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This Isn’t Going to Cut It Bernie

Sanders' recent comments on Israel were flippant and fundamentally off-base.

Bernie Sanders speaking on 'Face the Nation' on Sunday
CBS News

What can you say to this Bernie Sanders answer about Israel except “ugh”?

Here’s the full context of Sanders’ exchange with John Dickerson on Sunday’s Face the Nation:

JOHN DICKERSON: Let me ask you about how this has played out here at home. The Anti-Defamation League says there were 193 reports of anti-Semitic incidents this week, up from 131 the previous week. So that’s during this period while the crisis began. In the past, you’ve said it should be possible to be a critic of Israeli policy, but not be anti-Semitic. But it doesn’t seem to be playing out that way with this uptick in random attacks.

SEN. SANDERS: Anti-Semitism is rising in America. It’s rising all over the world. That is an outrage. And we have got to combat anti-Semitism. We have to combat the increase in hate crimes in this country, against Asians, against African-Americans, against Latinos. So we got a serious problem of a nation which is being increasingly divided, being led by right wing extremists in that direction.

JOHN DICKERSON: There are a number of liberals who use the word apartheid to describe Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, a number of them liberals in the House who use that language. The executive director of the American Jewish Congress, who handled Jewish outreach for your campaign, has said that that word, Joel Rubin, has said that using that word has increased the level of vitriol that has contributed to this anti-Semitism. Do you think those who- who share your view should not use that kind of language?

SEN. SANDERS: Well, I think we should tone down the rhetoric. I think our goal is very simple. It is to understand that what’s going on in Gaza today is unsustainable when you have 70% of the young people unemployed, when people cannot leave the community, when hospitals and wastewater plants have been destroyed. That is unsustainable. And the job of the United States is to bring people together. And that is what we have got to try to do.

Sanders was disappointing here in a couple of ways. First, he neglected to push back on the pretty outrageously framed question from Dickerson about the spate of antisemitic attacks over the past week (which are obviously disgusting). Dickerson flatly said that some incidents of antisemitism show that it might not actually possible to criticize Israel without being antisemitic: “In the past, you’ve said it should be possible to be a critic of Israeli policy, but not be antisemitic. But it doesn’t seem to be playing out that way with this uptick in random attacks.”

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Rather than give the obvious answer—that of course it is possible to be critical of Israel without being an antisemite, and that Jews (and indeed Palestinians) all over the world do just that every single day, and that equating Israel with Jewishness is a dangerous thing—Sanders just let Dickerson’s assertion hang in the air, unaddressed. That was a very pernicious and irresponsible trope to let fly by unanswered.

Then, of course, there was the apartheid question. The idea that the Israeli government is carrying out an apartheid policy against Palestinians is not some fringe concept. Human Rights Watch, which is by no means a radical group, is saying it. B’Tselem, the most well-known human rights organization in Israel, is saying it. For Sanders to dismiss all of that as mere “rhetoric”—especially in the wake of Israel’s indiscriminate assault on Palestinians both in occupied Gaza and within its own borders—is obviously disappointing, but it’s also a flippant, fundamentally unserious approach to the reality of the situation from the most prominent left-wing Jewish politician in the country. For him not even to defend anyone who uses the term allowed yet another grisly framing from Dickerson to go fully unchallenged. It is simply not going to cut it.

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Not that we should be too surprised about this. It’s a reminder that Sanders, for all he has done to advance the left wing of the Democratic Party, is nearly 80 years old and is, at his core, an institutionalist, not a radical. He has been deep within the establishment for decades and is simply a step behind younger generations when it comes to some of these questions; witness his toe-curling answers about the defund the police movement. He is also carefully tending to his relationship with Joe Biden. This is a man who wants to be on the inside right now—it’s as simple as that.

Luckily, the movement Sanders helped spur has ensured that there are other prominent political figures who people can turn to when he falters on big questions like these. Who needs Bernie Sanders when you have Rashida Tlaib?