Senator Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) is one of three Jewish candidates vying to become President of the United States in 2020 (the other two are Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Marianne Williamson). If elected, the self-described democratic socialist from Brooklyn would become the first Jewish president.
Asking where Bernie stands on “Jewish issues” is kinda funny — as a Jewish person, it’s safe to assume that his Jewishness shapes many of his policies and politics across the board. But here we’ll focus on the explicitly Jewish issues — from domestic anti-Semitism to his foreign policy with regard to Israel. Shall we get into it?
Wait — before we get into the issues, I’m just curious about Bernie’s Jewishness. Can you give me a quick summary?
Bernie was born and raised in Brooklyn. His father was a Jewish immigrant from Poland, and his mother was born in America to immigrant Jewish parents from Poland and Russia. Sanders grew up in a super Jewish neighborhood and was bar mitzvahed in 1954. In 1963, he lived and worked on Kibbutz Shaar Haamakim in northern Israel.
“I’m proud to be Jewish,” Sanders said in June 2015. “I’m not particularly religious.”
Being Jewish, he continued, taught him “in a very deep way what politics is about.” Why? “A guy named Adolf Hitler won an election in 1932. He won an election, and 50 million people died as a result of that election in World War II, including 6 million Jews. So what I learned as a little kid is that politics is, in fact, very important.” (Quick fact check: Hitler didn’t really win an election, but rather abolished the German presidency in 1934.)
There’s a lot of familiarity to Bernie’s mannerisms and voice; he speaks at a LOUD VOLUME and with an unmistakably Brooklyn accent, reminding many of other elderly Ashkenazi Jews. And yes, Larry David’s impression of him is just so good we have to remind you to go re-watch it.
Okay, now that I’ve re-watched Larry-David-as-Bernie-Sanders, can we get into his policies and statements?
Yes. Let’s start with his positions on domestic issues.
What has Bernie Sanders said regarding anti-Semitism?
Lots! He wrote an entire essay on the subject in the November 2019 issue of Jewish Currents called “How to Fight Antisemitism.” (Yes, they use a different formatting of the word “anti-Semitism” than us.)
“The threat of antisemitism is not some abstract idea to me. It is very personal. It destroyed a large part of my family. I am not someone who spends a lot of time talking about my personal background because I believe political leaders should focus their attention on a vision and agenda for others, rather than themselves. But I also appreciate that it’s important to talk about how our backgrounds have informed our ideas, our principles, and our values,” Sanders wrote.
“I am a proud Jewish American. My father emigrated from Poland to the United States in 1921 at the age of 17 to escape the poverty and widespread antisemitism of his home country. Those in his family who remained in Poland after Hitler came to power were murdered by the Nazis. I know very well where white supremacist politics leads, and what can happen when people do not speak up against it.” (Hell, yes, Bernie!)
You should really read his whole essay, but we’re going to pull out some key-takeaways that show his view of anti-Semitism in America (the essay pivots to Israel in the second half, but we’ll get to that later):
- Anti-Semitism is a threat not only to Jews, but also a threat to American democracy.
- Anti-Semitism intends to divide Jews from working with other progressives.
- Anti-Semitism is not criticizing Israel, but sometimes, critiques of Israel are anti-Semitic.
- Fighting anti-Semitism is a “core value” of progressivism.
Woah. That’s a lot!
Yes, and not only does he detail the insidious nature of anti-Semitism in America — he also outlines what his plan would be to fight it.
What’s the plan?
In Bernie’s words:
- I will strengthen both domestic and international efforts to combat this hatred.
- I will direct the Justice Department to prioritize the fight against white nationalist violence.
- I will not wait two years to appoint a Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, as Trump did; I will appoint one immediately.
- I will also rejoin the United Nations Human Rights Council, which Trump withdrew from. The United States should not be sitting on the sidelines on these important issues at the UN; we should be at the table helping to shape an international human rights agenda that combats all forms of bigotry and discrimination.
Okay. What else has Sanders said on anti-Semitism?
What else is there to say? Just kidding. Bernie always has more to say!
In November 2015, Sanders spoke to NPR about visiting the Polish village where his dad grew up. “It was a very traumatic experience for me as a young man to know that my father’s family was killed by Nazis — killed by Hitler. And that left — if not intellectually — at least an emotional part of me that would say: God, we have got to do everything we can to end this kind of horrific racism and anti-Semitism, and I’ve spent much of my life to fight that.” (Emphasis ours.)
