Bernie Sanders is the first Jewish candidate to run for a national office on a major party ticket since Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman was selected in 2000 by Al Gore to be his vice presidential running mate. But that’s where the similarity ends.
Lieberman has always been very proud and eager to identify as a Jew. Sanders rarely mentions his Jewish identity, and prefers to describe himself as “the son of a Polish immigrant” on the campaign trail. In a debate with Hillary Clinton, Sanders referred to the uniqueness of “somebody with my background” running for president without ever coming out and saying that it was because he is Jewish.
When pressed on the point, Sanders has declared, “I’m very proud to be Jewish,” but he seems uncomfortable whenever he is asked to talk about his Jewish background. His reluctance to talk about his Jewish roots prompted The Forward to run an article headlined, “We Need To Out Bernie Sanders as a Jew – For His Own Good.”
Sanders grew up in a rent controlled apartment in the Midwood section of Brooklyn. His parents were non-observant Jews, and Bernie was educated in the New York City public school system. According to Bernie’s brother, Larry, there was very little Jewish content in their family life, aside from attending a Pesach seder with neighbors. Larry said of his parents, “They were very pleased to be Jews, but didn’t have a strong belief in G-d.”
During the campaign, Bernie Sanders has talked about the fact that his father lost two brothers and a sister, as well as other family members in the Holocaust. He also went to Poland to visit his father’s village of Slopnice, 50 miles southeast of Krakow in 2013.
His father went to shul only on Yom Kippur, but Bernie did attend Sunday classes at the nearby (Orthodox) Kingsway Jewish Center, where he had his bar mitzvah. Almost 30 years later, as the mayor of Burlington, Vermont, Sanders recalled enough of his early Hebrew training to recite the brachos on lighting a Chanukah menorah on the steps of City Hall.
WORKING ON A SECULAR KIBBUTZ
As a student at the University of Chicago in the early 1960s, he became active in the civil rights movement, and drifted around a lot. In 1963, Sanders volunteered to work for a few months at Kibbutz Shaar HaAmukim in northern Israel, as a member of Hashomer Hatzair, the militantly secular Zionist socialist movement, but he has not been active as an advocate for Israel since coming to Washington DC in 1991.
Sanders was the only presidential candidate of either party to reject an invitation to speak to the AIPAC conference last month.
Instead, he delivered a lengthy address discussing his views on Israel and the Middle East to a non-Jewish audience in Utah where he was campaigning before the state’s Democrat caucuses.
He began his presentation by saying, “Israel is one of America’s closest allies, and we, as a nation, are committed not just to guaranteeing Israel’s survival, but also to make sure that its people have a right to live in peace and security.
“To my mind, as long term friends with Israel, we are obligated to speak the truth as we see it. That is what real friendship demands, especially in difficult times. . . But it is important among friends to be honest and truthful about differences that we may have.”
ADVOCATING FOR THE TWO-STATE SOLUTION
He then explained how, as president, he would “work tirelessly to advance the cause of peace as a partner and as a friend to Israel,” while at the same time being a “friend” to the Palestinian people.
“You can’t have good policy that results in peace if you ignore one side,.” he said. Sanders then declared, “ I firmly believe that the only prospect for peace is the successful negotiation of a two-state solution,” while acknowledging the difficulties and the long history of failures in that quest.
Calling for “compromises on both sides,” Sanders said “ I believe that Israel, the Palestinians, and the international community can, must, and will rise to the occasion and do what needs to be done to achieve a lasting peace.”
Going into further detail, Sanders said, “Peace will require the unconditional recognition by all people of Israel’s right to exist. It will require an end to attacks of all kinds against Israel.
“Peace will require that organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah renounce their efforts to undermine the security of Israel. It will require the entire world to recognize Israel.
“Peace has to mean security for every Israeli from violence and terrorism.
“But peace also means security for every Palestinian. It means achieving self-determination, civil rights, and economic well-being for the Palestinian people.
“Peace will mean ending what amounts to the [Israeli] occupation of Palestinian territory, establishing mutually agreed upon borders, and pulling back settlements in the West Bank, just as Israel did in Gaza, once considered an unthinkable move on Israel’s part.
