Ron Radosh

Bernie's Jewish Problem, and Hillary's Surprisingly Bold Response

The Bernie Sanders campaign recently announced that it hired a new team member who will be in charge of outreach to Jewish groups. Although Sanders rarely mentions his Jewish identity — he sometimes tells audiences he is of Polish descent — it would be embarrassing for him to lose their votes, since he is the first Jew in the United States running for the Democratic presidential nomination.

The woman he hired is Simone Zimmerman, who might seem a strange choice. (Simone Zimmerman was suspended from the Bernie Sanders campaign on April 14.) The liberal Jewish newspaper The Forward discusses her record:

She opposes Israel’s occupation, wants Hillel to allow participation by groups that support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel, is against Jewish federation funding for Israeli projects in the West Bank and wrote favorably of the efforts of Jewish Voice for Peace, a pro-BDS group, to get “international corporations to stop profiting of human rights abuses.” (The Anti-Defamation League has called JVP one of America’s top 10 anti-Israel groups.)

Of course, The Forward uses the term “occupation,” the left-wing description of territories won by Israel as a result of the war of aggression waged against it by Arab armies in the 1967 war. But they are correct in identifying Zimmerman as an opponent of Israel who wages her anti-Israel fight in the name of “peace.”

Zimmerman, who has a Conservative Jewish background, did not start out with such negative opinions of Israel. When she arrived at UC Berkeley as a freshman, she joined a pro-Israel campus group, attended an annual AIPAC conference, and opposed calls for divestment of university funds invested in pro-Israel corporations. But she soon began to be influenced by anti-Israel campus groups and absorbed their pro-Palestinian propaganda.

First she became active in J Street, the group that calls itself “pro-peace and pro-Israel,” but is anything but. From there she graduated to openly supporting the BDS movement, arguing that its calls for the extinction of Israel were simply calls for “the liberation of all people.” Now living in Brooklyn, she is an avid supporter of Black Lives Matter, the black racist group whose leaders are fierce enemies of U.S. support to Israel.

This trajectory is typical of many left-wing Jews who came to believe that in order to remain on the political left they had to adopt extreme anti-Zionist positions, even though at times they border on anti-Semitism.

The question, of course, is why Bernie Sanders would put such a person in charge of outreach to Jewish groups. Perhaps the groups he has in mind to reach out to are Jews who already are opponents of Israel. At the very least, this shows that Sanders’ leftism trumps his claim that he is a supporter of Israel.

Indeed, just last week he was caught in a Daily News interview falsely claiming that Israel had killed 10,000 civilians in Gaza during its war with Hamas. That, of course, was a figure far above Hamas’ own tally, as well as the UN’s, which said Israel had killed 1462 civilians, and the Israeli IDF figure of 761.

Sanders also falsely claimed that Israel indiscriminately leveled hospitals and apartment buildings.

Alan M. Dershowitz insists that Sanders has an obligation to clarify exactly where he stands on Israel. While Sanders has tried to remain ambiguous, Dershowitz says:

His comments seem to confirm the wild delusions of anti-Israel zealots, who often seek to delegitimize the nation-state of the Jewish people by accusing its military of deliberately murdering large numbers of innocent Palestinians.

Sanders has also given that impression by choosing as advisors a group of “radical left ideologues,” including James Zogby of the American-Arab Institute and Cornel West, a BDS advocate who has played a leading role in the Sanders campaign, often accompanying him to appearances and sharing the podium with him.

Nevertheless, Dershowitz does not think Sanders is anti-Israel. He argues that the senator only looks back fondly on the Israel of the kibbutz and Labor governments — the old socialist Israel of its earliest years. But if Sanders is “sincere when he says he is a friend of Israel,” he certainly has a strange way of proving it.

I think that while Sanders has taken some strong pro-Israel stands in the past, as a candidate he well knows that the base of the Democratic Party is strongly opposed to Israel, and he cannot afford now to alienate them and weaken his support by defending Israel.

