Bernie San­ders Is Tak­ing Crit­i­cism Of Is­rael Main­stream

Forward Magazine - - OPINION - Peter Beinart

Not many in the me­dia are notic­ing, which is un­der­stand­able given the bur­den of keep­ing up with Donald Trump, but in the shadow of Trump and Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu, Bernie San­ders is dra­mat­i­cally chal­leng­ing Beltway dis­course on Is­rael.

In 2020, when San­ders likely runs for pres­i­dent, and jour­nal­ists be­gin pay­ing at­ten­tion, they’re go­ing to be shocked. The Is­raeli govern­ment and the Amer­i­can Jewish es­tab­lish­ment will be scared out of their minds.

In May of this year, San­ders crossed one of the red lines de­mar­cat­ing po­lit­i­cally ac­cept­able Wash­ing­ton dis­course about Is­rael. He or­ga­nized the first let­ter writ­ten by mul­ti­ple sen­a­tors crit­i­ciz­ing Is­rael’s block­ade of the Gaza Strip. Then, in June, he raced past that line again with a video about what life was like liv­ing in Gaza that is un­like any­thing I’ve ever seen from an Amer­i­can sen­a­tor.

To un­der­stand how rad­i­cal San­ders’ video is, it’s worth re­mem­ber­ing how lib­eral Democrats like Barack Obama, John Kerry and Hil­lary Clin­ton talked about Is­rael and the Pales­tini­ans as re­cently as two years ago. While Obama, Kerry and Clin­ton some­times crit­i­cized Is­raeli pol­icy, they gen­er­ally did so in the lan­guage of Is­raeli self­in­ter­est, not of Pales­tinian hu­man rights. Is­raeli set­tle­ment pol­icy was bad for Is­rael, they ar­gued, be­cause it threat­ened Is­rael’s fu­ture.

On Gaza, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion never pub­licly urged Is­rael to ne­go­ti­ate with Ha­mas, even as for­mer Is­raeli se­cu­rity chiefs did. And Obama ef­fec­tively en­dorsed Is­rael’s po­si­tion that Pales­tini­ans should not be al­lowed to hold elec­tions be­cause Ha­mas might win.

When Gaza came up in a 2016 Demo­cratic pri­mary de­bate, Clin­ton placed the blame for its peo­ple’s suf­fer­ing ex­clu­sively on Ha­mas. “Re­mem­ber,” she de­clared, “Is­rael left Gaza. They took out all the Is­raelis. They turned the keys over to the Pales­tinian peo­ple. And what hap­pened? Ha­mas took over Gaza. So in­stead of hav­ing a thriv­ing econ­omy with the kind of op­por­tu­ni­ties that the chil­dren of the Pales­tini­ans de­serve, we have a ter­ror­ist haven that is get­ting more and more rock­ets shipped in from Iran and else­where.” Her com­ments, which are demon­stra­bly false, could eas­ily have come from Marco Ru­bio or Ted Cruz.

In his video, San­ders lets Pales­tini­ans from Gaza speak for them­selves. And they say things Amer­i­can politi­cians sim­ply don’t say. The speak­ers, who are not politi­cians but rather aca­demics, stu­dents and jour­nal­ists, call Gaza a “prison.” They talk about hav­ing only four hours of elec­tric­ity per day. A pro­fes­sor of po­lit­i­cal sci­ence notes that his fam­ily hasn’t left Gaza in more than twenty years. A young man says his “big­gest dream is to travel from Gaza for one time in my life. To see how life is from out­side the walls of the prison.” He later says that many of his friends have con­tem­plated sui­cide: “They can­not con­tinue to live with­out any types of hope.” A young woman says, “I want the sit­u­a­tion to change to where I feel like an equal hu­man be­ing to Is­raelis.”

By al­low­ing or­di­nary Pales­tini­ans to de­scribe their plight, San­ders’ video al­lows Amer­i­cans to see the Great Re­turn March as the product not of blind ha­tred of Is­rael but of a quintessen­tially hu­man de­sire for a bet­ter life. “This protest,” says the pro­fes­sor, “was de­signed and or­ches­trated by young, in­de­pen­dent and frus­trated Pales­tini­ans who were sick, tired and ex­hausted of their liv­ing con­di­tions.”

