BOSTON – No foreign country features as prominently in American presidential election campaigns as Israel, and those aspiring to occupy the world’s most powerful political office, whether Republican or Democrat, routinely proclaim their support for that tiny and distant country. Yet, in the current crop of candidates, one has refrained from making any such proclamations: Bernie Sanders. With the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) having just invited all of the presidential candidates to address its annual policy conference next week in Washington, DC, this may be about to change.
The fact that Sanders has barely said anything about Israel on the campaign trail is certainly unusual for a presidential contender nowadays. But what makes it even more remarkable is the fact that he is the only Jewish candidate in the race. So why has Sanders been relatively silent on Israel?
To some extent, Sanders’s silence can be explained by his broader aversion to discussing foreign-policy issues. He knows that Hillary Clinton, his rival for the Democratic nomination, is far more experienced in this area, and that support for his campaign is based largely on his pledge to address domestic economic inequality and social injustice. Sanders has stuck to his populist economic message with great discipline, and this has inevitably meant that many other issues get little, if any, attention.
But, when it comes to Israel, Sanders’s silence also reflects a political calculation. Many of his most enthusiastic supporters are political progressives – the most liberal part of the Democratic base – and young people, groups that tend to be more critical of Israel’s actions and more sympathetic toward the Palestinians.
Indeed, a March 2015 Pew Research poll showed that both Democrats and especially Republicans were more sympathetic toward Israel than Palestine. Yet among liberal democrats, there was actually more sympathy for the Palestinians, with 68% saying that they sympathized more with the Palestinians, compared with 44% of moderate Democrats and just 33% of Republicans. Moreover, in a Gallup survey taken during Israel’s 2014 Gaza War, the majority of 18- to 29-year-olds thought that Israel’s actions were unjustified, while the majority of those 50 and older regarded them as justified.
This places Sanders, who depends on the support of liberal democrats and young people, in a delicate position. In fact, Sanders, who spent time on a kibbutz in the early 1960s, has expressed some understanding of Israel’s security concerns. In a November 2014 interview, he said that, if he were president, he would “support the security of Israel, help Israel fight terrorist attacks…and maintain its independence.”
Lest this seem clearly pro-Israel, however, Sanders promised in the same interview to maintain “an even-handed approach to that area.” Moreover, he has publicly criticized Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians – a rarity among US politicians. And he has acknowledged that he is no “fan” of Israel’s right-wing prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu; indeed, Sanders was among the legislators who boycotted Netanyahu’s controversial address to Congress last March.
Against this background, AIPAC’s invitation puts Sanders in an awkward position. If he turns down the invitation – as some pro-Palestinian activists are urging him to do – he will surely face harsh accusations from America’s large pro-Israel camp. If he accepts it, he will have to think carefully about what he says.
Sanders knows that even if he does speak out on Israel, at the AIPAC convention or elsewhere, he would not win over the country’s more hawkish supporters, including among Democrats. He would, however, run the risk of alienating his liberal base, making discussion of Israel a lose-lose proposition.
In any case, it is not as if avoiding talk about Israel is a departure for Sanders. Despite having commented on the matter where necessary, he has generally not been outspoken on issues relating to the country. He has certainly never embraced Israel as a political cause, as many other American Jewish politicians have. Nor does Israel appear to figure much in his own Jewish identity, which is more connected to the memory of the Holocaust than anything else.
In this respect, Sanders is no different than many other American Jews. In a 2013 survey by the Pew Research Center, 73% of American Jews said that “remembering the Holocaust” was essential to what being Jewish meant to them, compared with 43% for whom “caring about Israel” was essential. “Working for justice and equality” was also ranked significantly higher than caring about Israel. In his staunch commitment to advancing social justice, Sanders also clearly embraces this strand of American Jewish identity.
Sanders’s relative silence on Israel, therefore, serves as a reminder that Israel is not all that important to many, if not most, American Jews. Why should American Jewish politicians be any different?
Dov Waxman is a professor of political science, international affairs, and Israel studies at Northeastern University and Co-Director of its Middle East Center. His latest book, Trouble in the Tribe: The American Jewish Conflict over Israel, will be published by Princeton University Press next month.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2016.
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