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Is Bernie Sanders a civil rights campaigner or a loyal supporter of Israel?

Standing metres from Martin Luther King during a Civil Rights march must have been a proud moment for the young Bernie Sanders. One can imagine the now veteran US senator sensing the gravity of the situation, burdened by duty and moral obligation to bring an end to centuries of legalised discrimination.

In those defining years, the presidential hopeful possibly found no contradiction between campaigning for equal civil rights in his own country and his Zionism. In fact, his visits to Israeli kibbutzim in the sixties may even have reinforced his socialist beliefs. Zionism back than, and Israel before 1967, despite its creation through the ethnic cleansing of Palestine, had seduced many on the progressive left. This is no longer the case.

Increasing numbers of American Jews have realised that liberal values are incompatible with support for Israel. The Zionist state’s champions these days are very much part of the establishment; neo-con elites, even right-wing fascist groups; people who are diametrically opposed to the apparently inclusive and universal politics of Bernie Sanders.

The Vermont senator is not your typical clone politician or an establishment candidate. He is a socialist in a climate that is hostile to socialism; he is championing the redistribution of wealth in a country where “greed is good”; he is taking on Wall Street; and he hopes to return the United States to the people instead of a handful of wealthy campaign donors.

His message will be familiar to millions around the globe where the political landscape has been shaped by years of austerity, lower living standards, growing frustration over unprecedented levels of inequality and, possibly even more defining, Western foreign policy in the Middle East.

Like his ideological compatriot Jeremy Corbyn, the rise of Bernie Sanders and his new brand of politics, especially within the American political context, is evidence of the weakening romance between the US and Israel, and further proof that support for Israel is non-compatible with progressive democratic politics.

The parallels exist on both sides of the Atlantic. Globally, support for Israel has been on the slide for years, with some saying that the watershed was the 2004 International Court of Justice decision on the “Separation Wall”, which was followed by a decision by over 100 Palestinian civil society organisations to call for an international boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign to bring Israel’s illegal military occupation to an end. Others point to Israel’s bombardment of the Gaza Strip in 2009 during Operation Cast Lead.

In any case, whether it was a precise moment or years of cumulative injustice, it has become well-nigh impossible to reconcile progressive liberal values and Israeli policy. It is this which poses a real existential threat to Israel, much more than Palestinian resistance.

Some have been commenting on and studying this phenomenon for years. The American political scientist and activist Professor Norman Finkelstein has written copiously on this issue, as have “liberal Zionists” like Peter Beinart. The reasons why American Jews are distancing from Israel are many, but the main reason, claims Finkelstein in “Knowing Too Much”, is ideology.

American Jews are, on the whole, liberal. They are no longer able to reconcile Israeli policy with bedrock liberal principles. Despite propaganda narratives about Israel, writes Finkelstein, there is a huge gap that has now opened up between media-promoted pabulum and the findings of respected scholars and human rights activists, many of them Jewish and Israeli. The generally liberal, highly literate American Jewish community can no longer be unaware, or pretend to be unaware, of the brutal realities of Israeli policies against the Palestinians.

Public displays of the growing divide between the US and Israel are becoming common. The US ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, may have stopped short of describing Israel as an apartheid state but, more recently, the author and political commentator Tom Friedman, who has been one of Israel’s great liberal intellectual friends, lays the blame on Tel Aviv for the failure of the two-state solution. He has poured scorn on the pro-Israel lobby, in particular Sheldon Adelson, one of the key funders of the US Republican Party as well as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The New York Times journalist even dared to say that the US Congress is bought and paid for by the lobby; such a statement would normally be shot down as “anti-Semitic” by lobbyists.

Americans — the younger generation of American Jews in particular — are moving into a new place when it comes to Israel. The debate has moved on and the question being asked is who lost Israel, not whether Israel is being lost. Of course, neo-con establishment figures are fighting back but it seems that liberal Jews, Zionists even, are using the right word and the right language when they describe the fact that the political system established by Israel in Palestine is an apartheid state and not a Jewish democracy.

