Uncle Bernie Crosses the Israel Boundary

When I was a kid I learned to address my parents’ close friends as “Uncle” or “Aunt,” Uncle Lou,” “Aunt Gertrude,” etc. It was a term of respect. I’ve learned that Native Americans often address their elder teachers as “Uncle” giving them the kind of deference those in the East give their gurus. It’s with that understanding that I give Bernie Sanders the respect he deserves for crossing what is perhaps the toughest boundary of Jewish identity, especially for a politician. It’s not stepping away from organized religion, it’s publicly challenging Israel and its right-wing American supporters. Thank you, Uncle Bernie!

The news today is that he has turned down the invitation to speak at AIPAC, (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee). See Salon and The Jewish Telegraphic Agency. For decades, all American politicians seeking high office in the U.S. have paid tribute to AIPAC to either receive their blessing or at least hope to not to be on their hit list. AIPAC’s lobbying power on behalf of everything Israel does is legendary. Their power is feared by all politicians, especially since having the full supportive weight of the Evangelical Christian Right (which sees the ascendancy of Israel in the “Holy Land” as essential to their agenda of Armageddon).

Unfortunately, in statements released to date, Sanders did not openly criticize the group, and it remains to be seen what he will say in the written statement he is submitting. He offered as a reason for declining the invitation, that he is involved in campaigning. But, as they say, actions speak louder than words, and his refusal to attend, in the world of politics, is about as strong a statement as anything he could say. It is difficult to even measure the political courage it takes to defy AIPAC while running for President of the United States.

While a growing number of Jewish-Americans have increasingly been critical of Israeli policies towards Palestinians and the continued building of settlements, Jewish leaders have continued to stand firm in their commitment to defend all Israeli dictates. The most flagrant example was AIPAC’s lobbying support of Netanyahu’s efforts to undermine President Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran. AIPAC and its allies continue to attempt to stifle criticisms of Israel in the media and on campuses, equating boycotting Israel with anti-Semitism and proposing legislation to make that a crime. Meanwhile, Jewish Voice for Peace, https://jewishvoiceforpeace.org, mostly made up of young Jews, has been growing exponentially and challenges the long standing narratives concerning the history and current realities of Israel and her neighbors.

In my book, Crossing the Boundary: Stories of Jewish Leaders of Other Spiritual Paths, I gave considerable focus to the sense of identification with Israel that many, if not most, Jewish people have formed. Israeli flags fly in synagogues. Children are taught to sing the Israeli national anthem. Money is raised for Israeli settlements and even for the Israel Defense Forces, the army of Israel. (The organizations doing this are tax-exempt, so that American taxpayers are currently supporting this funding in addition to the 4 or 5 billion that goes to support Israel’s military occupation of Palestinians). From early childhood, I and other Jewish children were taught to deeply feel our affiliation with Israel and associate that with our Jewishness. One can argue that all this is “understandable” given the abusive and genocidal treatment of Jews in Europe prior to the 1948 birth of Israel as a state. But being understandable doesn’t make it right.

Being Jewish does not make one an Israeli. Israel, despite what Netanyahu might say, is not the state of the Jewish people. It is the state of all the people living there, (75% Jews, 20% Palestinian Arabs and 5 % ‘Other.’)  It is a state that currently controls the lives by military occupation of another 4 million Palestinians. It is a state whose actions anyone, regardless of their religious or ethnic identity, has the right to evaluate critically. Non-Jewish Americans who are concerned about these issues, speak of Israel in whispers, as if they were speaking of their Jewish friends’ mothers. It’s time we broke the trance of the destructive identification of Jewishness with Israel. It’s time that public debate about Israel was not associated with how one feels about Jewish people. The cost is too great.

Jewish tradition teaches that the story of Moses leading the people from slavery should cause us to be involved in freeing ourselves from slavery to oppressive ideas and false identifications. Uncle Bernie crossed this boundary by refusing AIPAC’s invitation to speak at their gala conference. It is a step in leading not only Jews, but all Americans, from the enslavement to Israeli intransigence and chutzpah, across the sea to a sane and just foreign policy. It will be interesting to see the fallout from this move and also whether he will be pressured to backtrack as so many politicians who have dared challenge Israel in the past.

When I was a kid, my parents’ generation taught us to ask of of all politicians and policies, “Is it good for the Jews.” If Bernie holds firm, it will be good for the Jews, and all Americans. As he said when asked about his religion, “I believe we are all connected, when anyone is in pain, I feel that pain.” Anyone!

Bernie Sanders speaks about his religion: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YWnvBFwojNM