By Joseph Levine
Most readers are probably already familiar with Bernie Sanders’s opinion piece, “How to Fight Anti-Semitism,” that recently appeared in Jewish Currents (see here and here). Let me say straight out that I’m a Bernie supporter in the presidential campaign. I think everyone in the world, especially Palestinians, will be better off if he is President, at least given any of the remotely possible alternatives.
I will also say that Bernie makes some good and important points in this piece. He makes clear that the real threat to Jews in this country, and around the world, emanates from the white supremacist right, encouraged and facilitated by Trump. He also strongly condemns the cynical use of the charge of Anti-Semitism to silence criticism of Israel (though note the important criticism of his remarks on this pointed out by Nada Elia). Finally, by openly associating himself with BDS supporters like Linda Sarsour, Ilhan Omar, and Cornell West, he’s taken a public stand at least implicitly in defense of the movement that no other candidate can claim.
Nevertheless, the piece is deeply flawed. In fact, it’s a paradigmatic example of the twisted logic underlying so-called “progressive Zionism”, a position that attempts to “square the circle” with reasoning that descends into what I can only call intellectual and moral dishonesty.
One passage in particular stands out:
“We must also be honest about this: The founding of Israel is understood by another people in the land of Palestine as the cause of their painful displacement. And just as Palestinians should recognize the just claims of Israeli Jews, supporters of Israel must understand why Palestinians view Israel’s creation as they do.”
On the surface this passage is a call for reciprocity. Who can be against reciprocity, after all? But when you read the passage closely (and you don’t need to squint), it actually erases the Palestinian experience of Zionism and imposes a Zionist frame on the history of the conflict. This not only fails as an expression of reciprocity, but it turns the moral and historical facts of the case upside down.
To begin with, to ask anything like recognizing the “just claims” of Israeli Jews at a time that Palestinians are, and have been for decades, under a brutal military oppression by precisely the group whose claims they are supposed to recognize is morally obtuse. There’s time enough for reconciling competing claims once the oppression ends. Right now the only imperative is to end it!
But diving into the faux reciprocity itself, first note that it is not merely “understood” by Palestinians that the “founding of Israel is…the cause of their painful displacement”; it is the cause! Is Bernie really ignorant of the events of 1947-1949? Even Benny Morris, who justifies the Nakba, is clear that the Jewish forces expelled the vast majority of indigenous Palestinians in 1948. In fact, he claims they didn’t go far enough, and should have expelled them all. (Some might say Morris never agreed that there was an overall plan to expel the Palestinians. But, as he admitted at his recent talk at UMass Amherst, whether or not there was an explicit overall plan, when you forcibly prevent someone from returning to their home, which no one denies Israel did, you have expelled them.)
Second, in his statement expressing the reciprocal obligations of each side toward the other, an important asymmetry arises. Palestinians are required to recognize the “just claims of Israeli Jews”. This entails that objectively there are just claims of Israeli Jews, a fact that allegedly transcends the mere understanding that Israeli Jews have of their situation. But when it comes to the obligations of Israeli Jews to reciprocate, what they are asked is only to “understand why Palestinians view Israel’s creation as they do.” One can easily do that without actually crediting this view with any basis in reality. Some reciprocity!
Third, Bernie never tells us what he considers the “just claims of Israeli Jews” to be. I think that’s not just an oversight, because if he did spell them out he’d have to face the incompatibility of his democratic socialism with his Zionism. Does he mean their right to live in peace and security? Well, I support that claim, but of course that is not a claim Palestinians reject. Rather, the claim at issue is the Israeli Jewish claim to hold sovereignty in a Jewish state and maintain a Jewish majority in that state, thus requiring the subordination of one part of the citizenry to the other. Elsewhere I have argued at length that there is no legitimate moral basis for such a claim. So there really is nothing legitimate to ask Palestinians to recognize that they don’t already recognize.
Finally, I object to this line:
“It is true that some criticism of Israel can cross the line into antisemitism, especially when it denies the right of self-determination to Jews, or when it plays into conspiracy theories about outsized Jewish power.”
Of course holding “conspiracy theories about outsized Jewish power” is antisemitic, almost by definition. If it’s a “conspiracy theory”, then presumably it has no basis in fact; this is reinforced by describing it in terms of “outsized Jewish power”, meaning larger than actually exists. Well, if it has no basis in fact, then the theory in question is indeed most likely explained by anti-Jewish animus. We see this play out on the alt-right consistently.
What I object to, however, is the idea that there is a spectrum along which criticism of Israel can be placed and when it gets too extreme – veering into denying “the right of self-determination to Jews” – then it’s gone over the line into antisemitic territory. For one thing, as I’ve already stated, the supposed right to self-determination that Bernie clearly means here is one that no ethnic or religious group possesses, so therefore not Jews either. (See the NYT piece cited above.)
But mainly, the whole notion of a spectrum here is wrongheaded. There are of course milder and stronger forms of criticism of Israel, but that spectrum is independent of the question of antisemitism. I have met critics of Israel that I believe to be acting out of anti-Jewish animus. They do exist. Their criticisms fall all over the spectrum that goes from Bibi is bad to Zionism is bad. As I say, these are independent dimensions. So too, when critics of Israel point to the power of the Israel lobby, there is no spectrum here. Some are just pointing out the obvious role that major official Jewish institutions play in this lobby, and others, a very small minority in my experience, are indeed under the sway of a Jews-rule-the-world conspiracy theory. This constant threat that if you say anything about the power of the lobby you might be engaging in an “antisemitic trope” needs to be forthrightly resisted, and who better than we Jews to resist it.