At that point, Sanders’ Utah presentation became one-sided. He blasted the policies of Binyomin Netanyahu’s government. Sanders rejects the concept that Israel has any right to build communities and Jewish homes in the West Bank, which he considers to be Palestinian land. While decrying Palestinian violence, Sanders rejects the right of Israel to take defensive actions in response to Palestinian attacks, such as imposing a blockade on the importation of militarily useful materials into Gaza, and withholding the transfer of tax revenues to the Palestinian Authority when it violates its obligations under the Oslo Accords.
CRITICIZING ISRAEL FOR HOW IT FOUGHT IN GAZA
Sanders condemned what he called Israel’s “disproportionate” military response when it was attacked in the summer of 2014 by Hamas from Gaza. He acknowledged that, “the Israeli offensive came after weeks of indiscriminate rocket fire into its territory and the kidnapping of Israeli citizens,” but then accused Israel of using excessive military force, and condemned it, unfairly, for “the bombing of hospitals, schools and refugee camps.”
Sanders made no mention of the extraordinary measures which were taken by the Israeli army to give civilians in Gaza advance warning to evacuate their homes when they were targeted for attack, in order to reduce the number of unintended casualties.
Sanders also ignored the fact that Hamas systematically used the civilian population of Gaza as human shields. It also commandeered humanitarian sites, such as the schools, hospitals and UN facilities in Gaza, for use as storehouses for weapons and headquarters for military operations, in violation of the rules of warfare, knowing that Israel would try to avoid attacking them.
Sanders also accepted as fact the false Hamas claim that 70% of those killed by Israeli attacks in Gaza were “civilians,” when a careful study by the Israeli government revealed that true figure was 36%.
Sanders does say that Hamas’ refusal to recognize Israel’s right to exist is “unacceptable.” He also condemns Hamas for “indiscriminate rocket fire” from “civilian neighborhoods” into Israeli territory, and its diversion of “funds and materials for much-needed construction projects” to build terrorist tunnels into Israel.
Nevertheless, Sanders put the onus for the misery of Palestinians living in Gaza squarely on Israel. He called on Israel to do more to aid the reconstruction of Gaza, even if its Hamas rulers are still committed to Israel’s destruction. He also wants Israel to be more generous in sharing water sources in the West Bank with the Palestinians. At the same time, he seemed reluctant to hold the Palestinians responsible for the consequences of their hostile actions and obstruction of the peace process.
CONDEMNING THE WEST BANK SETTLEMENTS
Sanders also touched on these topics in an interview with the New York Daily News last week. With regard to Israel’s West Bank settlements, he said, “the expansion was illegal, moving into territory that was not their territory, I think withdrawal from those territories is appropriate.”
When pressed in the Daily News interview on why he thought the settlements were illegal, Sanders said, “I think that’s based on previous treaties and ideas,” even though the question of who has sovereignty over the West Bank has never been formally established by any signed international treaty. Sanders’ response also made no distinction between the West Bank and East Yerushalayim.
When asked if he expected Israel to pull back from the settlements, Sanders was deliberately vague, saying, “Israel will make their own decisions. They are a government, an independent nation. But to the degree that they want us to have a positive relationship, I think they’re going to have to improve their relationship with the Palestinians.”
When Sanders was asked what he would demand of the Palestinians, he said, “Well, for a start, the absolute condemnation of all terrorist attacks. The idea that in Gaza there were buildings being used to construct missiles and bombs and tunnels, that is not where foreign aid should go. Foreign aid should go to housing and schools, not the development of bombs and missiles.”
GIVING ISRAEL’S MILITARY TECHNOLOGY TOO MUCH CREDIT
When asked what Israel should have done differently during the war in Gaza in 2014, Sanders admitted that he was not qualified as a military expert, but then said, “I think most international observers would say that the attacks against Gaza were indiscriminate and that a lot of innocent people were killed who should not have been killed. We are living, for better or worse, in a world of high technology, whether it’s drones out there that could take your nose off, and Israel has that technology. I think there is a general belief that, with that technology, they could have been more discriminate in terms of taking out weapons that were threatening them.”
