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Bernie Sanders’ Oped On Israel And Anti-Semitism Leaves More Questions Than It Answers

Discussing Bernie Sanders often feels like peering into the examination room where a Rorschach test is being implemented: Discussing the Vermont senator’s Jewish identity and his politics spawns more questions than it answers. Is he Jewish enough? Is he too Jewish? And what does he think about Israel or wielding power as president anyway?

Luckily for us, Senator Sanders recently devoted an entire essay to the topic of his identity and views in the relaunched Jewish Currents, a leftist Jewish publication. And while much digital ink will be spilled on Twitter on the usual topics such as how seriously Senator Sanders takes anti-Semitism on the left compared to the right, if he is too pro-Israel or not pro-Israel enough, and if his politics are sufficiently rooted in Jewish values, more interesting is what the essay revealed about what policies we might expect from a Sanders administration.

First of all, we know that a Sanders administration would take white nationalist terrorism seriously, in direct opposition to the Trump administration’s sympathetic rhetoric with respect to the far-right. But Trump hasn’t just expressed sympathy for white supremacists. Beginning in 2017, the Trump administration cut funding to non-profit groups devoted to countering right-wing violence. If this were not alarming enough, in 2018 the Trump administration devoted 85% of funding for countering violent extremism towards targeting refugees, Muslims, the LGBT community, as well as groups such as Black Lives Matter, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. He did this despite the fact that data collected by the Anti-Defamation League showed that every single political extremist murder in 2018 was tied to right-wing extremism.

In contrast, Senator Sanders’s essay explicitly points out and analyzes the threat of white nationalism. “They accuse Jews of coordinating a massive attack on white people worldwide, using people of color and other marginalized groups to do their dirty work,” he writes. And he expresses too some of the levers he would pull as president to counter it. “I will direct the Justice Department to prioritize the fight against white nationalist violence,” writes Senator Sanders.

The second thing we know is that a Sanders presidency would revive President Obama’s approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Though sharing different backgrounds, Senator Sanders and President Obama approach Israel and its ongoing conflict with the Palestinians through a remarkably similar lens. Here is President Obama describing the foundations of his feelings towards Israel in 2015 in an interview in The Atlantic:

“When I think about how I came to know Israel, it was based on images of kibbutzim, and Moshe Dayan, and Golda Meir, and the sense that not only are we creating a safe Jewish homeland, but also we are remaking the world.”

And here’s Senator Sanders in his recent essay:

“I have a connection to Israel going back many years. In 1963, I lived on a kibbutz near Haifa. It was there that I saw and experienced for myself many of the progressive values upon which Israel was founded. I think it is very important for everyone, but particularly for progressives, to acknowledge the enormous achievement of establishing a democratic homeland for the Jewish people after centuries of displacement and persecution.” (emphasis mine)

The comparison makes clear that both Sanders and Obama have an attachment to Israel that is explicitly tied to the values espoused by the Labor Zionist founders of the Jewish state, and more specifically, a vision of Israel where the universal and the particular complement each other rather than being at odds.

But the parallels go further. Both men consider Israel’s right to exist and defend itself a bedrock value. Both recognize how bad-faith criticism of Israel is utilized to promote anti-Semitism. And both maintain the position that valid criticism of current Israeli policy like the occupation of territory intended for a Palestinian state that will exist alongside Israel can and must be made without delving into anti-Semitism.

The third thing we know is that a Sanders State Department would counterbalance authoritarian nationalism. It’s natural to focus on authoritarian nationalist trends at home as these are the forces that Sanders seeks to defeat at the ballot box. But, interestingly enough, Sanders explicitly ties chauvinism at home to similar movements abroad, including in allies Israel and India, NATO ally Hungary, and increasingly hostile nations such as Russia. “These leaders exploit people’s fears by amplifying resentments, stoking intolerance and inciting hatred against ethnic and religious minorities, fanning hostility toward democratic norms and a free press, and promoting constant paranoia about foreign plots,” he writes.

One foreseeable challenge a hypothetical President Sanders would encounter in this approach is how to deal with anti-Semitic rhetoric and violence that emanates from individuals and groups that are not motivated by white nationalist ideas, such as the growing number of anti-Semitic assaults occurring in New York, whose statistics he cited but whose drivers he did not distinguish from the broader issue of white nationalist anti-Semitism.

Moreover, there is still much we don’t know; Sanders remains light on details for his policy preferences. Many of us are still wondering how Senator Sanders intends to execute the foreign policies he expresses a preference for if he becomes president — indeed, how he would fight anti-Semitism. Unfortunately, these details are left for the reader to surmise.

Examining his campaign website, Senator Sanders’s foreign policy section makes no mention of Israel or Palestine at all. References to combatting authoritarian nationalism amount to one bullet point under “working with pro-democracy forces around the world.”

Examining other recent public statements such as Senator Sanders’ speech at J Street’s annual conference, we see him discuss tying American military aid to Israel to issues such as quality of life in Gaza, and restarting the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Both are laudable goals. But neither in his recent essay nor in those recent statements is there a hint of what issues he anticipates encountering if, say, Israel follows the example of the Palestinian Authority, which chose to lose aid rather than kowtow to demands from the Trump administration.

More broadly, we simply cannot reasonably infer where issues such as democracy promotion rank as a foreign policy priority for a Sanders administration or how he would measure success in this arena. To pick an example scenario from topics that the senator touched upon, the leaders of Turkey and Hungary, both members of NATO, rely on the ballot box to keep increasingly authoritarian leaders in power. How would a future President Sanders deal with their authoritarianism and that of Russia, which grows more brutally authoritarian by the year while actively promoting anti-democratic and far-right parties around the world? Will he pick fights with NATO allies while trying to combat a competitor?

Like most voters, Sanders supporters may be focused on domestic policies, and it is natural for a candidate to devote more airtime to domestic issues in such an environment. But it is in the realm of foreign policy where a president has the most freedom of action to shape the agenda and pursue their policy preferences.

Sanders could do a service to his supporters, to the Jewish community, and to American presidential discourse by elevating foreign policy to a level commensurate with the powers bestowed upon the commander-in-chief.

For now, we’re left to wonder.

Alex Zeldin is a New York-based writer and analyst, focusing on issues of U.S. foreign policy and Jewish communal affairs. His work has been featured in The Forward, Tablet Magazine, and The Washington Post. You can find him on Twitter at @JewishWonk.

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