I’ve been arguing for years that the road to justice and peace in the Middle East passes through Jerusalem and, as I watched the recent Democratic debate at the Brooklyn Naval Yard, I witnessed that, against all odds, an American presidential candidate not only challenged a decades-old American pro-Israel narrative but, miraculously, that he survived to fight another day.
And that in the process he perhaps nudged the arc of justice toward Jerusalem.
Sen. Bernie Sanders was able to survive stating what the world has known since 2014 – that during Operation Protective Edge, Israel used disproportionate force against Palestinians in Gaza.
Sanders survived as a Jew speaking truth to power in what is arguably the most pro-Israel environment outside Israel.
Together, America witnessed that a presidential candidate could reject well-entrenched pro-AIPAC, neo-conservative positions – and survive.
America witnessed that Sanders, who’s described himself as “100 percent pro-Israel,” could survive even while demanding we treat Palestinians with “respect and dignity.”
Hillary Clinton, deploying hawkish right-wing rhetoric, defended the excesses of Netanyahu’s government. Shamelessly, Clinton conflated Judaism with the state of Israel and condemned critics of the government as anti-Semitic – including, presumably, all the Jewish supporters of BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions), a movement targeting Israel’s continued occupation of Palestinian lands.
To many observers, both in America and Israel, it wasn’t so much what Sanders said but that he said it.
Much of the Sanders-Clinton debate disagreement revolved around Gaza, with Clinton embracing Israel’s narrative by saying, “Hamas provokes Israel. They often pretend to have people in civilian garb acting as though they are civilians who are Hamas fighters. It’s a very different undertaking for Israel to target those who are targeting them.”
Clinton’s insistence, in spite of much evidence to the contrary, that Israel was provoked by Hamas in 2014, is challenged by many who believe that Netanyahu used the tragic kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers to provoke a confrontation with Hamas both on the West Bank and in Gaza.
That perhaps it was a war of choice, not of necessity.
Conversely, Sanders, while emphasizing the necessity of Israel defending itself, accused Israel of reacting disproportionately during its 50-day military leveling of Gaza.
Sanders said Israel’s offensive, Operation Protective Edge, bombed “hospitals, schools and refugee camps.” In all, over 2,300 Palestinians (including 1,500 civilians) were killed, over 10,000 injured and over 100,000 made homeless – all while leaving Gaza “largely in ruins.”
Sixty-six Israeli soldiers, and five civilians, were killed.
“There comes a time when,” Sanders said, “if we pursue justice and peace, we are going to have to say that Netanyahu is not right all of the time.”
However one perceives the conflict and its origins, there’s little doubt that Israel’s attack upon a trapped vulnerable population was cruel, excessive and disproportionate.
Today, more than 75,000 Gazans are still homeless. Israeli airstrikes so devastated Gaza that in September a U.N. report warned that by 2020 Gaza, suffering still after a suffocating eight-year blockade, three wars and 50 years of occupation, could become “uninhabitable.”
Sanders today speaks, I believe, both to young people – including to young Jews for whom issues of social justice trump historical narratives – to those who believe in sustainable, inhabitable futures.
He speaks to all who understand the intersectionality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – the single most radicalizing and destabilizing force in the Middle East for decades – with Daesh (ISIS), Syria, Iraq, Iran, Egypt and Yemen and a myriad of other issues both global and domestic.
Sanders, I believe, is calling for the ingathering of progressive fronts to unite and to challenge and change the provincial landscape of our politics – to pen a new narrative of social engagement based on justice, dignity and equity rather than on might and oppression.
From Ferguson to Flint to Gaza and Jerusalem, the call for global struggle and resistance against oligarchs and oppressors is before us.
Today, Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians is not limited to Gaza. It extends to occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank and encroaches upon every aspect of Palestinian life and identity. Home demolitions, land seizures, extra-judicial executions, administrative detentions and daily countless humiliations visited upon an occupied people are raising levels of violence and terror beyond any tolerable limits.
Sanders’s intuitive understanding of the intersectionality of all struggles is a political watershed. He recognizes that treating Palestinians with “respect and dignity” is not just a political aspiration but a moral imperative.
Clinton, in a recent commentary titled “Fighting oppression, inequality and injustice on Passover” in the Times of Israel, told the story of Exodus saying, with no hint of irony, “This Pesach, let’s continue fighting all forms of oppression, inequality and injustice. Let’s take a page from Moses and Aaron, and speak for those who cannot speak for themselves. And let’s never forget to keep drawing attention to the plight of millions of people still in need of their own form of deliverance.”
Clinton doesn’t understand that there’ll never be freedom and liberation, never an escape from oppression, inequality and injustice, until she recognizes that her neglect of the plight of the Palestinians contradicts the very message celebrated at Passover.
That until the sea parts for all it parts for none.
Freedom. Liberation. Justice.