That his remarks about Israel in last night’s Democratic debate are being treated as a near-watershed event is a testament to how skewed the issue has become in American politics. To assert that Palestinians deserve “respect and dignity,” and that Israel has responded to Palestinian provocations with “disproportionate” use of force, is well within the mainstream of global opinion—not to mention American Jewish opinion. And yet this position is so unconventional—and so refreshingly sane—that my colleague Jeet Heer argues that it justifies Sanders’s continued presence in the race.
But even Sanders is not immune to the powerful currents that swirl around this issue. Just before the debate, his campaign announced that it had suspended Simone Zimmerman, his Jewish outreach coordinator, after the Washington Free Beacon reported that Zimmerman had once written “Fuck you, Bibi” on her Facebook account, and called the Israeli prime minister “an arrogant, deceptive, cynical, manipulative asshole.”
Strong language, to be sure. But frustration with Netanyahu—a right-wing leader who has presided over an alarming rightward shift in Israeli politics—is not new or foreign to American Jews, who in the main are well to his left. Zimmerman and Sanders are, it should be said, both Jews. “This is the American Jewish community eating its own,” Peter Beinart told the Times. “Simone is the best of the best. Most of the other kids have given up on the community. She cares deeply and wants to make it live up to its own stated ideals.” This is a small taste of just how difficult the issue is.