It was perhaps a sign of momentary desperation after her 22-point defeat in New Hampshire, but right before Hillary Clinton left the Granite State, the Friend of Israel card was pulled out. One of her surrogates, former local congressman Paul Hodes, declared from the stage that “Hillary Clinton has been a very strong friend of Israel and that is something that should not be lost on the American Jewish community.” He continued, “Senator Sanders hasn’t showed himself to be the kind of friend of Israel that Secretary Clinton is.”
No one gets elected to higher office in the United States without being a certified friend of the Jewish State. But can Hilary Clinton really hope to shore up her once solid Jewish base by claiming to be better for the Jews than the first serious Jewish presidential contender?
Clinton has certainly done everything possible to curry favor with the pro-Israel crowd, going so far as to declare that she’d invite her “friend” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the White House in her first month in office. She’s also spoken of her “enduring emotional connection” with the country, promised to rebuild the “unbreakable bond” (a clear slight to the approach of her former boss, President Obama, toward Israel), take ties “to the next level,” and “do everything I can to enhance our strategic partnership and strengthen America’s security commitment to Israel.”
Strong words, to be sure. But can she really hope to get more Jewish votes than a man who reminds most Jews, nostalgically, of their favorite old socialist uncle from Brooklyn?
It is true that compared with Clinton, Sanders is, as he put it, “not a great fan of Netanyahu.” He has in fact criticized Israel’s massive and indiscriminate use of firepower in the last Gaza war, and has spoken of the need to be a true “honest broker” and support a viable Palestinian state. At the same time, he has tried hard to avoid sounding too progressive on Israel, and one of his testiest exchanges on the campaign trail occurred with a constituent in Vermont, whom he told to “shut up” when she pressed him about continuing to provide Israel with over $3 billion per year in aid during the Gaza war.
Sanders is hewing fairly close to the progressive Democratic line on Israel—increasingly critical of the country’s policies, but unwilling to threaten real consequences for its ever deepening occupation. Clinton’s positions, in contrast, are no different from those of the most conservative Republican candidates running this year.
Being the establishment’s candidate, including the Jewish establishment, is not likely to win Clinton much support among the core constituency she needs to energize—Jewish millennials and young adults—if she hopes to retain her hold on the community more broadly.
Indeed, the fastest-growing Jewish organization in America, Jewish Voice for Peace, is far to the left of Sanders, even endorsing BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions), which he vehemently opposes. The Open Hillel movement, started by just the kind of open-minded, progressive Jewish college students who “feel the Bern,” is similarly unlikely to find Clinton’s uncritical embrace of Netanyahu at all appealing. Sanders’s quite moderate views on Israel are far closer to the average Jewish voter—who is increasingly frustrated and alienated by the country’s wholesale move to the extreme right—than is Clinton’s fawning and uncritical support for its most conservative government ever.
But the fight over Jewish votes ultimately obscures what is actually a very important question: Who is a better friend, not to the Israeli leadership or the Israel lobby, but to Israelis? And here, sadly, neither candidate is acting the way a true friend should.
The reality is that the Israeli government is engaged in a set of policies that, according to the publisher of the most respected paper in the country, Haaretz, has transformed Israel into an apartheid state. Weekly reports by the country’s most respected human rights organizations such as B’Tselem point to the undeniable reality of massive and systematic human-rights violations, from extra-judicial killings to large-scale home demolitions and illegal settlement construction. Even the Labor Party—which under late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin signed the historic Oslo Accords—unanimously approved a new diplomatic plan that in effect espouses the idea of an apartheid regime.
As that classic commercial put it, friends don’t let friends drive drunk. When a person, or country, is engaging in activities that are so clearly detrimental and harmful to others and themselves, friends do not remain quiet, never mind feed the addiction or supply more weapons. Friends speak honestly and do whatever is within their power to stop the harmful activity.
Clinton might be handing an Israel drunk on 50 years of occupation the keys to the proverbial car and cheering it on as it heads toward a cliff. But Sanders’s rhetoric isn’t much better than the bartender who admonishes someone to call a taxi and then moves on to other customers while the patron stumbles angrily out the door.
At this historic juncture, perhaps more than any moment in the past, Israel needs a true friend—someone who will speak with complete honesty to American citizens and Israelis alike about the realities of the occupation, demand that Israel take immediate and concrete steps toward ending the subjugation of the Palestinian people, and declare her or his unwillingness to support Israel’s long-term political suicide.
Bernie, we are counting on you to be that friend.