I hope by now that you all have either seen, or read a transcript of, the portion of Thursday night’s Democratic Presidential debaterelating to the Israel-Palestine (I-P) conflict. (The relevant portion is close to the end.)
Thursday’s I-P discussion between Bernie and Hillary is a microcosm of a battle that has been raging in the American-Jewish community for many years. Both sides don’t simply show confidence in their own perspective; they behave as if theirs is the only sane approach. This disagreement has been reflected in the existence of two groups, AIPAC and J-Street, whose disagreements are always far more in focus than their agreements. Whereas AIPAC is focused on criticizing the behavior of Palestinians, Iranians and other so-called enemies of Israel, J-Street is almost exclusively devoted to criticizing the behavior of Jewish-Israelis. In this debate, Hillary played the part of a mainstream AIPAC member and Bernie acted the part of a mainstream J-Street member. If I didn’t know better, I would swear that they were on these organizations’ respective payrolls.
Of the two statements, Bernie’s has been garnering far more attention. That’s because the American public is not used to hearing the J-Street party line embraced on such a large political stage. By contrast, Hillary’s words were old-hat and politically safe. She paid a modicum of lip service to the idea that Israel should be fair to the Palestinians, recognize that they have “rights” and deserve autonomy, and take at least some precautions when its military responds to Palestinian attacks. But none of those were points of emphasis in her statement. Her central message was clear: the Palestinians have repeatedly initiated violent attacks, Israel has every right to defend itself from these attacks, the Americans handed the Palestinians an opportunity for peace and autonomy but the Palestinians didn’t take it, and the Israelis handed the Palestinians an opportunity for a prosperous economy but the Palestinians rejected that too and created a “terrorist haven” in its place.
Nobody can accuse Hillary of saying one thing at the AIPAC conference and another at a nationally televised debate. Her statement on Thursday would have fit in quite well at AIPAC, believe me. And indeed, it likely sealed a double-digit win in the New York primary and, accordingly, ended any credible argument that Bernie Sanders could take the nomination. Politics-as-usual usually wins.
Hillary’s purportedly pro-Palestinian comments in her statement reminded me of how she and her political allies dealt with the Monika Lewinsky scandal late in her husband’s presidency. Inevitably, they would preface their statements with something like, “Of course, we don’t condone the President’s conduct. Of course we think that sort of behavior has no place in American society, least of all in the Oval Office.” And then they would immediately pivot away from such thoughts and launch into a five or ten minute impassioned discourse decrying the vast right-wing conspiracy. In essence, what Hillary did on Thursday was to insert a bit of “balance” as a rhetorical device – to demonstrate that she is a reasonable person. But her fundamental goal should not be hard to discern: she was courting Jewish and other pro-Israeli voters. Given the primary in which she was competing, that is truly a target rich environment.
And that is precisely what makes Bernie’s statement so fascinating on so many levels. You see, he did EXACTLY the opposite of what Hillary did, and he did it in New York City: aka “Hymietown,” to use the immortal words of another leftist politician, Jesse Jackson. Bernie devoted most of his statement to talking about Palestinians’ rights and legitimate grievances, and he did so with the same passion that Hillary brought to her pro-Israeli claims. He also used the rhetorical device of purporting to show “balance” – in his case, his use of balance was to express that he believes that Israel has a right to defend itself, and to “live in peace and security.” But did you notice how he began his nod to Israeli rights? Bernie said that “of course” Israel has those rights. And indeed, he must have understood that he said nothing that is the least bit controversial or interesting on behalf of Israel. He did not even use coded words like acknowledging that he is a “Zionist” or that he supports the existence of a “Jewish State.” I would have no idea after reading Bernie’s statement what his vision of a peaceful, stable Israel would look like. Would it be majority Jewish in 50 years? Would it discriminate in favor of Jewish people from an immigration standpoint?
