From the Editor: Feel the Bern on antisemitism and Israel

By Michael Regenstreif, Editor

Since returning to work a year-and-a-half ago after open-heart surgery, daily exercise has been a priority and since my office is located in the Soloway Jewish Community Centre (SJCC), I am very lucky to have a first-class fitness centre just downstairs from my desk. The SJCC locker room is often the scene for impromptu and opinionated discussions on the news and issues of the day.

U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders – who is currently campaigning for the 2020 Democratic Party presidential nomination – has been the centre of a couple of recent locker-room discussions. If nominated, Sanders would be the first Jewish candidate nominated by one of the two major parties for the U.S. presidency.

The first discussion was in early October after Sanders suffered a heart attack on the campaign trail and had a couple of stents inserted to open up his arteries. One of my locker-room buddies was angry that Sanders, whom he described as “pro-BDS, anti-Israel and antisemitic,” would have Israeli-made stents inserted.

I don’t know whether or not Sanders’ stents were made in Israel. I could find no mainstream media references to where the stents were made. Be that as it may, it is simply wrong to suggest that the leftist Sanders is “pro-BDS, anti-Israel and antisemitic.”

Sanders has spoken of his admiration for the Jewish state and for the ideals of Zionism, and has noted that he lived and worked on a kibbutz near Haifa as a young man in 1963.

While Sanders has consistently voiced his support for the State of Israel, including the right of Israel to defend itself from attacks, and for a two-state solution to the conflict with the Palestinians, he has been vociferous in his opposition to certain Israeli government policies, particularly the occupation and settlement expansion in the West Bank, and to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. On these matters, Sanders is in lockstep with about 75 per cent of the American Jewish community, as well as with millions of Israelis.

On BDS, Sanders has repeatedly rejected the call to boycott Israel. Earlier this year, he released a statement saying, “While I do not support the BDS movement, we must defend every American’s constitutional right to engage in political activity.”

The more recent locker room discussion about Sanders was on November 14 (I am writing this on the 15th), a few days after Sanders published an article in Jewish Currents on antisemitism – an article that has provoked much reaction in Jewish circles.

I was pleased to see Sanders write so eloquently about antisemitism, particularly about the lethal consequences of right-wing antisemitism as manifested by the white nationalist movement. As Sanders points out, “hate crimes against Jews rose by more than a third in 2017 and accounted for 58 per cent of all religion-based hate crimes in America.” That year, we saw what happened in Charlottesville, and more recently we have seen right-wing antisemitism lead to the tragic synagogue shootings in Pittsburgh and Poway.

But it was disappointing to see Sanders merely pay lip service to left-wing antisemitism, noting, “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.”

While right-wing antisemitism has repeatedly proven lethal, the effects of left-wing antisemitism are also consequential. Look at how pro-Israel students are marginalized on many campuses. Look to the United Kingdom, where the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn, once overwhelmingly supported by British Jews, is now seen by many as an existential threat to the Jewish community. Or look to some of Sanders’ own supporters like Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, who has apologized more than once for using antisemitic tropes, or Women’s March organizer Linda Sarsour, who claims that a feminist cannot be a Zionist.

Sanders’ generalized thoughts on antisemitism and his specific thoughts on right-wing antisemitism are correct. But he seriously underplays the extent and the effects of left-wing antisemitism.