Bernie Sanders’ criticism of Israel at the Democratic debate in Brooklyn, New York, on April 15 was not especially harsh. The presidential candidate said “we are going to have to treat the Palestinian people with respect and dignity” and that Israel used “a disproportionate attack” during the 50-day war in Gaza in 2014. These comments, as Ali Abunimah said on the Real News Network, are “really the minimum we should hear from any honest person.” Still, the fact that Sanders willingly said these things — in a presidential debate in the state with the highest Jewish population in the country — is both unprecedented and historic. “In the context of US politics, this exchange was extraordinary,” Abunimah said.
Some, however, have suspected that Sanders’ approach is about political survival in a toxic environment. One such person is Norman Finkelstein, a well-known scholar and critic of Israel’s policies. Finkelstein has written numerous books and papers that have taken on orthodoxies in the academic world, leading to very public debateswith apologists for Israeli crimes such as Harvard University’s Alan Dershowitz. These controversies led to Finkelstein being denied tenure at DePaul University in 2007.
“My guess is that Sanders knows the truth but for political reasons he can’t say it. I [kind of] don’t have a problem with that,” said Finkelstein in an interview from February. “If you’re going to say some bromides and clichés every once in a while so [you] can be spared yourself the wrath of the lunatic Israel lobby, it’s OK in my book.”
Whatever Sanders’ reasoning has been in the past, his performance on the debate stage in Brooklyn indicated that the political climate has changed. Sanders wanted this debate, as was evidenced by him being the only candidate in either party to turn down an invitation to speak at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s (AIPAC) annual conference. He then gave a speech from Utah that was addressed to AIPAC, a staunch supporter of Israel’s most hawkish policies and one of the more powerful lobbying groups in the United States. Sanders’ speech from Utah, like his comments in New York, indicated a calculated decision to raise the issue of abuses committed by the Israeli government. In the speech, he lamented the expansion of settlements in the West Bank, which he said “undermines the peace process,” and decried “disproportionate responses to being attacked.” Sanders clearly wanted to further emphasize his differences with Hillary Clinton, who gave a speech at the AIPAC conference that Slate writer Michelle Goldberg described as a “symphony of craven, delusional pandering.”