And before I praise Bernie’s statement – providing more than just the lip service that he gave in perfunctorily affirming Israel’s rights – allow me to remind everyone that Bernie is a Jewish person who would probably rather talk about his hemorrhoids than his membership in the Tribe. (Come to think of it, most of us Jews are disposed to talk about stuff like our hemorrhoids, but that is another issue altogether.) His unwillingness to publicly embrace his Jewish roots, let alone his Judaism, is extremely off-putting to me, and while I won’t hold that against him at the ballot box, it could largely explain why Hillary is polling 32 points ahead of him among Democratic Jews in New York.
Anyway, while I am virtually as far to the right of J-Street as I am to the left of AIPAC, Bernie’s statement nonetheless appealed to me in large part not because of what he said about Israel but because of what he said about the Palestinians. He spoke about the need to treat them with respect and dignity, something that outside of the interfaith movement seems to be a minority view. He spoke about the Gazan unemployment rate and how the rest of the world needs to help the Palestinian people rebuild the economy there, something that seems to be the furthest thing from the mind of most non-Palestinians. And he spoke about the value of the United States of America playing “an even-handed role [in] trying to bring people together and recognizing the serious problems that exist among the Palestinian people [which] is what ... the world wants us to do and ... the kind of leadership that we have got to exercise.” That comment is so far outside of the mainstream that when Donald Trump said something similar, it was used by his Republican rivals as an example of how Trump is crazy and not pro-Israel.
Bernie showed a lot of courage in advancing Palestinian claims in a place like New York. He is absolutely right that to be truly pro-Israel, and not merely pro-status quo, we must also be pro-Palestinian. We Jews in particular must embrace Palestinians as first cousins and not vilify them as enemies. When I founded the Jewish-Islamic Dialogue Society of Washington, I did so not only because I am fascinated by Islam but also because I desperately want a just peace in the Holy Land and I don’t believe that such peace is possible unless the two peoples can come together and embrace both what unifies us and what divides us. Like Bernie, I am a two-state guy. And also like Bernie, I care deeply about what the Palestinian state would look like, and not only because of its implications for Israel but also because the Palestinian and the Jewish people are neighbors and neighbors must care for each other.
Yet the fact remains that I refuse to condone the imbalance of Bernie’s words any more than I condone the imbalance of Hillary’s. I would much rather blame Israel for how it has colonized the West Bank than for how it has bombed Gaza. Gaza is indeed a terrorist haven, Israel does have a right to self-defense, and I for one do not possess enough facts to blast Israel for “disproportionate” violence. Does Bernie know more than I do? Well let’s just say that it was only a fortnight ago when he was publicly blaming Israel for 10,000 Gazan deaths, when in fact the true number was only a fraction of that figure. This is not the kind of mistake you tend to make if you are truly pro-Israel, as he claims to be. Nor do you, as Bernie did, appoint a woman to be your liaison to the Jewish community who has publicly said “Fuck you, Bibi.” Fortunately, Bernie withdrew that uninspired appointment, but the damage was done to his “pro-Israel” cred.
It is all too easy to demonize the players when it comes to the I-P Conflict. It feels just so comfy here in America to look down our noses at those savage Palestinians and those primitive Israelis. But let me remind everyone what kind of “disproportionate” carnage the United States wrought in response to the 9/11 attacks, and what kind of violence Americans have perpetrated over the centuries in response to racial and economic injustices. As my Christian cousins would say, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”
This is why we have to be very sensitive when we talk about these issues. We have to be largely balanced, and not simply wear the jerseys of the right (AIPAC) or the left (J-Street). We have to internalize the narratives of the Jews and the Palestinians. And while it is inevitable that many of us, myself included, will feel one of those narratives closer to our heart, we must always remember that we are talking about a family conflict, not a war between natural enemies. Ultimately, we must come together and support our kin, much as brothers Esau and Jacob embraced, or as Isaac and Ishmael united to bury their father. This will only be possible if we work jointly now on initiatives that align Jew and Muslim, Arab and Israeli, progressive and conservative.
So, in the name of burying the hatchet, let me just say that whereas I might not have been impressed by the extent of the balance shown by Hillary or Bernie, I can at least recognize that both did give a nod to the universality of rights, the dignity of all human beings, and the hope of peace. That’s a hell of a place to start.