Bernie Sanders may have revealed his true colors when it comes to Israel during a campaign speech in Michigan on Monday. The first Jewish presidential candidate with a legitimate shot at the Democratic nomination let slip some unpalatable truths about his feelings on Israel – but only to those who were listening closely.
Sanders, known mostly for his domestic policy and social programs, has been relatively low-key about foreign policy. His opponent, Hillary Clinton, has been surprisingly accommodating, refraining from confronting him on these issues in televised debates. Such a confrontation might have turned explosive, since Sanders seems to feel that Hillary’s husband, former President Bill Clinton, mishandled negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, unfairly favoring Israel.
However, Sanders opened up in the Monday speech, which brought the crowd to its feet and helped Sanders to victory with an upset win that earned him 65 precious delegates and raised the hopes of Bernie supporters throughout the country.
Sanders has always had difficulty attracting black voters, losing to Clinton in the South. But Dearborn, the site of the largest mosque in North America and the Islamic Center of America, is home to 40,000 Arab Americans – a powerful and growing demographic, and apparently one that Sanders knows how to address.
Blood being thicker than water, the issue of the Arab-Israeli conflict was more important in Dearborn than social programs. Sanders is, after all, a Jew, and the Arabs of Dearborn were waiting to hear what he had to say about Israel.
Usually direct and to-the-point, succinct and even-handed when talking about the Mideast, Sanders became vague and roundabout when addressing the issue to the crowd in Dearborn.
“I wish I could tell you I had a magical solution to the problem. I don’t,” he said. He has used this phrase countless times in the past, almost word for word, as a prelude to discussing the Mideast.
He noted that several presidents had tried unsuccessfully to solve it, and said he would strive to create a “level playing field” in Israeli and Palestinian negotiations, implying that this kind of balance had been lacking in previous negotiations – a statement which was clearly understood by the ecstatic Dearborn crowd as an affirmation of their belief that the United States unfairly favors Israel.
But the real moment of warning for Jews came when Sanders referred to the hatred and warfare which has been raging in the middle east “for decades now” – and, a few minutes later, pinpointed that stretch of time by saying, “We cannot continue to have for another sixty years the kind of hatred and conflict that exists in the Middle East.”
The state of Israel was established 67 years ago. For the crowd in Dearborn, and for Jews who were listening closely, this was a subtle but clear message: Israel’s establishment, and existence, is the root cause of the Middle East’s conflicts.
As most historians know, the “Middle East” is a vast region of complex history, dangerous fanaticism, intricate alliances and deeply-rooted grudges, most of which are internal to the Gulf states and have little to nothing to do with Israel. Though Arab countries often see fit to rally against the little nation as a common enemy, Islamic fanaticism – the true cause of Mideast unrest – was born many years before the modern state of Israel.
Sanders referred to the last 60 years in the region as “a tragedy”, as he has done many times in the past. His omission of the standard peacenik line which goes along with this assertion, however, was glaringly absent.
As an outspoken advocate of the two-state solution, Sanders’ Mideast platform is usually presented as being based on two simple principles: Israel has the right to exist in peace and security, and the Palestinians have a right to a state of their own. In Dearborn, Sanders neglected to add that caveat.
But there was more. Sanders’ carefully chosen words may have had an additional meaning for his audience. The word “tragedy” – Nakba in Arabic – is the same word used by Arabs to refer to Israel’s Independence Day.
Nakba is the annual call to Arab violence while Israel is celebrating its existence. Though Sanders may not believe that the creation of the State of Israel was a tragedy, the Arab crowd in Dearborn raised on this concept and terminology may have understood him differently.
Regardless of Sanders’ intent, the crowd clearly understood his speech as a pledge to place blame squarely on the cause of the “conflict” – Israel.