There is a kind of delicious, if ironic, mirror image between AIPAC’s guiding policy and that of the BDS movement: both conflate “the current government of Israel” with “Israel.”
The BDS movement, in its effort to combat specific policies – namely, Israel’s continued occupation and its oppression of Palestinians – opposes Israel in toto. AIPAC, for its part, supports Israel as such, and towards that purpose it refrains from taking a stand regarding specific Israeli policies or governments.
Like Bernie Sanders, I deplore the fact that the current Israeli government (like every one that Benjamin Netanyahu has headed) is uninterested in arriving at a just resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, engaging in policies of settlement and oppression that deny Palestinians fundamental rights. And like Bernie Sanders, I am troubled by the possibility that in supporting AIPAC’s mission, I become complicit in supporting the current government’s policies. I can understand how this hesitation might lead him to a principled decision not to attend AIPAC’s Policy Conference.
But I cannot excuse the outrageous incrimination that Sanders made in justifying his decision.
Sanders could have tweeted, “I value Israel and AIPAC’s support of the US-Israel alliance, but I do not wish to support indirectly the discriminatory policies of Israel’s current government. Therefore I will not attend their conference.’ Had he tweeted this, he would have received plenty of criticism (as a kind of Jewish Elizabeth Warren) – but he would have provided himself a legitimate position to defend.
That, however, is not what he tweeted. He wrote: “I remain concerned about the platform AIPAC provides for leaders who express bigotry and oppose basic Palestinian rights. For that reason I will not attend their conference.”
This is an outlandish accusation, as well as a spurious justification for his absence.
It’s an outlandish accusation because he is doing to AIPAC precisely what the BDS movement does to Israel: to totalitize and portray a falsely monolithic portrait. Are there some leaders who use the platform that AIPAC provides to articulate positions that are informed by bigotry? Quite possibly. But to write “AIPAC provides a platform” for such leaders is to suggest: (a) that AIPAC intentionally does so, as an integral part of its mission; and (b) that AIPAC does not also provide a platform for leaders who offer divergent voices that articulate positions of acceptance and support of Palestinian rights. Neither of those insinuations is true, and Sanders knows that.
It’s also a spurious justification for his absence. Sanders is a life-long politician, so he knows better than most people that political engagement – even when adorned in rhetoric of revolution, as his is – entails a sustained effort to harness the power and potential of existent institutions and infuse them with new values and commitments.
That, after all, is why he is running to be President of the United States. Would he dare renounce his aspiration to that office because “it provides a platform for leaders who express bigotry and oppose basic Palestinian rights”? (Think of the current resident of the Oval Office.) Should he retire from the Senate because it, too, provides such a platform?
So how does Sanders distinguish between platforms of bigotry? Why is he willing to engage the platform of the U.S. Senate and aspire to the office of the Presidency, while he disengages from AIPAC’s Policy Conference?
It could be because he’s making a political calculation about how to garner support from the more progressive voices of the Democratic party.
But I have an unsettling hunch that it’s because, when it comes to Israel, he is unable to refrain from the kind of insidious rhetoric that causes discussions about Israel to be so incendiary. Which is itself a platform of bigotry.