“Billionaires should not exist,” Bernie Sanders has said often, and in the Las Vegas Democratic debate last night Chuck Todd asked him what he meant by that. The Vermont senator responded directly:
We have a grotesque and immoral distribution of wealth and income. Mike Bloomberg owns more wealth than the bottom 125 million Americans. That’s wrong. That’s immoral. That should not be the case when we have half a million people sleeping out on the streets. When we have kids who cannot afford to go to college. When we have 45 million people dealing with student debt. We have enormous problems facing this country and we cannot continue seeing a situation where in the last three years, billionaires in this country saw an $850 billion increase in their wealth.
Todd followed up by asking Mayor Bloomberg, “Should you exist?” Bloomberg said he deserved his wealth, most of which he gives away.
I find the question intriguing because it echoes and exposes the famous question, Does Israel have a right to exist? Israel advocates often bring this question up in an alarmed fashion, saying that it is a call for genocide. Anti-Zionists say that Israel has no right to exist! They want to push the Jews into the sea!
The issue ought to be dealt with in the same detached manner as Sanders and others have handled the billionaire question. No one thinks that Bernie Sanders wants to kill Mike Bloomberg and other billionaires. He wants to redistribute grossly-inequitable wealth, so that Mike Bloomberg is merely a multi-millionaire. (Sanders also pointed out that three individuals, Jeff Bezos, Warren Buffett, and Bill Gates, now have more wealth than the bottom half of American society.)
Anti-Zionists — and to be clear, Bernie Sanders is not one of us — generally oppose the existence of a Jewish state. Some, like myself, might accept its existence if a viable Palestinian state had been/could have been established. No anti-Zionist I know wants to kill Jews or force them to leave (though, yes, some intemperate types seem to want an Algeria outcome).
Anti-Zionists oppose Israel’s existence as a Jewish state because they feel that status is a legal construct that is at the heart of countless injustices, like the injustices Sanders described as flowing from wealth inequality. Palestinians are second-class citizens inside Israel and can’t expand their towns or acquire “Jewish” lands held by governmental bodies. Jews have an exclusive right to “self-determination” and a higher right to settle anywhere they choose. Millions of Palestinians are living in an open-air prison in Gaza and have no rights in the West Bank — conditions Israeli writers have likened to slavery and that countless human rights experts have called apartheid.
All of this follows from Israel being a Jewish state. So we anti-Zionists are against it. These are, after all, human arrangements of rights, like the Jim Crow South, or the apartheid state of South Africa, or the tax code, that humans can change. (A very different moral question than whether a human being has a right to exist.)
The other analogy here is that neither billionaires nor Israel are going anywhere in the near future. We know that. We are expressing a desire; not leveling a gun. “I hope the day comes when they don’t [exist],” Sanders said of billionaires last year. “It’s not going to be tomorrow.” This reminds me of James North coming back from his first trip to Israel many years ago and telling me that anyone who says they’re against Israel’s “existence” is the equivalent of an ant walking by Citibank headquarters in midtown New York and threatening the bank. Israel is so powerful that it is dishonest for Israelis to claim they are truly afraid that Palestinians, even with more international support, could truly end the country and force all the Jews to leave.
P.S. Sanders is also the candidate who is most critical of Israel. While he is all for its continued existence as a moral matter, alongside a supposed Palestinian state, and has bragged about his working on a kibbutz more than 50 years ago, he has been highly critical of its human rights violations and called for an evenhanded U.S. policy with respect to Israelis and Palestinians. A lot of people associated with the Israel lobby group AIPAC are spending a lot of money to try to stop his campaign.