Bernie’s Israel-Bashing: How Symptomatic Is It?

It’s a strange spectacle from the vantage here in Israel: of the five remaining U.S. presidential candidates, one, lately, has been bashing Israel—and it’s the only one of the five who’s Jewish.

Bernie Sanders’s “recollection” that “over 10,000 innocent people were killed in Gaza” during the summer 2014 war was, as many have noted, five times beyond Hamas’s claims. Sanders then changed it to “the number was I think 2100”—which is actually the figure that the UN, not known as a pro-Israel body, came up with, and even the UN said about one-third of that total were terrorists.

For the record, Israel’s Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center carried out a name-by-name analysis of the 75% of the Gaza fatalities who could be identified, and found that, of those, 55% were combatants. (Here former U.S. Chief of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey says that Israel went to “extraordinary lengths” to limit civilian casualties in Gaza.)

Sanders’s astonishing ignorance—he’s been a U.S. senator since 2007—was further revealed when, asked what he thought of Michael Oren’s criticism of his inflated Gaza figures, he answered, “Who is Mr. Oren?” Oren is, of course, the former high-profile Israeli ambassador to the U.S. (2009-2013) and author of the bestselling book Ally on the Obama administration’s hostility toward Israel.

But Sanders’s ignorance is not just a personal foible. When it comes to Israeli issues, Sanders is an ideologue. He parrots the standard ideological line of people who do not know what they’re talking about and don’t feel they need to know what they’re talking about, since the ideology comes prepackaged. Trying to add nuance, Sanders said Israel “has a 100%...right to live in freedom,” then added: “we will not succeed to ever bring peace into that region unless we also treat the Palestinians with dignity and respect.”

There are many ways to reply to that, such as: the Palestinians already receive more aid per capita than any other group; they have already been offered, and rejected, statehood far more than any other people in history (the offers run from 1937 to the present); in the existing Palestinian entities of Gaza and the (West Bank) Palestinian Authority, women, gays, Christians, people of dissenting views, and others are treated with something other than “dignity and respect”—a situation certain to be perpetuated if the Palestinians attain independent statehood; and so on.

But those are nonideological, factual points, and it doesn’t appear that Sanders has ever pondered them or is even familiar with them. It does appear, though, that Sanders’s reflexive blaming of Israel and sympathy for the Palestinians is not, as Jonathan Tobin points out, just “dumb politics,” but in step with a growing trend among Democrats and some Jews.

Last year prominent pollster Frank Luntz warned Israel that it is “losing the Democrats” in the U.S. A survey he conducted of U.S. opinion elites found that:

Asked whether Israel is a racist country, 47% of Democrats agreed it is, as opposed to 13% of Republicans. Another 21% of Democrats didn’t know or were neutral (as opposed to 12% of Republicans), and only 32% of Democrats disagreed when asked if Israel is a racist country, as opposed to 76% of Republicans….

Asked whether Israel wants peace with its neighbors, while an overwhelming 88% of Republicans said it does, a far lower 48% of Democrats agreed…. Asked whether the US should support Israel or the Palestinians, a vast 90% of Republicans and a far lower 51% of Democrats said Israel.

And where do American Jews—who have kept voting predominantly Democrat through the Obama era—stand on whether Israel is “racist,” uninterested in peace, and the like? While most retain some sympathy for Israel, Tobin notes that “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.”

Key questions, of course, remain unanswered. We don’t know who will be the U.S. president; we don’t know if, in the upcoming New York primary, more Jews will vote for Sanders or for Hillary Clinton—whose record on Israel is long, complex, and mixed, but includes elements of sympathy and of far greater knowledge than the cliché-parroting Sanders can claim.

We do know, though, that Bernie Sanders’s far-left slamming of Israel is not just a single offbeat candidate’s shtick, but reflects trends among both Democrats and Jews. It’s part of why, here in Israel, the leadership does not take the U.S.-Israeli alliance for granted and has been building Israel’s ties with countries around the globe.