Sanders' Middle East Policy Shows He's the True Voice on Israel for Young, Progressive U.S. Jews

Bernie Sanders is the first U.S. presidential candidate to take progressive ideas on Israel out of the pages of essays, op-eds and sermons, and into the discourse of an American election campaign.

Benjy Cannon
Benjy Cannon
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Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks during a campaign rally in Salt Lake City, Utah, March 21, 2016.
Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks during a campaign rally in Salt Lake City, Utah, March 21, 2016. Credit: Reuters
Benjy Cannon
Benjy Cannon

As a young, progressive, American Jew, last week, on the face of it, didn’t give me much to be excited about in American politics. At the AIPAC Policy Conference, the Republican candidates laid out their bleak, bigoted and us-versus-them vision for the future of Israel and the Middle East. Thousands of Jews leapt to their feet to applaud the terrifyingly racist authoritarian Donald Trump. It was challenging for many in our community to focus on anything else. But while that was going on in Washington, the first Jewish candidate to ever win a presidential primary delivered a very different speech in Utah.

In an address to supporters in Salt Lake City, Bernie Sanders outlined his foreign policy approach to the Middle East. After hearing his speech, it occurred to me that Sanders is not just the first Jew to get this far in a presidential election; he’s also the first candidate for president to use an election stump to talk about settlements, peace and the need for a two-state solution in a way that speaks to the values and beliefs of the majority of the American Jewish community, while simultaneously outlining a rational, intelligent way forward in ending Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians.

Sanders hit all the right notes. He made clear that being a friend to Israel means being comfortable speaking hard truths to it. And he made clear that being a friend to Israel also means being a friend to the Palestinians. Like Hillary Clinton, he affirmed that a two-state solution is the only way to resolve the conflict. But Sanders went a step further than any of his contemporary and historical counterparts: he spoke in specifics about Israel and the Palestinians shared responsibility for the current political void. He condemned rocket attacks against Israel and defended its right to exist, but was the only candidate who spoke about the need to address the gross inequality, devastation and suffering in the Gaza Strip. He affirmed his commitment to a future where Israelis are free from terror, but was alone in specifying that Palestinians must have security, independence, civil rights, and economic opportunities.

Unlike other candidates who have mentioned the settlements, Sanders’s criticism of them was targeted and incisive. Rather than criticizing them in general terms, he cited specific, recent examples of land appropriation, and was the only candidate to explicitly reject the Netanyahu government’s frequent claims that settlements are an appropriate response to violence.

Looking at the polls and the results so far, Sanders has quite a way to go if he wants to secure the nomination. But regardless of whether he wins or not, his speech is significant because it is a full-throated recognition of the changing face of American politics on Israel and Palestine.

For years, American discourse on Israel has been dominated by a powerful set of institutions that espouse a hawkish foreign policy and claim to speak for the majority of American Jews. Over the course of the last few years, their power has waned. Throughout U.S. President Barack Obama's term, his administration and their allies in Congress have moved forward a reasonable and constructive Middle East policy. This was evident from their efforts to re-start the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks all the way through to their achievement of a deal with Iran regarding its nuclear program.

While other candidates made clear in their AIPAC speeches that their electoral politics are lagging behind these policy changes, Sanders' comprehensive, progressive vision for the Middle East was consonant with the positive direction in which the issue has been headed. In doing so, Sanders abandoned the notion that American Jews subscribe to a hawkish view of U.S. leadership in the Middle East, and instead embraced the direction that young, progressive American Jews have been championing.

If someone had asked me before I read Sanders' speech to point to a vision for Israel’s future that resonated with me, I could have pulled up rabbinical sermons, academic essays, newspaper op-eds, and reports produced by think tanks. Now I can point to Sanders' speech.

In moving a vital conversation from the pages of journals and progressive Jewish conferences into the epicenter of politics, Sanders has affected positive change. This is so regardless of whether or not he wins the nomination. He has changed the frame of reference for how politicians – even those seeking the highest office – can talk about Israel and the Palestinians. He’s provided an opening for other candidates, now or in the future, to extend a clear hand in friendship to Palestinians, condemn the occupation and settlement growth, and simultaneously maintain the critical importance of U.S.-Israeli ties and Israel’s right to be free from terror and violence. And he’s given me and other young, progressive Jews like me a political leader whose approach to Israel we can feel proud of.

When I’m asked about how America should conduct itself in the Middle East, I have a new document to point them to, with a presidential candidate who stands unequivocally behind it. That this set of policies is being championed by a presidential candidate brings the hope for a just Israel – one which isn’t an occupying power and has a secure Jewish and democratic future – that much closer to reality.

Sanders’s leadership should be a rallying point for American Jews who felt disappointed and disgusted by the invective hurled from AIPAC’s stage by Republican candidates. His words provide us with a taste of what American political discourse about Israel and Palestine can look like when candidates embrace the views of young, progressive American Jews.

Benjy Cannon is based in Washington D.C. He holds a BA in Government, Politics and Philosophy from the University of Maryland. Follow him on Twitter @benjycannon.

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