vocal in her criticism of Israel’s abuses of Palestinians and rejects attempts to obstruct the Palestinian-led movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions.
Her appointment provoked a torrent of attacks from Israel’s hardline supporters.
The neoconservative Washington Free Beacon attacked Zimmerman over an expletive-laden Facebook post written a year ago, in which she called Netanyahu “an arrogant, deceptive, cynical, manipulative asshole” and “the embodiment of the ugliest national hubris and tone-deafness towards the international community.”
Zimmerman excoriated Netanyahu for “daring to insist that you legitimately represent even a fraction of the Jews in this world” and for attempting to undermine the international nuclear agreement with Iran in order to “distract the world from the fact that you sanctioned the murder of over 2,000 people this summer [and] that a brutal military occupation of millions more continues under your watch.”
She posted the comment ahead of Netanyahu’s controversial address to Congressrailing against Obama’s nuclear deal.
Abe Foxman, the former head of the Anti-Defamation League, demanded that Sanders fire Zimmerman.
“No amount of word changes can cure her ugly characterization of the prime minister of Israel and the Israeli army and people defending themselves,” he told the Jewish Insider.
He was joined by Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
Unfortunately, just hours before last night’s debate, Sanders suspendedZimmerman, essentially capitulating to right-wing pressure.
That was a reminder that despite the change in tone from Sanders, the uphill battle against the highly effective pro-Israel machine is far from over.
As Rebecca Vilkomerson, executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace, put it in an emailed statement, last night’s debate “showed that the movement for Palestinian rights is shifting the discourse at the highest political levels. However, there is still a long way to go before we see our political leaders take courageous steps not just to recognize the humanity of Palestinians but to take action to secure their rights.”