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AJC castigates Sanders for comparing Baltimore to West Bank

Jewish organization questions why senator raised Palestinian infant mortality in comments on poverty in Maryland’s largest city

Rebecca Shimoni Stoil is the Times of Israel's Washington correspondent.

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks during a town hall at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on April 22, 2016. (AP/Evan Vucci)
Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks during a town hall at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on April 22, 2016. (AP/Evan Vucci)

BALTIMORE — The American Jewish Committee castigated Democratic contender Senator Bernie Sanders on Monday, for comparing the deep socioeconomic inequities in the troubled city of Baltimore with the conditions in Palestinian communities in the West Bank.

Sanders was campaigning in Maryland over the weekend ahead of that state’s primary election on Tuesday when he drew the comparison.

“People don’t know this,” Sanders said during a rally at the Royal Farms Arena in Baltimore. “If you are born in Baltimore’s poorest neighborhoods, your life expectancy is almost 20 years shorter than if you are born in a wealthier neighborhood.

“Fifteen neighborhoods in Baltimore have lower life expectancies than North Korea. Two have a higher infant mortality rate than the West Bank in Palestine,” he continued. “Baltimore teenagers between the ages of 15 to 19 face poorer health conditions and a worse economic outlook than those in distressed cities in Nigeria, India, China and South Africa.”

Baltimore was the scene of protests last year after a local man, Freddie Gray, died in police custody. Police were accused of giving Gray a “rough ride” which killed him, and Gray’s death and the ensuing demonstrations brought to the national stage the severe socioeconomic and racial inequities in Maryland’s largest city.

“What do the serious issues Baltimore’s leadership and population are confronting have to do with daily Palestinian life in the West Bank?” asked AJC chief executive David Harris in a statement issued Monday.

“Inserting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into unrelated American political discourse serves only one purpose, to encourage those who are narrowly focused on assailing Israel for any shortcomings, failings by the Palestinian Authority,” Harris said.

Harris noted that according to CIA statistics, “infant mortality in the West Bank, at 13.08 deaths per 1,000 live births, actually compares favorably to most of the developing world.”

He added: “Turkey’s rate is 18.87, Brazil’s is 18.60, and Iran’s is 38.04. The US infant mortality rate, at 5.87, is far from where it should be, behind the United Kingdom, at 4.38, Australia at 4.37, France at 3.28, and Israel at 3.55.”

Harris noted that “life expectancy in the West Bank, according to the CIA World Factbook, exceeds that of Egypt and Jordan, not to mention many other countries.”

Sanders, who, polls suggest, will lose Tuesday’s Maryland primary to front-runner Hillary Clinton by a slim margin, has emerged as the candidate most critical of the US-Israel relationship, although he has stressed that he supports Israel’s security.

In recent weeks, he was castigated by Jewish groups for inflating the number of Palestinian civilian casualties during the summer 2014 Operation Protective Edge to “over 10,000.” Sanders’ campaign later issued a statement saying his words had been “distorted,” and explaining that the senator had conflated the number of dead with the number of total casualties.

That scandal was only just dying down when it was revealed that his newly appointed Jewish outreach director had launched an obscenity-laced excoriation of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on social media.

Sanders was also one of just 17 senators who did not sign a letter this week urging the White House to increase defense aid to Israel in the 10-year Memorandum of Understanding currently under negotiation.

The senator is campaigning hard after losing to Clinton last week in the primary for the critical battleground state of New York. Of the five primaries held Tuesday, Sanders is only projected to win one — Rhode Island — while Clinton is expected to emerge victorious in Maryland, Delaware, Connecticut and Pennsylvania.

The candidate’s comparisons between Baltimore and the West Bank drew on a common theme in discussing urban — and particularly racial — inequity in America.

In recent years, Palestinian activists have drawn comparisons between socioeconomically impacted African-American communities in the US and the situation in the West Bank and Gaza. At numerous demonstrations, protesters have carried signs reading “From Ferguson to Palestine / Resistance is Not a Crime.”

In October 2015, a video published on YouTube featured dozens of #BlackLivesMatter and Palestinian activists delivering a joint message linking the two causes.

“When I see them, I see us,” the video’s narrators read, comparing recent killings of African-Americans by US police and the killing of Palestinian civilians by Israel Defense Forces troops.

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