Bernie’s Jewish. His views on Israel, nuanced.


This is one of series articles on what eight of the Democratic presidential hopefuls have said or done regarding Israel and other Jewish concerns. It was assembled by the staff of the JTA before the latest debate and edited by The Jewish Star for space and style. Link here for the other candidates:  Amy Klobuchar, Andrew Yang, Bernie Sanders, Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, Mike Bloomberg, Pete Buttigieg

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders is one of three Jewish candidates vying to become president in 2020 — the other two being former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and author Marianne Williamson.

His father was a Jewish immigrant from Poland, and his mother was born in America to immigrant Jewish parents from Poland and Russia. In 1963, he lived and worked on Kibbutz Shaar Haamakim in northern Israel.

Sanders has said he is proud to be Jewish. In a June 2015 interview, he said that being Jewish taught him “in a very deep way what politics is about.” He said: “A guy named Adolf Hitler won an election in 1932. He won an election, and 50 million people died as a result of that election in World War II, including 6 million Jews. So what I learned as a little kid is that politics is, in fact, very important,” he said. (Hitler didn’t really win an election, but we get Bernie’s point.) 

What’s he said about anti-Semitism?

In an essay titled “How to Fight Antisemitism,” in Jewish Currents in November 2019, he wrote: “The threat of anti-Semitism is not some abstract idea to me. It is very personal. It destroyed a large part of my family. I am not someone who spends a lot of time talking about my personal background because I believe political leaders should focus their attention on a vision and agenda for others, rather than themselves. But I also appreciate that it’s important to talk about how our backgrounds have informed our ideas, our principles, and our values.”

His essay also shows that Sanders views anti-Semitism as a universal, intersectional threat and calls opposing it a “core value of progressivism.” “Like other forms of bigotry — racism, sexism, homophobia — anti-Semitism is used by the right to divide people from one another and prevent us from fighting together for a shared future of equality, peace, prosperity and environmental justice,” he said.

After Rep. Ilhan Omar was criticized for making anti-Semitic remarks about Jewish wealth and influence, Sanders said Omar should be more careful in how she speaks to the Jewish community, but that a House resolution that mildly criticized Omar was part of an effort to unfairly silence Israel critics.

What about BDS?

Unlike many other progressives, Bernie is against BDS. He has stated that anti-Semitism is a driver of the anti-Israel movement.

“Israel has done some very bad things, so has every other country on earth,” Sanders said on MSNBC in March 2016. “I think the people who want to attack Israel for their policies, I think that is fair game. But not to appreciate that there is some level of anti-Semitism around the world involved in that I think would be a mistake.”

Sanders also said in May 2017 that he did not respect BDS as a tactic.

However, Sanders voted against the recent anti-BDS bill in Congress, telling the JTA, “While I do not support the BDS movement, we must defend every American’s constitutional right to engage in political activity. It is clear to me that this bill would violate Americans’ First Amendment rights.”

In September, Sanders named Linda Sarsour, a Palestinian-American activist, outspoken critic of Israel and BDS supporter, as a surrogate for his campaign.

What about Israel in general?

Sanders’ public record on Israel goes back to 1988, when he was mayor of Burlington, Vermont. The First Intifada had begun a year earlier, and Sanders said, “What is going on in the Middle East right now is obviously a tragedy, there’s no question about it. The sight of Israeli soldiers breaking the arms and legs of Arabs is reprehensible. The idea of Israel closing down towns and sealing them off is unacceptable.”

However, he continued, “You have had a crisis there for 30 years, you have had people at war for 30 years, you have a situation with some Arab countries where there are still some Arab leadership calling for the destruction of the state of Israel and the murder of Israeli citizens.” 

It’s now been closer to 50 years, but Sanders continues to express both support for Israel and critique of the country’s policies. 

In March 2016, Sanders said, “We have also got to be a friend, not only to Israel, but to the Palestinian people. … When we talk about Israel and Palestinian areas, it is important to understand that today there is a whole lot of suffering among Palestinians and that cannot be ignored.” 

He wants both Israelis and Palestinians to recognize each other’s pain.

“The founding of Israel is understood by another people in the land of Palestine as the cause of their painful displacement. And just as Palestinians should recognize the just claims of Israeli Jews, supporters of Israel must understand why Palestinians view Israel’s creation as they do,” Sanders wrote in his Jewish Currents essay.

Speaking with Al Jazeera in 2017, Sanders said that while there are “many problems” with Israel, and that he would continue to be critical, he believes that Israel is unfairly singled out for criticism, especially in relation to other Middle Eastern countries.

He has also criticized Palestinian leaders.

“While I am very critical of Netanyahu’s right-wing government, I am not impressed by what I am seeing from Palestinian leadership, as well. It’s corrupt in many cases, and certainly not effective,” Sanders told the New Yorker in April 2019.

What does he think about solving the conflict?

“Ultimately, it’s up to the Palestinians and Israelis themselves to make the choices necessary for a final agreement, but the United States has a major role to play in brokering that agreement,” he told the Council on Foreign Relations, Sanders My administration would also be willing to bring real pressure to bear on both sides, including conditioning military aid, to create consequences for moves that undermine the chances for peace.”

So he’d condition aid to Israel?

Let’s let Bernie tell you: “I would use the leverage, $3.8 billion is a lot of money, and we cannot give it carte blanche to the Israeli government or to any government at all. We have the right to demand respect for human rights and democracy.” He said this at J Street’s conference in October 2019, and went on to add that aid money should go towards humanitarian aid in Gaza.

That wasn’t the first time he brought up conditioning aid or the idea of using aid as leverage. Jon Favreau asked Sanders on Pod Save America in July 2019, “We spend a few billion dollars on aid to Israel. Would you ever consider using that aid as leverage to get the Israeli government to act differently?” Sanders replied, “Absolutely.”

But here’s what he said next: “Let me let me back it up before the tweets start flowing in. I lived in Israel. Actually, I worked in a kibbutz for a number of months. I have family in Israel. I am Jewish. I am not anti-Israel. Okay? I believe that the people of Israel have, absolutely, the right to live in peace, independence and security. End of discussion. … The role of the United States … is to try to finally bring peace to the Middle East and to treat the Palestinian people with a kind of respect and dignity they deserve. Our policy cannot just be pro-Israel, pro-Israel, pro-Israel.” 

Where does Sanders stand on Israeli activities in the so-called Palestinian territories?

Sanders tweeted in November 2019 that “Israeli settlements in occupied territory are illegal.” He’s also called the occupation unsustainable, telling the AJC forum in June 2019: “Ending that occupation and enabling the Palestinians to have independence and self-determination in a sovereign, independent, economically viable state of their own is in the best interest of the United States, Israel, the Palestinians and the entire region.” 

Jewish fun facts

•Bernie went to same high school as Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Chuck Schumer, Judge Judy and several Nobel Prize winners: James Madison High School in the Midwood neighborhood of Brooklyn.

•Bernie Sanders and Larry David (who paradies Sanders on Saturday Night Live) are actually distant cousins.