Bernie Sanders, the U.S. senator from the state of Vermont, unburdened himself of a few choice words of wisdom a few days ago. They’re well worth pondering.
Addressing J Street’s annual conference in Washington, D.C., Sanders spoke of the importance of diversity of opinion in discourse about Israel and the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Delivering his first Middle East policy speech since his unsuccessful bid for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, he said you can be pro-Israel without necessarily supporting the policies of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “We can oppose the policies of President Trump without being anti-American,” he stated. “We can oppose the policies of Netanyahu without being anti-Israel.”
For good measure, he added, “We can oppose the policies of Islamic extremism without being anti-Muslim.”
On all three counts, Sanders hit the mark.
Sanders, too, was right to remind his audience that Jewish recognition of Palestinian suffering during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war should not diminish Jewish support for Israel. “As you all know, there was another side to the story of Israel’s creation, a more painful side,” he said. “Like our own country, the founding of Israel involved the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people already living there, the Palestinian people.”
Sanders pointed out that upwards of 700,000 Palestinians were rendered refugees during the fighting. “To acknowledge this painful historical fact does not delegitimize Israel, any more than acknowledging that the Trail of Tears delegitimizes the United States of America,” he said, referring to President Andrew Jackson’s Indian removal order of the late 1830s.
Sanders’ comments did not break new ground, but they’re timely and relevant.
It goes without saying that Jews in the Diaspora should speak their minds with respect to Israel, but as a rule, conformist Jewish community leaders do not take kindly to criticism of Israel, even when it’s clearly in the wrong.
I know this from personal experience.
I worked on a Jewish community newspaper in Canada for many years and usually didn’t have to look over my shoulders. Nevertheless, I implicitly understood what the limits were. I was free to express my views on Israel’s struggle with the Palestinians and its Arab neighbors, but I knew that freedom of the press is not a finite thing. To put it succinctly, I had to tread carefully sometimes.
Call it self-censorship.
I will never forget that awkward moment when the publisher, a prominent and well-meaning businessman, asked me to delete the word “rigid” I had used in a sentence to describe the intransigent policies of a right-wing Israeli prime minister. I had no choice but to comply with the publisher’s wish. I also recall the time my editor, a liberal by most standards, declined to publish one of my articles on a Palestinian refugee camp I had visited in Syria.
I can cite more examples of the editorial “red lines” I had to observe to preserve my job, but in fairness, all newspapers and magazines abide by these rules and conventions. As the renowned American journalist A.J. Leibling famously once said, “Freedom of the press is accorded to those who own it.”
So to recap.
Some of the policies of the current Israeli government are really counter-productive. In particular, I’m thinking of its settlement program in the West Bank, which is the height of folly. It’s a short-sighted approach that denies the Palestinians statehood and sows the seeds of further strife and a one-state solution, which would spell finis to Israel’s existence as a democratic Jewish state.
I’m obviously upset and concerned by the direction in which Israel is heading, but as Bernie Sanders correctly observed, you can care about Israel, and the plight of the Palestinians, while opposing the self-defeating positions of Israel’s government.