And by al­low­ing or­di­nary Pales­tini­ans to speak for them­selves, the video shows how de­hu­man­iz­ing it is to de­scribe the peo­ple protest­ing Is­rael’s block­ade as mere pawns of, or “hu­man shields” for, Ha­mas. Bril­liantly, San­ders’ video shows clips of Amer­i­can pun­dits blam­ing Ha­mas for the protests, and then lets Pales­tini­ans in Gaza do some­thing they can rarely do on Amer­i­can tele­vi­sion: re­spond.

“I’m talk­ing with you. I’m not Ha­mas,” ex­claims one man.

San­ders is bet­ting that the po­lit­i­cal ground has shifted.

“It’s a big lie to say that Ha­mas is push­ing Pales­tinian chil­dren and Pales­tinian women in the front line,” says the Pales­tinian pro­fes­sor.

“The ma­jor­ity of the peo­ple are not fol­low­ing Ha­mas,” in­sists the young man. “They are just par­tic­i­pat­ing peace­fully be­cause they just want to be free.”

Crit­i­ciz­ing Ha­mas is both le­git­i­mate and nec­es­sary. But San­ders’ video shows how the me­dia’s ob­ses­sion with Ha­mas ob­scures the hu­man causes of Pales­tinian protest, and the hu­man con­se­quences of Is­rael’s bru­tal re­sponse.

“The right ques­tion to ask is not whether there is some­one ask­ing them to go to the fence,” ar­gues a young woman. “The right ques­tion is what is driv­ing these peo­ple to walk up to the fence. What kinds of con­di­tions would drive some­one to risk their lives know­ing that there are snipers who are will­ing to shoot them?”

And when you look at her, you imag­ine be­ing that des­per­ate your­self.

For decades, the con­ven­tional wis­dom has held that a video like San­ders’, which fo­cuses with­out equiv­o­ca­tion or apol­ogy on Pales­tinian hu­man rights, is po­lit­i­cal sui­cide. But that con­ven­tional wis­dom has rarely been tested. Demo­cratic politi­cians and for­eign pol­icy ex­perts are so ac­cus­tomed to self-cen­sor­ship that AIPAC and its al­lies rarely have to make an ex­am­ple of them. They make an ex­am­ple of them­selves.

San­ders is bet­ting that the po­lit­i­cal ground has shifted. In a sense, he’s do­ing in the Demo­cratic Party what Trump has done in­side the GOP. For years, polls showed that or­di­nary Re­pub­li­cans were mov­ing away from their party’s elite on trade and im­mi­gra­tion. But un­til Trump, no Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial fron­trun­ner had been suf­fi­ciently un­con­ven­tional and suf­fi­ciently un­afraid to put that propo­si­tion to the test.

San­ders knows that Ne­tanyahu’s op­po­si­tion to the two state so­lu­tion, and his sup­port for the Iraq War, and his bat­tles with Barack Obama, and his bro­mance with Trump, have deeply eroded sup­port for Is­rael among African Amer­i­cans, pro­gres­sives and the young. He knows that his likely 2020 com­peti­tors are mov­ing left on is­sue af­ter is­sue — from health care to col­lege tu­ition to the min­i­mum wage — in an ef­fort to keep pace with a Demo­cratic base that has been rad­i­cal­ized by the fi­nan­cial cri­sis, stag­nant wages, failed wars and Donald Trump. But he knows that when it comes to Is­rael, those com­peti­tors are con­strained by their fears of the Amer­i­can Jewish es­tab­lish­ment.

Bernie San­ders, who now stands a bet­ter chance of be­com­ing pres­i­dent than any Jew in Amer­i­can his­tory, is not afraid. And, as a re­sult, over the next two years he just might al­ter the Amer­i­can de­bate over Is­rael in ways we have not wit­nessed in decades.

Per­haps the courage of the pro­test­ers in Gaza is prov­ing con­ta­gious af­ter all.

For decades, the con­ven­tional wis­dom has held that a video like San­ders’, which fo­cuses with­out equiv­o­ca­tion or apol­ogy on Pales­tinian hu­man rights, is po­lit­i­cal sui­cide.

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