David Breakstone
Reflections on Israel and the Jewish world

An open letter to Bernie Sanders

By and large I embrace your vision, but when it comes to the Middle East, I am convinced it is impaired. You blame the impasse in reaching a two-state solution on Israel for being too heavy-handed in responding to Palestinian provocation; I blame the Palestinian leadership for refusing to reconcile itself to the existence of a Jewish state.

Dear Senator Sanders,

I wish you’d been at my Pesach Seder. Leafing through a retrospective of holiday writings published by the Brooklyn Jewish Center, just around the corner from where you grew up, I came across a particularly edifying essay I felt compelled to share with those gathered round the table. “The catalogue of Arab hate and violence grows daily longer…

Overshadowing even these is the unwavering refusal of the Arab states to translate an uneasy truce… into a permanent peace… The United Nations and our own government are not without fault… We have been disturbed by the promptness of censures leveled at Israel when under even worse circumstances a discreet silence has been maintained in the face of Arab provocation… Time and again Israel has offered to undertake such negotiations, and each time the Arab answer has been a curt and uncompromising refusal.”

That was written in 1954, the year in which you celebrated your Bar Mitzvah. The Six Day War and the subsequent beginning of the “occupation” were still thirteen years into the future. The only “settlements” at the time were the kibbutzim, all within Israel’s original borders. Binyamin Netanyahu was only five years old. There were eight Arab members of the Knesset in an already thriving Israeli democracy and under Ben Gurion’s left-wing government no one questioned Israel’s commitment to the “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex” as articulated in its Declaration of Independence. But still our Arab neighbors were determined to eradicate us. On that score, nothing has changed in the six decades since.

Which is why I feel obliged to write you. By and large I embrace your vision, but when it comes to Israel, I am convinced it is impaired.

I’m not so bothered by your having gotten the numbers wrong in referring to the 2014 conflict between Israel and Hamas over what was going on in Gaza, but I do fault you for having bought so completely into the Palestinian narrative. I, like you, am deeply troubled by the loss of innocent lives there and by the misery of so many others, but when it comes to assigning culpability our paths diverge. You blame Israel for being too heavy-handed in responding to Palestinian provocation; I blame Hamas for refusing to reconcile itself to the existence of a nation state for the Jewish people.

Israel launched that military campaign only after its civilian population had been bombarded by more than 11,000 rockets since unilaterally withdrawing from the territory a decade earlier. Had those rockets not been fired, the war would never have taken place. And had they ceased on day one of the war, there wouldn’t have been a day two. When we disengaged from Gaza in 2005, we wanted nothing more than to see the local government embrace a policy of coexistence. We uprooted more than 8,500 of our citizens who were forced to abandon the 21 communities they had built on empty plains of sand, leaving behind 26 synagogues, 2,800 homes and the best years of their lives. We did all that in the pursuit of peace. The other side proved to be uninterested.

In the decade that followed, the Hamas government squandered hundreds of millions of dollars of humanitarian aid on turning Gaza into a military stronghold and poured 600,000 tons of concrete into constructing more than 30 terrorist attack tunnels terminating under the homes and playgrounds of villages within Israel’s internationally recognized borders. Imagine what Gaza might have looked like today, imagine the lives that would have been spared, imagine the suffering that could have been alleviated had those vast resources – contributed by the international community – been used to build the hospitals, schools and economic infrastructure for which they were intended.

So much for the Hamas party that came to power on a platform promising social welfare, education, and prosperity. It’s difficult for the Western mentality to digest, but Hamas takes its Charter seriously, demanding Israel’s obliteration, rejecting any mediated solution to the conflict, and calling for the outright murder of Jews. Yes Jews, not Zionists. Article 7 glorifies the Day of Judgment “when the Jew will hide behind stones and trees and the stones and trees will say, ‘O Moslems, O Abdulla, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him.’” And its desire for the dawn of that Day of Judgment is apparently greater than its hunger for alleviating the darkness to which it has subjected its people. No one with any credibility any longer denies that Hamas deliberately stored its weapons and situated its launching pads under the cover of innocent civilians, unperturbed by the consequences, for, as Article 8 of its Charter states, for the Islamic Resistance Movement “Jihad is its path and death for the sake of Allah is the loftiest of its wishes.”

Still, there is incontrovertible evidence of the extraordinary effort Israel made to avoid the killing of non-combatants in Gaza. But I make no apologies for our having taken the minimum steps necessary to bring about an end to the rain of rockets terrorizing our own citizens. We escalated our firepower in Gaza incrementally, hoping with each passing day that the other side would declare its readiness for a cease fire allowing us to bring our own children home and putting an end to the unintended killing of theirs. It took far too long to happen. Even worse, since the end of that round of fighting, Hamas has been busy preparing for the next, channeling resources it has received for the purpose of reconstruction and social welfare into rearmament while continuing to burrow under our borders.

It has also continued to oppress its own civilian population, enforcing its fundamentalist interpretation of Islam, denying equal rights to women and gays, and stifling that rare voice of moderation that seeks to be heard.
Yet it is Israel that continues to be condemned by the international community, and now chided by you as well. In the decade since its establishment, the United Nations Human Rights Council has passed some 67 resolutions singling out and condemning Israel, more than it has passed in regard to all the other countries of the world combined. And in November of last year alone, the UN General Assembly put forward 20 resolutions criticizing Israel and only three referring to all its other 192 member states.

Against this background, Senator Sanders, I urge you to reevaluate your assessment regarding Israel’s conflict with its neighbors. It is not about settlements, occupation, or the use of force. It is about Islamic extremism in the form of ISIS and Hamas. It is about the implacability of an enemy determined to destroy us at any cost. And it is about the painful steps we need to take in order to prevent that from happening. The two sides are not equally to blame, and your disproportionate criticism of Israel, unjustly accusing it of deploying disproportionate force does a disservice to ordinary people on both sides, pushing peace further into the distance by perpetuating the fallacy of moral equivalency where none exists. Words matter, yours in particular, and I urge you to choose them carefully, lest they be borrowed by others to buoy the well-orchestrated campaign to delegitimize the very idea of the Jewish state you so fervently believe has every right to exist.

About the Author
Dr. David Breakstone is currently involved in establishing the Yitzhak Navon Center for a Shared Society. He previously served as deputy chair of the Jewish Agency executive and the World Zionist Organization and as the conceptual architect and founding director of the Herzl Museum and Educational center in Jerusalem. He welcomes correspondence from those determined to forge Israel as the shared society it was always meant to be at