Bernie Sanders is ‘radical’ on economic policy but a pussycat for Israel

Bernie Sanders

Yesterday on CSPAN I watched Bernie Sanders give a rousing speech in New Hampshire where he endorsed a “political revolution.” He called for “radical” changes to take on the corporations and the billionaires, including the government moving in to dismantle big Wall Street financial institutions. Sanders has long supported such action.

But if Bernie Sanders is a radical on economic changes in the United States, he is a pussycat when it comes to changes in Israel and Palestine. Five days ago, he gave an interview to Little Village, an alternative publication in Iowa, and endorsed continuing U.S. military aid to Israel and more economic aid to Palestinians. He did not condemn the Israeli occupation, but blamed actors on both sides of the conflict; and while rejecting Benjamin Netanyahu declined to endorse any of the leftwing programs re Israel, notably BDS, boycott, divestment and sanctions. Here are some of his words:

I think what the United States needs is to have an evenhanded policy toward Israel and toward the Palestinians. What we need to guarantee and make certain is that Irael can exist in peace and security and that the Palestinians have their own independent state and an economy to allow their people to have a decent standard of living.

[Sanders notes that he boycotted Netanyahu’s speech last March to Congress because it was “a campaign ploy” and because he disagreed with “many of the policies he’s advocating.”]

What you need for that region, and god knows this conflict has been a horrendous conflict, it has gone on decade after decade after decade. I don’t know that anyone has any magical answer, but I think the role that the United States can play is to bring people together and develop a fair and evenhanded proposal toward both sides.

[Q. How do you approach the policy?]

Well look, I’m not going to sit here and tell you that I have a magical solution that has eluded every president. This is tough stuff. And you have forces on both sides in terms of the Israel-Palestinian conflict who have been counterproductive, no question about it. I think that the best that we can do over a period of time is to try to bring the sides together.

Our goal should be to see more economic assistance to the people in that region rather than just military assistance. Right now the United States provides substantial amounts of military aid to both Israel and Egypt. I would hope that in years to come the amount of military aid could be reduced and in fact could be substituted with economic aide. There is a lot of economic misery within the Palestinian community. The recent war in Gaza made a terrible situation even worse. They need help and I would hope that we could move in that direction.

These answers are mealy-mouthed and deeply conservative. He never condemns Israeli actions, even the slaughter of 500 children a year ago. The answers tell me that Sanders really believes in a Jewish state and cuts Israel a giant break. He obviously looks on Palestinian resistance as terrorism. A far cry from his revolutionary ideas about the economy. Sanders would never say that income inequality is “tough stuff” and he doesn’t have a magic solution. He’s got the solution!

Sanders’s wishy-washiness on this issue underlines the importance of the Israel lobby theory. Here is a former radical who because he is a Zionist Jew in his 70s who as a young man moved to Israel before he moved to Vermont supports Israel in powerful arenas. This wildeyed socialist is part of the Israel lobby; and not because he wants to advance the US colonial empire or the military-industrial-complex, the default analysis of our Middle East policy on the left. No; he’s supporting Israel out of an emotional attachment, his belief in the Jewish state and its necessity in the 20th century. The materialist left would surely argue that people like Sanders aren’t important to American foreign policy, because that policy is being driven by corporate interests. But as a leftist with a socio-cultural-religious bent, I say that Sanders and his (and my) cohort, outsider Jews who entered fully into American privilege in the last 40 years, have had a sizable influence over blue state political culture. How do you explain the decision by a Berkeley city council member to fire a human welfare commissioner who has called for divestment from Israel? We’re talking abut the People’s Republic of Berkeley, not Halliburton or Washington DC. A city that has surely endorsed every leftwing idea of economic and environmental reform. But it’s rightwing on the Israel issue. Why? Because Zionists are inside the leftwing political culture even there. The Israel lobby is embedded on the left because Jews of a certain age who believe in Israel as a place of deliverance for a persecuted people are a critical component of the left.

In his speech yesterday Sanders spoke of voting against the Iraq war, and god bless him. He calls it Cheney and Bush and Rumsfeld’s war. But he doesn’t call out the neoconservative braintrust that fomented that war. The U.S. lib/left will not come to terms with U.S. militarism until it confronts the neoconservative branch of the Israel lobby head on, and American Jews won’t come to terms with the warmakers in our midst, including Bernie Sanders’s support for the Gaza war, till it deals with the issue of Zionism. In the end, both conversations are about one real thing: unending U.S. support for Jim Crow in Palestine.

This is all going to break loose in 2016. Because young Democrats (women, people of color especially) have turned on Israel, and they will demand a voice.

Update. Initially I ascribed the firing of that Berkeley commissioner to the commission itself. Henry Norr informs me that a city council member fired her.