Nu, Bernie Sanders, Instead of Shvitzing You Can Still Come Talk to AIPAC

The Jewish presidential candidate should seize the chance to speak some inconvenient truths about Israel, to an audience that never hears them.

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Bernie Sanders at Franklin Pierce University in Rindge, New Hampshire, Feb. 6, 2016.
Bernie Sanders at Franklin Pierce University in Rindge, New Hampshire, Feb. 6, 2016.Credit: AP
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

Bernie Sanders was the only presidential candidate who hadn't booked a slot to speak at the AIPAC conference. Now he's written AIPAC to say he's too busy campaigning. Ted Cruz the Baptist is coming, John Kasich the Anglican is coming, Donald Trump the Presbyterian is coming, Hillary Clinton the Methodist is coming, and only Sanders the Jew is staying away. Seriously? Sounds a bit meshugge, no?

I know that AIPAC shies away from the moniker “Jewish lobby,” although that’s how the organization is known in Israel. They prefer “pro-Israel” to avoid problematic insinuations, on the one hand, and to encompass non-Jewish supporters, on the other. But if it’s not a Jewish lobby, it is certainly a lobby made up mostly of Jews, who come to AIPAC to listen and to schmooze. And the fact that the first major presidential candidate who is an MOT (member of the tribe) won’t be there is just weird: He’s the only one for whom the audience is also mishpokhe, family, and not just potential voters.

The term “pro-Israel” is also problematic, of course. If pro-Israel translates to support for the current government and policies of Israel, I might well understand why Sanders might feel queasy. But “pro-Israel” also means support for the State of Israel, in the sense of basic, fundamental support for the security and existence of the state, notwithstanding the harshness and scope of your critique of its government. There is nothing to indicate that Sanders is opposed to these concepts, except for the fact that he’s now the only presidential candidate not coming to AIPAC.

Perhaps Sanders doesn’t need the tsuris. Perhaps he is concerned about the reception he might receive from the audience, in which many might view his sympathy for the Palestinians and his support for an evenhanded American policy in the region as mildly disloyal. I think he’s wrong. It’s likelier that his audience will kvell, if only as a token of provincial appreciation for his historic achievements as a Jew. If he doesn’t turn into a rabid, BDS-supporting anti-Zionist, the audience will listen patiently to what he has to say. Perhaps he’ll merit a boo or two, but not much more, and in any case, he’s probably seen worse. Most of the audience’s energy this year will be consumed by the far more controversial appearance of Donald Trump anyway. If Sanders decides to tear into Trump, he may even pick up some new pro-Israel fans.

Sanders has kept curiously silent about foreign affairs, in general, and about Israel, in particular. He prefers to stay focused on his core messages of income inequality, campaign reform, evil Wall Street and the like. Perhaps he feels that anything he’ll say about the Middle East conflict will draw undue attention because of his background. Perhaps he would rather stay away from the whole cockamamie quagmire, which one can well understand.

But Sanders is running for commander in chief, not reformer in chief. And a president has to deal in foreign affairs, whether he wants to or not: As Obama found out, sometimes foreign affairs is the only arena in which he truly holds sway. And presidents must also have the courage of their convictions. It does not serve Sanders well to be seen as a squeamish nebbish when confronted by a potentially critical audience. If he can’t face AIPAC, one might demagogically ask – how will he face Vladimir Putin?

Perhaps Sanders reluctance to come to AIPAC isn’t a matter of cowardice, but expediency. Many of his leftist fans view AIPAC as a reactionary tool of neoconservative warmongers and thousands have already signed a petition urging him to stay away. But AIPAC, no matter how disagreeable its positions might be, is nonetheless the premier Jewish organization in America. Boycotting AIPAC runs a close second to boycotting Israel, which is OK for those urging Sanders not to go, because they support BDS anyway. It is, however, conduct unbecoming a presidential candidate who has repeatedly expressed his support for Israel and his understanding of its security concerns.

Moreover, Sanders cannot simply decline the unique opportunity he has been given to present the liberal left point of view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict before a captive audience representing the most influential Jewish organization in the world. He should not pass up the chance to politely but forcefully tell the audience the inconvenient truths they usually don’t want hear. The AIPAC podium is a powerful pulpit from which Sanders can give a blunt assessment of how the 49-year old occupation is immoral and unsustainable, how it erodes support for Israel and tears the Jewish community apart, how it corrodes Israeli democracy and how it will ultimately be the undoing of the Jewish state. He can also explain why the Palestinians deserve better, despite their many faults.

Sure, a large number of AIPAC delegates, perhaps even a majority, might believe that the Iran nuclear deal is terrible, that Obama is no friend of Israel, that the two state solution is gone and that Netanyahu is the Judah Maccabee of our time. But there will be others in the audience and millions more among those who will be tuning in, who believe that Obama has been unjustifiably maligned, who are willing to give the Iran deal a chance, who understand that without two states there will be no solution and who, as Sanders once said, are “not great fans” of Netanyahu. And they deserve a voice as well. He should not give right-wingers the opportunity to use his absence as proof that left-wingers deserve less of a place in the pro-Israel tent, because the contrary is true.

Sanders should not abandon the forum to candidates like Cruz, who will promise to tear up the Iran deal and to move the American embassy to Jerusalem, even though he will do no such thing; or Kasich, who has joined the GOP chorus against giving peace a chance; or Trump, who will be all over the place, as usual, with a few unintended anti-Semitic barbs thrown in for fun; or Clinton, who might do the right thing when she’s president but won’t let on right now; or even Joe Biden, who isn’t a candidate but usually prefers to stick to his schmaltzy shtick.

Many people think that Sanders’ policies and programs are delusionary and dangerous, at worst, unrealistic and naive, at best. But they nonetheless appreciate his tough, no-nonsense, straight to the point presentation of the self-evident reality of blatant and undeniable injustice in American society: he talks dugri, as they say in Hebrew. Sanders owes the pro-Israel community, Jewish or otherwise, the same kind of in-your-face bluntness. It won’t help him get elected as president, though most observers, with the possible exception of Sanders himself, don’t think that’s going to happen anyway. But it’s the right thing to do nonetheless, especially for a shayner Yid (beautiful Jew) like Sanders.

And with all due respect, that's more important than another campaign stop in Idaho or Arizona.

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