Maybe you’re as excited as I am over the entry of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders into the presidential race. A socialist at heart, Sanders is actually going to push issues of income disparity and globalization into the US mainstream discourse, and in the wake of Baltimore will explain to Americans how our national community has been fractured, the middle class shattered, and the poor oppressed.
Sanders is also getting points for opposing the Iraq War, which Hillary Clinton supported, and he supports the Iran deal. But I’ve seen no one apart from Juan Cole, in this excellent summary of Sanders’s Middle East views, point out his yeoman defense of Israel during its assault on Gaza last summer. In July Sanders formed part of the “unanimous consent” to a resolution to support Israel in its attack, a resolution Salon’s David Palumbo-Liu said at the time “does more than confirm U.S. Senate support for Israel. It pushes that statement beyond any rational or ethical or moral framework imaginable.”
In a famous encounter at a town hall meeting in Vermont near the end of the onslaught– video below–, Sanders got so angry at pro-Palestinian constituents who were obviously deeply upset by an assault that had killed 500 Palestinian children that he told them to “shut up.”
What the encounter demonstrated is that Sanders’s own leftwing base has no illusions about Israel, they see the country as a marauding human rights abuser. But while he faulted Israeli “overreaction” in Gaza, and has issued criticisms of Israeli conduct over the years and has bucked the Israel lobby over its opposition to Palestinian statehood initiatives at the U.N., Sanders cleaves to a very conventional mainstream view of the conflict, in which Hamas is to blame, the Palestinians leadership is not a partner, and Arab countries are bad actors (as he has said in 2009).
And when pressed about Israel’s conduct at that meeting, he brings ISIS out of nowhere into the discussion, suggesting that Israel is a defense against 7th century religious fundamentalism. He also said that he’s been working on the Israel/Palestine conflict for 50 years.
Here are some excerpts of the exchange:
[Constituent] Are you going to go further… [and end] $30 billion going to Israel over the next ten years?
[Sanders:] You have a situation where Hamas is sending missiles into Israel… and you know where some of those missiles are coming from? They’re coming from populated areas… Hamas has very sophisticated tunnels into Israel for military purposes.
[Constituent:] Gazans have a right to resist.
[Sanders:] Excuse me, shut up! You don’t have the microphone.
[Constituent:] You’re going to arrest people?
[Constituent:] Occupied populations have the right to resist.
[Sanders:] You have a right to your view… Hamas is very clear: their view is that Israel should not have a right to exist.
[Constituent:] Bullshit! .. Fuck Israel!
[Sanders:] Furthermore, the issue of Gaza is not the only issue right now in that region As some of you may have noticed… There’s a group called ISIS. Do you know what ISIS is?
[Constituent, sarcastic:] Yeah!
[Sanders:] Excuse me ISIS is a group receiving money from aorund the world that wants to convert parts of Iraq and Syria into a 7th century calipate. You know what women’s rights are in that area? They are below– [tumult] Nobody wants to listen, they can leave… So you have a situation right now where we are figuring out in that region how you deal with people who have tens of thousands of very armed and aggressive people who may be making significant gains in that area. The point you make, I agree, I share your concerns about Israeli overreaction… I believe in a two-state solution. I would hope that the U.S. in a very very difficult situation, where the leadership on both sides is not particularly good, can finally work out a situation where Israel has a right to exist in security, and at the same time the Palestinians have a state of their own.
[Constituent:] It’s not going to happen.
[Sanders:] I have been working on it for the last 50 years. I’m sorry, I don’t have the magic answer. This is a very depressing and difficult issue. This has gone on for 60 bloody years, year after year… If you’re asking me if I have the magical solution, I don’t, and you know what, I doubt very much that you do!
When Sanders did not oppose that pro-Israel legislation during the Israeli assault, Counter Punch’s James Marc Leas asked: “Why did Bernie Sanders and Patrick Leahy allow their names to be used for pro-war propaganda so at variance with the facts?”
I think the answer is generational: Sanders is an old Jewish guy for whom the establishment of Israel was a glorious response to the helplessness of the European Jewish story. Notice that Israel played an important role in his political progress and in his moving from the city to Vermont as a young man. New York Times, 2007:
He spent time on a kibbutz in Israel after graduation and then moved to Vermont with his first wife. “I had always been captivated by rural life,” he says.
Sanders graduated from the University of Chicago in 1964– 50 years ago, when he was 23. So working on a kibbutz was part of his fifty years of work on the conflict, in his view. I am betting he was shaped by the ideals of Labor Zionism.