During a CNN interview with Jake Tapper, Sanders simply claims that he is taking a more “balanced” view of Israel than other American political leaders. When Tapper referred to the former ambassador to the U.S. and current Knesset member Michael Oren, Sanders replied: “Who is Mr. Oren?” Tapper had to fill him in and answered thus: “Michael Oren, the former ambassador of Israel to the United States. And now he’s a politician in Israel.”

That a sitting U.S. senator, supposedly conversant with policy towards Israel, doesn’t know of the longest serving Israeli ambassador to the United States is shocking. Indeed, Sanders has exhibited a surprising lack of knowledge about American policy towards Israel, but then he has shown a general lack of interest in foreign policy.

Let’s contrast Sanders’ views with those of Hillary Clinton from an interview with the Jewish Voice.

Clearly distancing herself from both Sanders and President Obama, Clinton blasted the Palestinians for not availing themselves of past opportunities for peace with Israel. “It is unfair,” she said, “to put the onus on Israel” for the lack of Middle East peace. Moreover, she told the editor and publisher of the paper, Gary Rosenblatt, that “Iran should be sanctioned” for its continuing development of long-range missiles, which the Obama administration refuses to do.

Yes, Clinton is walking a tightrope. She loyally served Obama, and was responsible for some disastrous foreign policy choices, in Libya as well as Benghazi. But, as the Jewish Voice puts it:

[S]he is also aware that many in the pro-Israel community believe the president has treated the Jewish state at times as more obstacle than ally … and most dramatically, [has been] willing to override Israel’s concerns about a nuclear deal with Iran.

Of course I know many people, especially conservatives, do not trust her and see her as insincere, and for good reason.

Yet in her interview, she said that her commitment to Israel’s security is “not just policy, it’s personal,” and that since her 1981 trip to Israel she has worked hard to take positions “to further the relationship [between the U.S. and Israel] and do all I could to enhance Israeli security.”

To that end, she pointed out that she had worked to support sanctions against Iran and would lead an international movement to renew them if necessary, and that as president she was prepared to “use every tool for compliance” to enforce the nuclear deal with Iran. She also backed the security fence opposed by the left and by the Palestinians, fought for a ceasefire so rocket attacks against Israel would end, supports the Iron Dome, and wants to “elevate the fight against anti-Semitism.”

Clinton went on to pledge that she would oppose any unilateral moves that would be imposed upon Israel by the UN, and to say that she supports agreements only obtained through negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. She praised Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu for his “unprecedented and significant” 10-month settlement freeze in 2009. She also backed Netanyahu’s decision not to extend it when the Palestinians had not kept to their part of the bargain, chastising them for not taking advantage of the opportunity Israel had given them.

Moreover, she said that it was “not accurate or fair or useful” to blame Israel for the failure of the peace process, and she referred to the Camp David peace accord presented by her husband in 2000, from which Arafat bolted after being given generous peace terms. It was, she said, one of the “most comprehensive efforts.”

I think in this case she is not pandering to pro-Israel Jews; she knows from personal experience how the Palestinians have done all they could to obstruct a real peace agreement from being achieved.

About BDS, Clinton said:

Here is what I know. Demonizing Israeli scientists and intellectuals, even students, and comparing Israel to South African apartheid is not only wrong — it is dangerous and counterproductive. Language that vilifies Israelis has no place in any civilized society.

Trust her or do not, but by making these statements Clinton is bucking the powerful far left of her party and its anti-Israel policies.

Interviewer Rosenblatt writes:

I came away impressed with Clinton’s full, articulate and knowledgeable responses. … Clinton wants American Jews to sense that her support for the Jewish state is not based on politics or polls.

It does appear that she is not going down Sanders’ path on Israel as she has done on so many other issues. By taking this position she will gain some Jewish support, but she also risks losing the support of the Democratic Party’s left-wing base of anti-Israel supporters, and that of many anti-Israel younger Jews, who undoubtedly will find her remarks highly disappointing.

Even if you think she is pandering, words have consequences.

She has created a standard to be held up to if she is president, and has chosen to go out on a limb. She didn’t have to do that. She could have simply avoided the issue altogether or made some mildly critical statements about where she disagrees with the Netanyahu government. For that, supporters of Israel should praise her.