WASHINGTON (JTA) – Bernie Sanders’ best friend is a Zionist who teaches Jewish philosophy, he had a formative experience on a kibbutz and “Saturday Night Live” dubbed him the “old Jew.”
Still, Sanders can’t get away from the inevitable “But where is he on Israel?” question, especially now that the Democratic presidential contender, an Independent senator from Vermont who caucuses with Democrats, has pulled ahead of Hillary Rodham Clinton in New Hampshire, the first primary state.
“Do you view yourself as a Zionist?” the left-leaning online magazine Vox asked Sanders in a July 28 interview.
It’s a funny question for Sanders, who if there were an “out and proud” metric for Jews in politics would score high.
Sanders, 73, is best friends with Richard Sugarman, a professor of Jewish philosophy at the University of Vermont who champions Zionism to his left-leaning students. His other best friend – and former chief of staff – is Huck Gutman, a University of Vermont professor of literature who is a passionate aficionado of the poetry of Yehuda Amichai.
When the comedian Sarah Silverman introduced Sanders at an Aug. 10 rally in Los Angeles, she shunted aside for a moment her caustic Jewish shtick.
“His moral compass and sense of values inspires me,” she said. “He always seems to be on the right side of history.”
Silverman ticked off a list of Sanders’ qualifications that align him with positions that polls show American Jews overwhelmingly favor: for same-sex marriage, for civil rights, against the Iraq war. She might have added favoring universally available health care.
“He is a man of the people,” Silverman said. “He has to be; his name is Bernie.”
Fresh out of the University of Chicago and already deeply involved in left-wing activism, Sanders spent several months in the mid-1960s on a kibbutz. The Brooklyn-born and accented Sanders has been shaped by the murder of his father’s extended family in the Holocaust.
“As everyone in this room knows, I am a Jew, an old Jew,” actor Fred Armisen said while playing Sanders in a 2013 “Saturday Night Live” sketch.
Sanders’ well-known pique surfaced in June when Diane Rehm, the NPR talk show host, declaratively told him he had dual U.S.-Israel citizenship, citing an anti-Semitic meme circulating on the Internet.
“Well, no, I do not have dual citizenship with Israel,” Sanders said. “I’m an American. I don’t know where that question came from. I am an American citizen, and I have visited Israel on a couple of occasions. No, I’m an American citizen, period.”
So where does Bernie Sanders stand on Israel? Here’s a review.
He backs Israel, but he believes in spending less on defense assistance to Israel and more on economic assistance in the Middle East.
Is Sanders a Zionist? Here’s what he told Vox’s Ezra Klein:
“A Zionist? What does that mean? Want to define what the word is? Do I think Israel has the right to exist? Yeah, I do. Do I believe that the United States should be playing an even-handed role in terms of its dealings with the Palestinian community in Israel? Absolutely I do.
“Again, I think that you have volatile regions in the world, the Middle East is one of them, and the United States has got to work with other countries around the world to fight for Israel’s security and existence at the same time as we fight for a Palestinian state where the people in that country can enjoy a decent standard of living, which is certainly not the case right now. My long-term hope is that instead of pouring so much military aid into Israel, into Egypt, we can provide more economic aid to help improve the standard of living of the people in that area.”
He will defend Israel to a hostile crowd, but will also fault Israel – and will shout down hecklers.
At a town hall in Cabot, Vermont, during last summer’s Gaza war, a constituent commended Sanders for not signing onto a Senate resolution that solely blamed Hamas for the conflict, but wondered if he would “go further.”
“Has Israel overreacted? Have they bombed U.N. facilities? The answer is yes, and that is terribly, terribly wrong,” Sanders said.
“On the other hand – and there is another hand – you have a situation where Hamas is sending missiles into Israel – a fact – and you know where some of those missiles are coming from. They’re coming from populated areas; that’s a fact. Hamas is using money that came into Gaza for construction purposes – and God knows they need roads and all the things that they need – and used some of that money to build these very sophisticated tunnels into Israel for military purposes.”
Hecklers interrupted, some shouting epithets.
“Excuse me, shut up, you don’t have the microphone,” Sanders said. “You asked the question, I’m answering it. This is called democracy. I am answering a question and I do not want to be disturbed.”
His critical but supportive posture on Israel has been consistent and has included using assistance as leverage.
As mayor of Burlington, Vermont, in 1988, Sanders was asked if he backed then-candidate for president Jesse Jackson’s support for the Palestinians during the first intifada. Sanders excoriated what he depicted as Israeli brutality as well as Arab extremism.
“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,” he said at a news conference, according to video unearthed by Alternet writer Zaid Jilani. “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.”
Sanders said the United States should exercise the prerogative it has as an economic power.
“We are pouring billions of dollars in arms into Arab countries. We have the clout to demand they and Israel, who we’re also heavily financing, to begin to sit down and work out a sensible solution to the problem which would guarantee the existence of the State of Israel and which would also protect Palestinian rights,” he said.
He doesn’t think the Iran nuclear deal is perfect, but he backs it.
“It’s so easy to be critical of an agreement which is not perfect,” he told CBS News on Aug. 7. “But the United States has to negotiate with, you know, other countries. We have to negotiate with Iran. And the alternative of not reaching an agreement, you know what it is? It’s war. Do we really want another war, a war with Iran? An asymmetrical warfare that will take place all over this world, threatening American troops? So I think we go as far as we possibly can in trying to give peace a chance, if you like. Trying to see if this agreement will work. And I will support it.”