Bernie’s Jewishness and awareness of anti-Semitism — even if he doesn’t discuss it much — shapes much of his politics.
He echoed this in August 2019, telling a group of Black millennial Christians, “I’m Jewish. My family came from Poland. My father’s whole family was wiped out by Hitler and his white nationalism. We will go to war against white nationalism and racism in every aspect of our lives.”
We can keep going, but we think you get the idea: Fighting anti-Semitism, for Sanders, is deeply embedded in his identity as a progressive politician. It’s linked to fighting racism and combating white nationalism.
How about a quick tweet round-up?
@BernieSanders has tweeted multiple times directly referencing anti-Semitism, all in the context of his family/dad, and a few times about anti-Semitic crimes (once in reference to the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, and the other in reference to threats towards a JCC in Ohio). On @SenSanders, his Senate account, there are a couple tweets about anti-Semitism.
My father came to this country from Poland at 17, without a nickel in his pocket. He came to escape the crushing poverty that existed in his community, and to escape widespread anti-Semitism. Virtually his entire family there was wiped out by Nazi barbarism. #BernieInBrooklyn
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) March 2, 2019
What is Bernie’s relationship like with Jewish groups?
He’s addressed J Street numerous times — U.S. News reported he got a “hometown welcome” at the 2019 conference. He was unable to attend the 2016 AIPAC conference due to a scheduling conflict and was not allowed to address the event remotely, but he shared the speech he would have delivered in an open letter to AIPAC’s president.
Where does Bernie Sanders say about BDS, the movement to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel?
Bernie is against BDS and has stated that anti-Semitism is a driver of the movement.
“Israel has done some very bad things, so has every other country on earth,” Sanders said on MSNBC in March 2016. “I think the people who want to attack Israel for their policies, I think that is fair game. But not to appreciate that there is some level of anti-Semitism around the world involved in that I think would be a mistake.”
Sanders also said in May 2017 that he did not respect BDS as a tactic. “People will do what they want to do, but I think our job as a nation is to do everything humanly possible to bring Israel and the Palestinians and the entire Middle East to the degree that we can together, but no, I’m not a supporter of that,” he said with regard to BDS.
Sanders voted against the anti-BDS bill, telling the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, “While I do not support the BDS movement, we must defend every American’s constitutional right to engage in political activity. It is clear to me that this bill would violate Americans’ First Amendment rights.”
Alright, let’s pivot to Israel. What are Bernie’s general policies on Israel?
Of all the Democratic presidential candidates, Sanders is widely seen as “the most outspoken and most progressive candidate” with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He’s also been remarkably consistent, yet not exactly known for foreign policy expertise. (One 2016 Politico story called foreign policy his “deficit.”)
His public record on Israel goes back to 1988, when Sanders was mayor of Burlington, Vermont. The First Intifada had begun a year earlier, and Sanders said, “What is going on in the Middle East right now is obviously a tragedy, there’s no question about it. The sight of Israeli soldiers breaking the arms and legs of Arabs is reprehensible. The idea of Israel closing down towns and sealing them off is unacceptable.”
However, he continued, “You have had a crisis there for 30 years, you have had people at war for 30 years, you have a situation with some Arab countries where there are still some Arab leadership calling for the destruction of the state of Israel and the murder of Israeli citizens.”
It’s now been closer to 50 years, but Sanders remains a politician who has continued to express both support for Israel and critique of the country’s policies.
What other statements show that Sanders is a critic of some Israeli policies but generally supportive of the state?
1. He wants to work in the best interests of all people in the region.
In March 2016, Sanders said, “We have also got to be a friend, not only to Israel, but to the Palestinian people … When we talk about Israel and Palestinian areas, it is important to understand that today there is a whole lot of suffering among Palestinians and that cannot be ignored.”
2. He wants both Israelis and Palestinians to recognize each other’s pain:
“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,” Sanders wrote in his November 2019 Jewish Currents essay.
3. He wants the world to not hold Israel to a double standard:
Speaking with Al Jazeera in 2017, Sanders said that while there are “many problems” with Israel, and that he would continue to be critical, “On the other hand, to see Israel attacked over and over again for human rights violations which may be true, when you have countries like Saudi Arabia or Syria, Saudi Arabia — I’m not quite sure if a woman can even drive a car today.”
