Crude Moralizing, Bernie Sanders, and the Politics of Israel

sanders zimmerman 

About the politics of Israel, Bernie Sanders is showing himself to be incoherent. Already failing to coordinate ends and means, the candidate thinks he’s doing one thing only to undercut himself and the cause he sets out to represent. The candidate wants to secure genuine peace and security between Israelis and Palestinians on equal terms. Israel has the right to secure itself. Palestinians have the right statehood and dignity, but Israel does not have the right to “overreact” when attacked and does not have the right to build settlements in the West Bank. The United States should be a fair and honest broker between the parties. These are problems that have bedeviled U.S. policy in the Middle East for generations. With all his heart, Sanders believes he is the one, he is the one who can advance that righteous cause by grabbing the moral high-ground. Then the effort crashes in on itself, the aftermath of which will do only damage to the Jewish community at large, and the Jewish left along with it.

It’s a fiasco. Lots of people on the Jewish left and the progressive left were thrilled by the attempt by Sanders to introduce balance into the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians by being critical of Prime Minster Netanyahu –only to be blindsided by the campaign firing Simone Zimmerman from her capacity as outreach director to the Jewish community. There’s a cost to posting crude invective online, but Zimmerman’s the victim here. The question concerns the Sanders campaign, not her. On what ground did she receive this position? A young person, she was never the right person to coordinate outreach to the Jewish community. Maybe she was the person to rally Jewish millennials, but that’s not the base of the community. How was she ever going to be able to make a wider pitch? It was a stupid decision on the part of the Sanders team. Zimmerman may in fact be the future of the American Jewish left-liberalism. But the future is not yet. As if set up from the very start to fail, a young woman gets the rug pulled out from under her, while the Jewish left, already marginalized in the community, already vulnerable, gets sent into a tailspin by the candidate so many of them are championing.

 Of much greater concern to many American Jews should be the way Sanders dangled Israel out in public at the debate in Brooklyn. A politician with more experience and better judgment might have understood that one has to handle a volatile object with more care. I have no doubt that the Netanyahu government has brought all of this on itself, this erosion of support for Israel in the Democratic Party, particularly among the young people represented by Zimmerman. This cause for this deterioration is not so much the war in Gaza as much as the nearly 50 year old occupation of the West Bank corrupting Israeli society. Absent a larger political horizon, Israel will have a hard time defending itself in the international arena. Nor is the problem supporting Palestinian statehood, which is now official U.S. policy going back to the administration of George W. Bush. What is going to rankle for a lot of older Jewish voters is not the substance of Sander’s remarks, but the crude way in which they were presented. What a lot of Jews will here is the way the candidate ginned up raucous booing of Israel from his supporters in the crowd. I am willing to bet that the anti-Israel and anti-Zionist slogan “Free Palestine” was not the remark Sanders intended to elicit from one loud voice in the crowd. He should have known better, unless he doesn’t understand contemporary leftwing politics. His attempting to nuance the discussion about Israel and Palestine in a volatile public forum turned out to rest on some very crude moralizing that undercuts the political work it was meant to accomplish.

 A lot of people on the left applaud Sanders for speaking truth to power, being honest, refusing to pander. But his own back and forth about Israel and his decision to let Zimmerman go suggest something less straightforward, more confused and confusing. Confusing politics and morality, Sanders will have done no one any good in the mainstream Jewish community and the Jewish left by these recent performances. If American Jews overwhelming support Clinton in the New York primary in still larger numbers than already seems to be the case, it won’t be because they have gone hawkish and neo-conservative. Self-righteous, Sanders will have made his own bed with the community at large  while undermining his own supporters. 

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish though and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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8 Responses to Crude Moralizing, Bernie Sanders, and the Politics of Israel

  1. N.S. Palmer says:

    I worked on Capitol Hill for a while, and Sanders was one of a very small number of politicians whom I considered pretty honest. That counts for a lot with me. I think that if we hold out for a candidate who qualifies as a philosopher king, who’s right on every issue, and who never makes mistakes, we’ll wait forever. As Voltaire observed, “the perfect is the enemy of the good.”

  2. Judging from his famous flub of the casualty statistics from the Gaza war, it seems that Sanders simply does devote much thought to Israel.

  3. Merlynn Edelstein says:

    Is it crude moralising to say that Israel’s action in Gaza was disproportionate? Hardly! Is it crude moralising to say that an absolute endorsement of whatever Netanyahu does is unlikely to bring peace? Hardly! Is it crude moralising to talk of the horrifying consequence of Israeli policy in Gaza. Of course not. However, such notions are NEVER heard in American political discourse, so when they are actually articulated – when the humanity of the Palestinians is confirmed by a presidential candidate – yes, feelings run high and those happily surprised might express that in the traditional formulas of the Palestinian solidarity: “free Palestine!”

    Yes, many of us are disappointed at S.Zimmerman being suspended. Perhaps her language (though corrected a day later) was deemed too crude; perhaps Sanders gave in to political pressure. Does this mean his policies are incoherent? Hardly.

    Most interesting is the description of Sanders as “self-righteous”. The implication is that Sanders is substantially right in what he is saying but there is something self-aggrandising, and morally flawed, about saying it in the first place. On the contrary – when abominable things are taking place it is the DUTY of high-profile politicians to be calling them out. In fact, it is the duty of all of us to be calling them out. To do so is correct, and to fail to do so is craven.

    If American Jews overwhelmingly support Clinton it might be because they cannot abide any criticism of Israel, despite its many atrocities. That, however, has to do with their own chauvinism, rather than any fault of Bernie Sanders.

    • zjb says:

      I think you are over-simplifying a lot of things. My own opinion is that the conduct of the war in Gaza was proportionate to the threat posed by Hamas which dug in arms and fighters under civilian infrastructure.

      On the other hand, I tend to hold Netanyahu and his last three governments responsible for perpetuating the occupation of the West Bank.

      I also happen to think that frames of reference like “abomination,” “DUTY,” “NEVER,” calling people out on chauvinism for supporting Clinton, and the like are another part of the problem –not with the Sanders campaign, which has paid very little attention to foreign policy , including Israel and the Middle East (that’s its own problem), but with the way the discourse about Israel and the Middle East gets framed on by the far (?) left. .

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