Sanders's criticism of Israel is long overdue

John Wight
John Wight has written for newspapers and websites across the world, including the Independent, Morning Star, Huffington Post, Counterpunch, London Progressive Journal, and Foreign Policy Journal. He is also a regular commentator on RT and BBC Radio. John is currently working on a book exploring the role of the West in the Arab Spring. You can follow him on Twitter @JohnWight1
Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton (L) speaks as Senator Bernie Sanders reacts during a Democratic debate hosted by CNN and New York One at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in New York April 14, 2016. © Lucas Jackson
Bernie Sanders is not only taking on the Washington establishment in his campaign for the Democratic Party presidential nomination, he is also challenging many of the received truths that make up the ideological foundations upon which its power rests.

Of those received truths one of the most sacrosanct is America’s unconditional support for the state of Israel, with the penalty for anyone in US public life who dares question that support, dares question Israel, instant and immediate career death. The fact that Sanders, who also happens to be Jewish, has departed from this ironclad consensus and dared criticize Israel while campaigning for the highest office in the land, this only adds more significance to it.

During his public and nationally televised debate in New York with Hillary Clinton on April 14, in advance of this key state’s primary, and at a time when Sanders is pushing his rival all the way, the question of Israel came up. By now everyone accustomed to political discourse in the US is used to the usual script being regurgitated whenever the question does – i.e. full and unconditional support for Israel and commitment to its security; criticism of Hamas as a terrorist organization and the wider Palestinian leadership for failing to clamp down on terrorism, and so on.

When the question was asked of Bernie Sanders, however, as well as criticizing Israel’s 2014 military assault on Gaza as “disproportionate,” the Vermont senator said, “If we are ever going to bring peace to that region, which has seen so much hatred and so much war, we are going to have to treat the Palestinian people with respect and dignity.

Sanders also criticized Hillary Clinton for “barely mentioning” the Palestinian people during her speech at the annual conference of the powerful and influential pro-Israel lobby group, AIPAC, in Washington, in March. In fact, Clinton did not so much deliver a speech to AIPAC as genuflect before it, pledging her undying and complete commitment to Israel while accusing the international BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) movement against Israel in solidarity with the Palestinians of being tainted with anti-Semitism.

With New York home to the largest Jewish population in the United States, Sanders’ sentiments and criticisms were not expressed lightly. The veteran senator, who recently published tax returns which reveal that he earns less in a whole year than Clinton has earned in a day with a speech to one of the corporate gatherings she regularly attends, was clearly speaking from the heart and prepared to defy the pro-Israel political consensus in the process.

In doing so, the 74-year old was reflecting mounting criticism of Israel in wider US society, especially among young people – so-called millennials born in the year 2000 or after – who count in their ranks a growing number of Jewish people. During the military assault on Gaza in 2014 - which resulted in the death of 1,500 Palestinians, including 500 children, with a further 10,000 wounded – demonstrations of unprecedented size against Israel’s actions were held, reflecting a shift in public opinion that is also measured in growing support for the boycott of Israel on US college campuses.

Various reasons have been claimed for this phenomenon, among them that the current generation is not as influenced by the Holocaust as previous generations have been when it comes to the moral imperative of supporting the Jewish state come what may.

But of far more importance in this regard is surely Israel’s obdurate refusal to countenance any compromise whatsoever when it comes to the rights of the Palestinians. The construction of the so-called security barrier – referred to by its critics as the apartheid wall – has resulted in the confiscation of more Palestinian land, while the expansion of illegal Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem continues with no end in sight. Meanwhile the siege of Gaza has turned this small patch of land, hugging the eastern Mediterranean coast, into an open prison for its 1.6 million inhabitants, with Israel controlling everything that goes in and out.

Given the aforementioned litany of injustice being suffered by the Palestinian people - the 2.6 million living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and the 1.6 million living in Gaza - not to mention the millions of Palestinian refugees who are direct descendants of the 750,000 ethnically cleansed from their towns and villages upon Israel’s formation in 1947, and who are prevented from returning to Palestine, can any right thinking person seriously continue to offer Israel unconditional support? This is the very question that Bernie Sanders has pondered and decided, no, he cannot. And nor should he.

None other than former US president, Jimmy Carter, considers Israel to be an apartheid state, one whose dehumanization of the Palestinians shames an international community that has for decades been complicit in their suffering. Moreover, the exceptionalism Israel enjoys, based on its relationship with Washington, has been a major factor in destabilizing the region, clear evidence of the hypocrisy and double standards of the US and its allies when it comes to the region.

Ultimately, Israel’s security is inextricably linked to justice for the Palestinian people. The more justice the more security there will be; the less justice the less security there will be. Until this simple logic is imbibed and acted upon by the Israeli political establishment there will and can never be peace.

Bernie Sanders has simply done something that has been long overdue. He has dared to criticize Israel and in so doing has confronted a received truth with an actual truth. The paroxysms of indignation that have erupted in response are merely further evidence of the organized hypocrisy that passes for democracy in the land of the free.
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