4. He has criticized both Palestinian and Israeli governments:
“While I am very critical of Netanyahu’s right-wing government, I am not impressed by what I am seeing from Palestinian leadership, as well. It’s corrupt in many cases, and certainly not effective,” Sanders told the New Yorker in April 2019.
“I will call upon Israel to end policies that violate international humanitarian law, such as home demolitions and settlement construction in the occupied territories, and work to ensure that U.S. aid is not used to support these activities. I will also continue to condemn violence against civilians by all sides,” Sanders said in a statement to Vice in September 2019.
So what does he think about solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
Sanders advocates a two-state solution, with Jerusalem as the shared capital of both states.
Expanding on this in an interview with Council on Foreign Relations, Sanders said, “Ultimately, it’s up to the Palestinians and Israelis themselves to make the choices necessary for a final agreement, but the United States has a major role to play in brokering that agreement. My administration would also be willing to bring real pressure to bear on both sides, including conditioning military aid, to create consequences for moves that undermine the chances for peace.”
That last line is key: real pressure on both sides to “create consequences” for things that would undermine a two-state solution.
Say more about where Bernie stands on conditioning aid to Israel.
Let’s let Bernie tell you: “I would use the leverage, $3.8 billion is a lot of money, and we cannot give it carte blanche to the Israeli government or to any government at all. We have the right to demand respect for human rights and democracy.” He said this at J Street’s conference in October 2019, and went on to say some of that aid money should go towards humanitarian aid in Gaza.
That wasn’t the first time he brought up conditioning aid or the idea of using aid as leverage. When Jon Favreau asked Sanders on Pod Save America in July 2019, “We spend a few billion dollars on aid to Israel. Would you ever consider using that aid as leverage to get the Israeli government to act differently?” Sanders replied, “Absolutely.”
Here’s what he said next: “Let me back it up before the tweets start flowing in. I lived in Israel. Actually, I worked in a kibbutz for a number of months. I have family in Israel. I am Jewish. I am not anti-Israel. Okay? I believe that the people of Israel have, absolutely, the right to live in peace, independence, and security. End of discussion. That is what I fervently believe. But I think what has happened is in recent years under Netanyahu, you have an extreme right-wing government with many racist tendencies. The role of the United States — and this is not easy, you know, believe me, Clinton tried it, Obama tried it, Jimmy Carter tried it, this is not easy stuff — is to try to finally bring peace to the Middle East and to treat the Palestinian people with a kind of respect and dignity they deserve. Our policy cannot just be pro-Israel, pro-Israel, pro-Israel.”
In August 2019, he said, “The United States government gives a whole lot of money to Israel, and I think we can leverage that money to end some of the racism that we have recently seen in Israel.”
So I gather Sanders does not like Netaynahu?
He’s also named Netanyahu as part of a new “authoritarian axis,” a group including Russia’s Vladimir Putin, the Saudi royal family, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, and whaddya know, President Trump.
Where does Sanders stand on Israeli settlements, occupation, and the Palestinian territories?
He’s against settlements: Sanders tweeted in November 2019 that “Israeli settlements in occupied territory are illegal.”
He’s condemned the occupation, telling the AJC forum in June 2019: “Ending that occupation and enabling the Palestinians to have independence and self-determination in a sovereign, independent, economically viable state of their own is in the best interest of the United States, Israel, the Palestinians and the entire region.”
He’s called the situation of occupation unsustainable: “I see a Palestinian people crushed under a military occupation now over a half century old, creating a daily reality of pain, humiliation, and resentment. Let me be clear: I do not know how peace can be achieved in that region when in the Gaza Strip poverty is rampant, 53 percent of the people are unemployed, the number of unemployed is even higher for young people, and 99 percent of the residents cannot leave that area. That is not a sustainable situation.”
Bernie has strongly opposed Israeli violence in Gaza, saying, “What is going on in Gaza right now is absolutely inhumane, it is unacceptable, it is unsustainable.”
Honestly, Sanders has said lots more things! But you’re probably tired of reading about him now.
Jewish fun fact?
Sanders went to the same high school as Ruth Bader Ginsburg (she graduated in 1950; Sanders graduated in 1959). Senator Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Judge Judy, and like four Nobel Prize winners also attended that same school, James Madison High School in the Sheepshead Bay neighborhood of Brooklyn.
Another Jewish fun fact?
Bernie Sanders and Larry David are actually distant cousins! Now go rewatch that parody, again.
Image of Bernie Sanders by David Becker/Getty Images; design by Grace Yagel.