A pro-Israel PAC tried to sabotage Bernie in Iowa. It didn't go well

A pro-Israel PAC tried to sabotage Bernie in Iowa. It didn't go well
Comment: Pro-Israel Democrats' attempts to detract from Bernie Sanders show how much support for Palestine has surged among progressives, writes Josh Ruebner.
5 min read
10 Feb, 2020
Senator Bernie Sanders won the popular vote in the Iowa caucus [Getty]
A newly-formed pro-Israel Political Action Committee's ads against Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) failed to prevent the democratic socialist candidate from winning the popular vote in the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses earlier this month.

The 30-second spot paid for by the Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI) PAC features ostensible Democratic primary voters attacking Sanders for being too radical to win key swing states, and questioning his health.

DMFI spent nearly $700,000 for the ad buys, according to Mondoweiss, in an attempt to impugn Sanders's electability.

Glaringly absent from the commercial is any mention of Sanders' stance on Israel or the Palestinian people. Iowan voters could readily be forgiven for not knowing that these attack ads were financed by a PAC whose mission is to "ensure the Democratic party remains pro-Israel, by electing Democrats who support a strong US-Israel relationship."

Why is Sanders - the first-ever Jewish candidate with a legitimate shot at winning the presidential nomination of a major party, and who spent time working on a kibbutz in Israel - considered by DMFI to be such a threat to a traditional but now crumbling pro-Israel orthodoxy within the Democratic Party?

First, Sanders, in recent years, has consistently critiqued Israel's human rights abuses of the Palestinian people, acknowledging their humanity and calling for an end to Israel's military occupation and colonisation of the West Bank. He has proposed that military aid to Israel be reprogrammed in part to alleviate the humanitarian catastrophe caused by Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip, calling out the racism of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and recognising Israel's role in dispossessing the Palestinian people from their homes in 1948.

Support for Palestinian rights is cresting among the liberal and progressive bases of the Democratic Party

Second, it is precisely Sanders's Jewishness that presents Jewish pro-Israel organisations such as DMFI with such a massive challenge. For decades, these organisations have ruthlessly tried to enforce a lockstep pro-Israel orthodoxy among Jewish-Americans in order to attempt to project monolithic support for Israel within this community to the broader public.

Recently, however, the rise of alternatives, from the liberal Zionist J Street, to the youth-led If Not Now, to the anti-Zionist Jewish Voice for Peace has challenged this perceived homogeneity. Sanders is viewed by DMFI as legitimating and strengthening this Jewish opposition to Israeli policies and potentially opening the floodgate to non-Jewish criticism of US support for Israel.

[The 30-second spot was paid for by the Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI) PAC.]

That Sanders' worldview has self-admittedly been shaped by the Nazi's mass killing of his father's family in Poland presents a further challenge to groups such as DMFI. 

During a recent New Hampshire town hall, Sanders responded to a question about how his Jewish heritage and values have informed his politics by speaking movingly about remembering "as a kid looking at these big picture books of World War II and tears would roll down my cheeks." His family's experience instilled in Sanders a realisation of "how horrible people can be to other people in the name of racial superiority."

Pro-Israel organisations frequently misuse the Holocaust to distract from, or even to try to justify, Israel's treatment of the Palestinian people. Sanders' commitment to the universality of human rights specifically because of the horrors his family experienced at the hands of Nazi Germany undermines this misappropriation of Jewish suffering. 

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Third, organisations such as DMFI are terrified that a strong showing by Sanders in the Democratic primary will further empower and embolden voices within the party already expressing even bolder positions in support of Palestinian rights.

Sanders is endorsed by Palestinian-American Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), who backs a single democratic state for Israelis and Palestinians, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN), who supports the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement for Palestinian rights, and by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), who has raised the possibility of cutting off military aid to Israel.

And prominent Palestinian-American surrogates for Sanders like Linda Sarsour and Amer Zahr have remained unabashed in their support for Palestinian rights while on the campaign trail, leading to Sanders earning the affectionate moniker of Amo (Uncle) Bernie from many Palestinian-Americans on social media.

To his great credit, Sanders has continued to uplift and be substantially buoyed by this new generation of leaders while resisting calls from groups such as DFMI to throw them under the bus.

Organisations such as DFMI are waging a desperate and futile battle to try to shore up Democratic support for Israel

That a pro-Israel organisation runs a feeble attack ad against a Jewish candidate for president specifically because of his support for Palestinian rights without even mentioning his position on this issue speaks volumes about the liability support for Israel is at the grassroots base of the Democratic Party. 

According to recent public opinion surveys, support for Palestinian rights is cresting among the liberal and progressive bases of the Democratic Party.

In 2018, the Pew Research Center found self-identified liberals sympathised with Palestinians more than Israel by a 35 to 19 percent margin. And earlier this year, Professor Shibley Telhami of Brookings found that 77 percent of Democrats believe BDS is a "legitimate, peaceful way" to advocate for Palestinian rights.

Organisations such as DFMI are waging a desperate and futile battle to try to shore up Democratic support for Israel. As demonstrated by the Iowa caucuses, they will not be successful.

Josh Ruebner is senior principal at Progress Up Consulting and author of Israel: Democracy or Apartheid State? and Shattered Hopes: Obama's failure to Broker Israeli-Palestinian Peace.

Follow him on Twitter: @joshruebner

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.