— by Robert Tabak
Senator Bernie Sanders has focused almost exclusively on US economic policy and domestic issues in his presidential campaign. Numerous articles, including from writers friendly to the Vermont senator, have critiqued his lack of attention to foreign policy. For example, Yair Rosenberg, writing in the Jewish on-line journal Tablet Magazine on March 20, 2016, quoted Vox’s Max Fisher who wrote “Sanders appears to have no foreign policy at all.” Rosenberg continued, “A candidate who has deliberately not delivered a single speech devoted to foreign policy during his entire campaign was not about to start with Israel/Palestine.” But Rosenberg was wrong. Two days later Sen. Sanders’ talk was the one he hoped to give via video to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the large pro-Israel lobbying group meeting in Washington DC. He was refused permission (unlike Mitt Romney four years ago). Much of the media attention, general and Jewish, focused on Donald Trump, attempts to boycott his talk (with limited success), Trump’s rousing reception, and the embarrassed walk-back from AIPAC leaders striving to maintain a bi-partisan veneer. Hillary Clinton’s talk got some press, and the other Republican candidates received less coverage. But most of these talks covered familiar ground, with each speaker claiming to support Israel. In the Republicans’ case the candidates again opposed the Iran nuclear agreement, which AIPAC and the prime minister of Israel also opposed (despite polls showing most American Jews supported it). All these AIPAC presentations had their expected applause lines.
Sanders gave his talk in Utah, where he was campaigning, made copies available to the thousands of AIPAC delegates, and followed up with an MSNBC interview and CNN (right) focusing on Israel and the Middle East.
What did Sanders say? You may wonder why you missed this. Well, followers of many news outlets would have trouble finding out. I did not locate a news story in the Washington Post, New York Times, or Philadelphia Inquirer. (There was a significant post on the Times web site by blogger Carol Giacomo). There was some coverage on CNN and in USA Today “Sanders Targets Israeli Land Siezure in Speech Intended for AIPAC.” There was also a story at Huffington Post.
The Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) circulated a story on the speech with a headline focusing on Iran and another story on the following MSNBC interview focusing on the boycott, divest, sanction (BDS) movement. From what I can determine the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent did not cover it and the New York Jewish Week barely mentioned it, saying only, “Sen. Bernie Sanders was campaigning in the West and chose not to interrupt his campaign schedule to appear at the Washington event. He offered a video address instead, but AIPAC officials turned him down. Instead, Sanders delivered a foreign policy speech to a crowd in Salt Lake City. He sent copies to AIPAC and asked that it be distributed to delegates.” There was no discussion in the Jewish Week of what Sanders actually said.
The Forward (the most significant national Jewish newspaper), Tablet Magazine, and the progressive website Jewschool.com did not report it. The Israeli press was somewhat better. The Jerusalem Post and Haaretz (widely read on-line) both carried the JTA story, and the Times of Israel posted a negative op-ed piece by editor David Horovitz critiquing both Trump and Sanders. The left-wing Israeli news site 972magazine did not cover Sanders’ talk either.
What did Bernie Sanders actually say?
He spoke of his personal connection to Israel, including living on a kibbutz, and its right to live in peace. He also spoke about the suffering of the Palestinians.
I am here to tell the American people that, if elected president, I will work tirelessly to advance the cause of peace as a partner and as a friend to Israel. But to be successful, we have also got to be a friend not only to Israel, but to the Palestinian people, where in Gaza unemployment today is 44 percent and we have there a poverty rate which is almost as high. So when we talk about Israel and Palestinian areas, it is important to understand that today there is a whole lot of suffering among Palestinians and that cannot be ignored. You can’t have good policy that results in peace if you ignore one side.
Sanders called for direct negotiations, and actually used the word “occupation.”
Peace will require the unconditional recognition by all people of Israel’s right to exist. It will require an end to attacks of all kinds against Israel. Peace will require that organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah renounce their efforts to undermine the security of Israel. It will require the entire world to recognize Israel. Peace has to mean security for every Israeli from violence and terrorism. But peace also means security for every Palestinian. It means achieving self-determination, civil rights, and economic well-being for the Palestinian people. Peace will mean ending what amounts to the occupation of Palestinian territory, establishing mutually agreed upon borders, and pulling back settlements in the West Bank, just as Israel did in Gaza – once considered an unthinkable move on Israel’s part….
That is why I join much of the international community, including the U.S. State Department and European Union, in voicing my concern that Israel’s recent expropriation of an additional 579 acres of land in the West Bank undermines the peace process and, ultimately, Israeli security as well. It is absurd for elements within the Netanyahu government to suggest that building more settlements in the West Bank is the appropriate response to the most recent violence. It is also not acceptable that the Netanyahu government decided to withhold hundreds of millions of Shekels in tax revenue from the Palestinians, which it is supposed to collect on their behalf. But, by the same token, it is also unacceptable for President Abbas to call for the abrogation of the Oslo Agreement when the goal should be the ending of violence
He called for an end to the economic blockade of Gaza. He called for sharing water resources. Sanders condemned rocket attacks from Gaza and also the level of Israeli military response in 2014. “Nobody can tell you when peace will be achieved between Israel and the Palestinians. No one knows the exact order that compromises will have to be made to reach a viable two-state solution. But as we undertake that work together, the United States will continue its unwavering commitment to the safety of Israeli citizens and the country of Israel.”
Sanders’ recognition of Palestinian suffering, willingness to specifically critique the Netanyahu government and its actions, and re-commitment to the two state solution differentiate his talk from those of other politicians. He also talked about multilateral action to oppose ISIS. He specifically called out the Israeli government (and by implication AIPAC) for opposing the Iran nuclear agreement, noting that many Israeli military and intelligence leaders favored the pact to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons, even if the agreement is not perfect.
Some web and blog commentators immediately misreported Sanders’ relatively balanced critique as an embrace of pro-Palestinian views (or not going far enough in that direction). What if Sanders had delivered the talk in person at AIPAC? The resulting negative reception of some parts might actually have provoked some discussion of the issues.
Sanders’ talk would certainly have gotten a warmer reception at J-Street, the more liberal “pro-peace, pro-Israel” group than at AIPAC. His emphasis on a return to negotiations, restraint on both sides, and on a two-state solution might not have pleased all AIPAC members or the current Israeli government. His specific critiques of the Netanyahu’s government expansion of settlements and disproportionate Israeli force in the Gaza war of 2014 war would not have gotten AIPAC applause. But it was not a talk that would actually cheer BDS or Jewish Voice for Peace advocates (no relation to Philadelphia Jewish Voice), beyond recognizing that both Israelis and Palestinians have needs to be addressed. However, Bernie Sanders’ proposals would resonate both with a large percentage of American Jews, who want a secure and just Israel living next to an independent Palestine, and with many Israelis, including leaders of Israel’s intelligence community, who view an agreement with the Palestinians as an urgent need for Israel’s own future security, as presented in the 2012 film The Gatekeepers. A closer reading of Sanders’ proposals and a serious discussion of future options for Israel and its neighbors as well as the United States’ role in promoting peace talks would be a contribution to a campaign season that has not always focused on ideas and ideals.
Rabbi Robert Tabak, PhD, is a former staff chaplain at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. He previously served as Associate Director of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia. He has served as an adjunct professor at St. Joseph’s University and Cabrini College. He edits the newsletter of the Reconstuctionist Rabbinical Association, RRA Connection. The views expressed are his own.