Why Bernie Sanders Is Still Very Much a Pro-Israel Candidate -- Despite His AIPAC Absence

A voter prepares to mark an absentee presidential primary ballot for Bernie Sanders  in New Hampshire.
A voter prepares to mark an absentee presidential primary ballot for Bernie Sanders in New Hampshire.

When I created the Interfaith Ambassadors at the University of Florida, our university's first forum for weekly interfaith discussions, I was prepared for a number of difficult subjects to come up.

One of those such topics is the Israel-Palestine conflict, inexorably intertwined with our faith communities. As someone who has over a dozen family members living in Israel, who has lived in the country for six months, and who has devoted a greater part of his academic career to studying the region, I can say without a doubt that I have a personal stake in the Jewish homeland. And yet I cannot deny the pain, anger and frustration my Muslim friends feel whenever the conversation is brought up.

Which is why I feel the need to interject on a story that has seemingly gained traction on social media: That Bernie Sanders, the only Jewish candidate in the race (and the only Jewish person ever to win an American primary) declined an invitation to AIPAC Policy Conference because he does not support Israel.

Some see it as a victory lap; finally there is a candidate not beholden to the Jewish lobby! Someone who understands the "excessive" human rights violations which our government turns a blind eye to!

Others see it as another example of the "self-hating Jew"; Bernie Sanders does not have any pride in a country that was created specifically to protect the Jewish population. You can see in this video below that it's actually a make-it-or-break-it issue for some voters.

Neither narrative speaks to who Bernie Sanders is -- the truth is, Senator Sanders is somewhere on the spectrum between Chuck Schumer (a devout Israel supporter) and Dianne Feinstein (a vocal Israel critic). All three are Jewish.

Bernie Sanders lived in Israel and volunteered on kibbutz (a shared Jewish living community) Sha'ar HaAmakim in 1963. In 2014, Senator Sanders cast a vote in favor of funding Operation Protective Edge, the Israeli weapons defense program against Palestinian missiles, along with every single one of his Senate colleagues.

"I work tirelessly to advance the cause of peace as a partner and as a friend to Israel," Bernie noted in his Salt Lake City speech the same day as candidates addressed the AIPAC crowd. "But to be successful, we also have got to be a friend not only to Israel, but to the Palestinian people."

This attitude is much, much more in line with what the average Israeli thinks. Bernie Sanders is pro-Israel because he is not satisfied with the status quo. And newsflash? Neither are Israelis.

But you wouldn't think that based on what the candidates said at AIPAC. I think this speaks to a broader problem within our candidate class that being pro-Israel means forcing yourself to Israel's far right policies as possible, ignoring the tremendous diversity of opinions and policies in the country.

When asked if he was a Zionist by Vox's Ezra Klein, he responded "Do I think Israel has the right to exist? Yeah, I do. Do I believe that the United States should be playing an even-handed role in terms of its dealings with the Palestinian community in Israel? Absolutely I do."

While Israel's national security should be at the forefront of any Middle East policy conversation (something that the BDS movement struggles to cope with), it's also crucial to understand that Israelis, generally, don't want to live in a state of existential crisis, and genuinely want to find a peaceful solution.

Bernie Sanders understands this delicate nuance. All other candidates talk about the solution to Israel in military terms, only. Senator Sanders talks about the reality of how most Israelis truly feel. And that's why, regardless of whether he attended AIPAC or not, I am proud that a Jewish candidate understands this point.