The scene at the town hall in the village of Cabot, Vermont last summer was chaotic: First came a question about Israel’s ongoing bombings in Gaza; then an interruption from audience members angry at Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. Another interruption followed. And then, onstage, Senator Bernie Sanders, sleeves rolled to his elbows, shouted at a constituent to shut up.
Tens of thousands have viewed a video of the August 2014 confrontation on YouTube. Sanders has been excoriated on some left-wing blogs for the outburst, which many see as a sign of his enduring support for Israel.
But Sanders’ annoyed shut-down of the critic of Israel, and pieces of his lecture on the dangers of Hamas that followed, may mask a deeper trend in the self-described socialist’s thinking: An examination of Sanders’s record suggests that the 2014 Gaza conflict may have been a turning point, after which he has been more critical of the Israeli government.
The Brooklyn-born Jewish senator is enjoying a surge of support in his insurgent campaign for the Democratic nomination for president. In these very early days, 33 weeks before the first Democratic caucuses in Iowa, Sanders has emerged as a clear second choice to frontrunner Hillary Rodham Clinton in some polls, claiming 32% of New Hampshire Democrats in one June 14 survey.
Sanders’s presidential campaign is built on crusades against income inequality and money in politics, issues that he’s pushed for decades as mayor of Burlington, Vermont, then as a U.S. congressman, and now as a senator. As the only major Jewish candidate in the race, however, and the only Jew to play a serious role in a presidential contest since then-Senator Joe Lieberman ran as Al Gore’s running mate in 2000, Sanders has discovered that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is hard to ignore. In a June 10 interview, NPR host Diane Rehm asserted that Sanders had “dual citizenship with Israel,” citing an unspecified “list we have gotten” as her source.
Describing himself as “a little bit offended” by her assertion, Sanders corrected her.
“You know, my dad came to this country from Poland at the age of 17 without a nickel in his pocket,” he told Rehm. “He loved this country….I am, obviously, an American citizen and I do not have any dual citizenship.”
Rehm later apologized.
A day after the Rehm interview, Sanders told the Christian Science Monitor that he was “proud to be Jewish” but not “particularly religious.”
The child of Polish immigrants whose father’s family was decimated during the Holocaust, Sanders spent time on an Israeli kibbutz after graduating from college in the early 1960s. Throughout his political career, however, he has avoided talking much about Israel. When he has, he has sounded much like a centrist Democrat — a far cry from his leftist rhetoric on economic issues.
“I know he’s often rated as the most liberal senator,” said Aaron Keyak, a Democratic political consultant and the managing director of Bluelight Strategies. “When I see Senator Bernie Sanders, I see someone who is a typical pro-Israel Jewish Democrat.”
One longtime Hill-watcher who focuses on Israel issues placed Sanders somewhere on a continuum between California Senator Dianne Feinstein — an often outspoken Israel critic who is Jewish — and Senator Chuck Schumer, the New York Jewish lawmaker known as a forceful defender of the Jewish state.
A search of the Congressional Record reveals very few statements about Israel by Sanders on the floor of the House or the Senate. In 2002, during the debate over the resolution that authorized President George W. Bush to use military force in Iraq, Sanders, then a House member, asked whether an invasion of Iraq would worsen the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And in 2008, Sanders was one of 100 co-sponsors of a Senate resolution to recognize the 60th anniversary of Israel’s founding.
Pro-Israel lobbyists have been among those to find Sanders elusive. “He’s someone who’s sort of avoided everyone,” said Ben Chouake, who leads the hawkish pro-Israel group NORPAC. “He’s one of the few offices that, when we try to get an appointment to come talk to him, we just can’t get in… I don’t think he’s antagonistic or anything like that.”
In Vermont, a small group of AIPAC-linked Jewish activists do have Sanders’ ear on Israel-related matters. Yoram Samets, a Burlington businessman and a member of AIPAC’s national council, said that he has been in touch with Sanders for the past decade, but that Sanders does not sign any AIPAC-backed letters. His Vermont colleague Senator Patrick Leahy does not, either.
This relative silence on Israel-related issues, however, seems to have broken during and after the 2014 Gaza conflict, during which 72 Israelis and over 2,100 Palestinians were killed, the majority of them civilians. In an undated statement on his Senate website, Sanders decried “the Israeli attacks that killed hundreds of innocent people – including many women and children,” calling the bombings “disproportionate” and “completely unacceptable.”
In mid-July 2014, Sanders was one of just 21 Senators not to co-sponsor a resolution expressing support for Israel in the conflict with Hamas. The resolution passed on July 17 by unanimous consent, meaning that no roll call vote was taken on the measure.
In the video of the August 2014 town hall, recorded while the conflict was still ongoing, Sanders was more equivocal than in the statement now on his website. While asserting that Israel had “overreacted,” and that the bombing of UN facilities was “terribly, terribly wrong,” he also noted that Hamas was launching rockets from populated areas.
“This is a very depressing and difficult issue,” Sanders said at the town hall. “This has gone on for 60 bloody years.”
Months after the conflict, in February 2015, Sanders was the first Senator to announce that he would skip Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to a joint session of Congress. “[Netanyahu] doesn’t have the right to inject himself into an American political discussion by being the speaker before a joint session of Congress to criticize the United States,” Sanders said on CNN.
Sanders did not respond to multiple requests for an interview made through his presidential campaign, nor to a specific request for comment on whether the 2014 Gaza conflict had constituted a turning point in his thinking.
For some critics of Israeli policy, though, recent months have raised hopes of a shift for Sanders on Israel. “We’re encouraged by some of what he said during the [2014 Gaza] war,” said Rabbi Joseph Berman, government affairs liaison for Jewish Voice for Peace. “We hope that his work for justice, and bravery to speak out on other issues, will be increasingly reflected in how he speaks about Israel and Palestine.”
Others are not so sure. “I think the people who find it surprising that Bernie Sanders is pro-Israel are some of the same people who are quick to paint progressives as anti-Israel,” said Keyak. “He prefers for Israel to have a left of center government, but he still fundamentally supports Israel.”
Contact Josh Nathan-Kazis on Twitter @joshnathankazis
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.