The shift is also underway in Britain, where progressive socialists have already tasted victory despite their criticism of Israel. Jeremy Corbyn’s rise to prominence from the political left is in many ways a major sign of this. If nothing else, the leader of the Labour Party is a staunch supporter of international law, which is the reason for his unfailing support for the Palestinian cause. He is viewed as an anti-establishment figure, with a deep conviction for progressive socialist values and is one of Israel’s harshest critics. Nevertheless, Corbyn has shown that this can be a winning formula in British politics.

The acid test of the US-Israel connection will, of course, be the presidential election. More than most other places, the success of the winning candidate revolves around how much support is expressed for Israel.

Among the establishment candidates for their parties’ nominations, “pro-Israelism” has been on the rise. Republican nominee Marco Rubio, for example; has called on the US to give unconditional support to Israel, including its illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank, which he calls “Judea and Samaria”. The senator from Florida, contrary to official US policy, also supports Israel’s insistence that Jerusalem is its “undivided” capital.

Democrat candidate Hillary Clinton is looking to fight back following defeat in New Hampshire to Sanders, and is using her support for Israel as her trump card. The message the former first lady wants to send out is that she has been a very strong friend of Israel, a fact that should not be lost on the American Jewish community. Sanders is not the kind of friend that Israel can rely on unquestioningly.

In fact, Bernie Sanders has defied the staunch pro-Israel default position and still gained popularity. Granted, he has been hard to pin down on exactly where he stands, and has been careful not to politicise his Jewish roots, but is extremely careful to paint himself as a progressive American politician who just happens to be a Jew. That, however, doesn’t detract from the fact that, like Corbyn, Sanders also speaks to a new political base which has not granted Israel the status of a sacred cow. If anything, the demographic characteristic of his support perhaps explains why he steers clear of Israel, for fear of alienating his supporters.

This makes Hilary Clinton’s task to out-gun Saunders using Israel extremely difficult. Corbyn and Sanders have both shown that a candidate need not curry favour, either with donors or with the established electoral base, by showing blind loyalty to Israel. Although Sanders is no Corbyn when it comes to the Zionist state, the momentum of his campaign is shifting American politics and weakening Israel’s position in the process.

A political base indifferent, if not hostile, to Israel, may be emerging as a force, but what about Bernie Sanders himself and his universal message and Zionist sympathies? The fact that he has been coy about his Jewish roots and even more so about his attitude towards Israel points to someone who understands that there is a conflict between his progressive politics and support for Israel. Whatever it is, he does not regards extreme loyalty to the Zionist state as a vote winner, or a symbol of progressive politics.

The latter may well be the case given that Sanders has been evading questions about his past, in particular his time spent in a “socialist” kibbutz, Sha’ar Ha’amakim, in northern Israel in the sixties. The kibbutz was founded in Romania in 1929 and established in Palestine in 1935 following the eviction of 60 Palestinian families, a fact that ought to embarrass any self-professing democratic socialist.

So Sanders may still be a Zionist, or at least sympathetic towards Israel. This can be surmised from a new video in which he makes a rather weak argument in Israel’s defence when confronted over its offensive against the Palestinians in Gaza in 2014.

That said, the trend for presidential hopefuls is to capitalise on any links to Israel, and Sanders more than any of the others has the most obvious affinity to the Zionist state. Despite that fact, he has decided to park his Zionism outside the convention hall in order to advance his brand of “democratic socialism”.

We can’t know for certain if his universal message extends to his views on Israel and Palestine but what we do know is that the period when he visited the kibbutz was the same time that he joined Dr King’s march on Washington. Maybe Bernie Sanders, having witnessed Israel’s metamorphosis over the decades into an apartheid state, has finally realised the obvious irony inherent in supporting civil rights to end racial segregation in America and then living on a segregated kibbutz in Israel and displaying loyalty to a country engaged in brutal racial discrimination.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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