Sanders re-iterated his criticism that Israel bombed too many apartments and hospitals in the Gaza war, but he does not support the ongoing efforts by the Palestinian Authority to bring Israel up on war crimes charges at the International Criminal Court in the Hague. He also said that he considers both Hamas and Hezbollah to be terrorist organizations.
SANDERS SUPPORTS THE IRAN NUCLEAR DEAL
In his Utah speech, Sanders voiced his strong support for the Iran nuclear deal, “because I believe it is the best hope to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.
“I want to thank the Obama administration for doing a very good job under very, very difficult circumstances.”
Sanders admits that the deal is far from perfect. “Does the agreement achieve everything I would like? Of course not.
“But to my mind, it is far better than the path we were on with Iran developing nuclear weapons and the potential for military intervention by the United States and Israel growing greater by the day.”
Sanders made it clear that his strong preference for Obama’s diplomatic solution for defusing the Iranian nuclear threat, is based upon his liberal progressive views. These are typified by his early and outspoken opposition to the 2003 US invasion of Iraq
Sanders said, “I do not accept the idea that the ‘pro-Israel’ position was to oppose the deal. Preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon will strengthen not only the United States’ security, but Israel’s security as well.
“And I am not alone in that idea. While Prime Minister Netanyahu is vocally opposed to the accord, his is hardly a consensus opinion in Israel and it’s important that everyone understand that. Dozens of former security officials, including retired Army generals and chiefs of the Shin Bet and Mossad intelligence agencies support the agreement. Netanyahu may not, but many others in Israel do.”
BLASTING NETANYAHU FOR INTERFERING WITH US FOREIGN POLICY
Sanders also disapproved of Netanyahu’s speech to a joint session of Congress last year, in which he criticized the emerging Iran nuclear deal, and was the first senator to announce that he would not be present for it. He later said, “the address, arranged without consultation with the White House, improperly interfered with President Barack Obama’s leading role in charting U.S. foreign policy.”
Sanders has recognized the necessity for the US to vigorously enforce the terms of the nuclear deal, using a code phrase that implies a willingness to use US military force, if all else fails.
“Let me be clear: if Iran does not live up to the agreement, we should re-impose sanctions and all options are back on the table.
“Moreover, the deal does not mean we let Iran’s aggressive acts go unchecked. The world must stand united in condemning Iran’s recent ballistic missile tests as well as its continued support for terrorism through groups like Hezbollah,” Sanders said.
A SECULAR, NON-JEWISH PERSPECTIVE
Sanders is much less outspoken in his support for Israel than any of his opponents, including Mrs. Clinton and the three Republican presidential candidates.
Sanders’ positions are consistent with what one would expect from a politically progressive, entirely secular Jew, who relies heavily on the J Street lobby and the Arab-American Institute for policy advice in the Middle East.
In interviews, Sanders has said, “I am not actively involved with organized religion,” and describes his beliefs in secular humanistic terms.
“I think everyone believes in G-d in their own ways. To me, it means that all of us are connected, all of life is connected, and that we are all tied together,” Sanders said.
In 1981, when Sanders was the mayor of Burlington, he shocked the audience at a local United Way charitable fund-raising event by declaring, “I don’t believe in charities.” He then explained that his socialist ideology calls for government, rather than charities, to provide for all necessary social welfare services and programs.
Sanders delivered his only speech of the campaign on religious values at the Christian evangelical Liberty University on Rosh Hashana. On that occasion he said, “I am motivated by a vision which exists in all of the great religions, in Christianity, in Judaism, in Islam, Buddhism and other religions,” and seemingly equates them all.
Sanders once admitted in a conversation with the Jewish chaplain at Dartmouth College that it would fair to characterize him as a “non-Jewish Jew.” Sanders’ wife is not Jewish, and he only goes to a synagogue on political, family or social occasions.
Undeniably, Sanders is a Jewish candidate, but that fact has little or no impact on his political positions on most issues of concern to religious, as well as many irreligious Jews.