For casual political observers, it may have seemed counter-intuitive. As the campaign for the New York primary heats up, presidential candidates usually go into full pander protocol when it comes to Jewish voters in the only state where this group may actually have a real impact on the outcome. For most of them that usually consists of eating food, paying homage to religion (Ted Cruz went through the motion of trying to learn how to bake matzah) and, of course, reminding voters of their undying friendship for the state of Israel. But Bernie Sanders isn’t reciting the usual script about the Jewish state. After delivering a Middle East policy speech last month that was highly critical of Israel that he chose not to give at the AIPAC conference (the only presidential candidate to avoid their annual event this year) and then making a staggering exaggeration about the 2014 Gaza war that amounted to an accusation of a massive war crime during an interview with the New York Daily News, Sanders walked part of it back but actually doubled down on the underlying attack on Israel during another interview yesterday on CNN’s “State of the Nation.”
Asked by Jake Tapper about his claim that Israel had killed “10,000 innocent civilians” — a number that was five times the inaccurate claims made by Hamas and more than ten times the actual toll of those used as human shields by the Islamist terror group — Sanders admitted the number was inaccurate (something he seemed to want to blame on his interviewer rather than himself) but then insisted that the basic premise of his critique of Israel was correct.
Sanders again said that Israel’s counter-attack on the terrorist group, which was raining down thousands of rockets on Israeli towns and cities and sending killers through tunnels to kidnap and murder, was “disproportionate.” Though he coupled this assertion with a claim of supporting Israel’s right to exist and to defend itself against terror, he failed to explain why a weaker response to an active threat would have either worked or been more appropriate. Instead, he again shifted the conversation from what the Palestinians are doing to what he believes is Israel’s responsibility for the conflict. He said Israel must “treat Palestinians with dignity and respect” and address the poverty in Gaza. His point was that to be really pro-Israel you have to do more than be concerned about the Jewish state’s security.
This is the sort of thinking that is common on the American left, including left-wing Jews, who cling to their preconceptions about Israeli perfidy and ignore the reality of the Middle East. Sanders doesn’t bother to consider that poverty in Gaza is the result of Hamas misrule, especially since Israel withdrew from the strip in 2005. If their poverty is to be blamed on the partial blockade of the area enforced by Israel and Egypt (though Israeli convoys of food and medicine kept flowing into Gaza even while Hamas was firing at Israel), it is because that independent Palestinian state in all but name is a terrorist enclave.
Though he is right to say Palestinians are deserving of respect and dignity, but if they think the lack of a state and the continuing Israeli presence in the West Bank is the problem, then why doesn’t Sanders ponder why they have repeatedly refused Israeli offers of statehood and independence? Even now, Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas refuses to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn and speaks (when addressing Palestinians in Arabic as opposed to speaking to Westerners in English) of all of Israel as being “occupied” territory.
Sanders’ distortions about Israel would not have earned him cheers from a pro-Israel audience like that at the AIPAC conference and they aren’t likely to do so from similar Jewish audiences in New York. Why then is Sanders doubling down on a controversial approach to the Middle East just as the largest number of Jewish primary voters are about to have their say about the Democratic race?
The answer isn’t that complicated. Though most politicians believe they must leave no doubts about their pro-Israel bona fides when competing in New York, Sanders seems to understand that a large number of Jewish voters don’t really care about that much about Israel. The idea that Jews are one-issue pro-Israel voters has always been a myth. Most are liberal Democrats who may care about Israel but are more concerned about domestic issues. But among Sanders’ core audience, the alienation from Israel goes much further than that. Their embrace of the J Street-style attack of Israeli policies may show how out of touch they are from what even the center-left in Israel understands to be the reality of the conflict. But it is also a product of distancing from support for Zionism that has far more to do with larger demographic trends that are leading to the disintegration of non-Orthodox Jewry in this country. As Elliot Abrams writes this month in Mosaic Magazine, the drifting apart of Israel and American Jewry is a function of the trends that were illustrated in the 2013 Pew Survey of Jewish Americans more than it is a coherent critique of the policies of the Netanyahu government or shifts in Israeli opinion.
It must be acknowledged that a lot of New York Jews are aware that Sanders’ point of view is wrong and understand that Israel is currently under siege from a wave of bloody Palestinian terrorism that is just one manifestation of the rising tide of global anti-Semitism. Hillary Clinton, who during her eight years representing New York in the U.S. Senate showed herself to be a practiced panderer to pro-Israel sentiments that she dropped while at the State Department, will win some of those votes. But it will not have escaped the notice of many New Yorkers that, though often presented with disclaimers about support for Israel like those put forward by Sanders, his talk of “disproportionate” self-defense and blame on Israel is the sort of distorted point of view about the Middle East that we have come to expect from the Obama administration during the last eight years.
For the base of the Democratic Party, this seeking of “daylight” between the positions of Israel and the United States is popular. Moreover, for young Jews and others who have lost any sense of Jewish peoplehood and who have internalized the distortions about the Middle East conflict that are commonplace in the liberal mainstream media, Sanders’ attacks on Israel resonate. While Clinton and the Republicans seek to show that they are Israel’s friends, Sanders understands a crucial New York voting block wants something different. For the Jewish left, Sanders’ refusal to understand the reality of Palestinian intransigence or to acknowledge the facts about rejected Israeli efforts to make peace isn’t dumb politics. Whether or not, they can help the Vermont senator win New York they believe their views will ultimately prevail among Democrats. It is that possibility, more than the negligible possibility that Sanders will become president that should worry friends of Israel.