Bernie & Israel: Sanders opens a necessary discussion

Last Thursday’s Democratic debate was the kind of strong, aggressive discussion that was lacking early in the Democratic primaries. Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton clearly drew the lines that separate them politically and ideologically. It was real politics on display. But the issue that resounded the strongest was the topic of Israel-Palestine. In what could possibly go down as a historic moment, Sanders did the unthinkable: as a U.S. candidate for the presidency he made critical statements about both the Israeli government, the unabashed U.S. support for Israeli policies and condemned the 2014 Israeli war with Gaza, in which 2,200 people were killed, as “disproportionate.” He defined himself as “100% pro-Israel” but warned that peace won’t happen until Palestinians live with dignity.

Clinton, who has already struggled with defending her policies in scorched Libya and bleeding Honduras, took the dinosaur stance of wholeheartedly defending Israeli policy and essentially blaming the Palestinians for not having a state of their own yet.

As any politically aware college student knows, the issue of Israel is as sensitive a topic on campus as abortion or gay rights — it might even surpass those two in terms of incendiary potential. While most students will take liberal stances on these issues, Israel can suddenly turn the most liberal vegan into a right-wing nationalist.

During the summer of 2014, when Israel went to war with the Gaza Strip, I covered local pro and anti-war protests for The Corsair as well as campus reactions. During that time, Jewish friends of mine with social views similar to those of Sanders suddenly turned into unabashed supporters of the very right-wing, conservative government of Benjamin Netanyahu. At least one blocked me on Facebook after I made critical remarks about the nature of the war.

The topic of Israel is such a dynamite stick because it involves acknowledging that an advanced, western society much lauded in the United States is still fighting what the journalist Robert Fisk calls “the last colonial war.”

Since the Six Day War of 1967, Israel has occupied the Palestinian territory known as the West Bank, as well as East Jerusalem. Since the militant group Hamas won elections in 2006 in Gaza, that territory has been blockaded Cuban-style, but it isn’t simply an occupation. Israel is expanding settler colonies in the West Bank to expand its territory. It’s no different than when white settlers moved into Indian territory in the United States.

Since 2009, the situation has become increasingly violent because the Netanyahu government, composed of extreme right-wing religious parties, has expanded settlements at a rapid pace. Like most expansionist ventures, this comes hand-in-hand with violent military policies.

In the United States, this is a delicate topic. Americans are raised with essentially three specific views towards Israel. For Jewish Americans, the importance of Israel is (of course) understandable because of the legacy of the Holocaust. For non-Jews, Israel has a curious, dual image. Non-religious Americans see Israel as a western-style ally in the chaotic, alien Middle East. Many religious Americans see Israel as the literal fulfillment of the Biblical prophecy of God reuniting his chosen people and setting the stage for Armageddon (Republican candidate Ted Cruz has links to movements which espouse this particular belief).

So you have an American society raised with very specific, romanticized views of a nation state that, in reality, does what every other nation state in history (yes, even Iceland) has ever done: wage war, engage in ethnic conflict, seek more land.

On Thursday night Bernie Sanders helped break protocol by simply being honest and rational in discussing the issue. Being Jewish himself, he continued a proud tradition of Jewish thinkers who throughout history have put justice before nationalism, displaying political courage. By criticizing Israel, he helps impulse general critiques of overall U.S. policy abroad. Israel is not the only U.S. ally worthy of scrutiny; Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, Honduras, Colombia, Turkey and other governments all merit intense criticism. But if the key ally in the Middle East can be discussed openly, then so can everyone else.

In a campaign season of antics, last Thursday night had a moment of genuine progress.