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Bernie, Israel, and the failure of the American Jewish community

Sanders is a J-Street kind of guy, who sidesteps his Zionist identity to avoid polarized debate on the Jewish state

Bernie Sanders was not great on Saturday Night Live. Ah well. It turns out that not every secular Jew from the right part of New York is born for loosely structured self-deprecating observational humor. Sanders did, however, play the hits. Embodying his own ancestor on a steamship to the States, he yelled and gesticulated wildly, as only Bernie can. He decried Larry David’s wealthy Scotsman who, of course, wanted the ship’s emergency lifeboats to be dealt out in order of class privilege. And Sanders briefly acknowledged that, yes, he is Jewish and that, yes, that’s still something of a thing these days. His family name, the joke went, was Sanderswitzky, but he’d be changing it at Ellis Island to Sanders to take off the Semitic suffix. Yes, David’s character scoffed, that will trick them.

It was funny enough. But there was perhaps a little too much truth mixed with the comedy for those Americans whose suffixes, headwear, or other cultural accoutrement more loudly declare tribesmanship. Certainly, Sanders has never hidden his Jewishness. But he has always appeared something less than fully comfortable in his own lack of foreskin. Sure, when pressed, he’ll pontificate on the impact of the Holocaust on his political philosophy. If things stay vague enough, he’ll own up to a little Jewish pride. He’s not religious, but, yeah, if you insist, he’ll join you for a pastrami and cheddar sandwich at the local kosher-style. But he won’t talk about his kibbutz days at any length. More importantly, when he describes his candidacy as historic, it is apparent that he’s talking about economic policies, not identity politics.

This is a victory for American egalitarianism, but a loss for American Jewry. One that, I propose, is our fault, not his. As Peter Beinart eloquently argued in The Crisis of Zionism, for many American Jews, religious identity amounts to a light attachment to Jewish culture and a more significant commitment to the State of Israel. By appearing with his doppleganger David on SNL, he nodded to the former. By stopping there, he highlights the difficulty with the latter. This is because American Jews, particularly those of us who count ourselves as liberal, have failed to provide him with a position on Israel that is both politically viable and morally acceptable.

Sanders knows that he creates a loud silence every time he delivers a foreign policy statement that fails to address Israel. This is true enough for any mainstream American presidential candidate and is particularly noticeable for one with his particular accent. But as a liberal committed both to international principles of human rights and the outside possibility that the American people might vote for him, what, exactly, is he to do?

The American right, and much of the Jewish center, has chosen to paint Israel as a stark, binary issue. No matter what the Israeli government does or its elected representatives say, this branch of thinking goes, you are either for the Jewish state or against the survival of the Jewish people. A critique leveled at expansionist settlement policies, for example, is quickly painted as a refusal to Stand With Israel and a vote for the Terrorists. Consider that Jewish Community Centers across the nation have screened The J Street Challenge, a hit-piece of a documentary that accuses the avowedly Zionist J Street lobbying group of treachery for daring to even consider Palestinian rights and interests. Sanders, though certainly a Zionist, knows a similar fate would await him were he to acknowledge his discomfort about Israel’s willingness to operate as permanent occupier that grants, at best, selective political rights to its subjects.

There is, of course, a Jewish position that stands in stark opposition. Unfortunately for Sanders it is neither intellectually satisfying nor politically reasonable. The Jewish left, particularly on campus, has proven similarly suspicious of the J Street position, ceaselessly attacking the organization for searching for a middle ground between cheerleading the occupation and consigning Israel to history’s post-colonial dustbin. If there is Feel the Bern-style energy on the Israel Activism spectrum, it is in the realm of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions, a movement that often not so subtly suggests that Israel, in any form, must go.

Bernie is, deep down, a J Street kind of guy. He drops their name into Sunday morning talk shows and he stands for principles that coordinate with the organization’s platform. In a better world, he would make a commitment to a peaceful solution to Israel and Palestine not only part of his presidential platform, but also part of a louder, prouder Jewish identity. But Jewish America has failed Sanders, forcing him to choose between acquiescence to eternal occupation, treachery against an important ally, and conspicuous silence. He is choosing, in this case, to drop the “witzky” and hope no one asks why. I can hardly blame him.

About the Author
Matt Sienkiewicz is professor of Communication and International Studies at Boston College
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