Sanders in 1990: US must pressure Israel on Palestinians

In interview given 26 years ago, presidential hopeful lamented Israel’s role as ‘mercenary for US government’ through its weapons sales to Central America

Sen. Bernie Sanders addressing a rally on Capitol Hill in 2013. (Courtesy JTA)
Sen. Bernie Sanders addressing a rally on Capitol Hill in 2013. (Courtesy JTA)

Democratic presidential hopeful Senator Bernie Sanders has had a long and apparently often critical relationship with Israel.

One mystery that surrounded the 74-year-old senator’s past links to the Jewish state was the identity of the kibbutz on which he spent several months in 1963 as a volunteer. On Thursday, veteran Israeli journalist Yossi Melman announced that the Democratic hopeful had named it in an interview with him more than 25 years ago.

In 1990, on the eve of his election to the US House of Representatives as a socialist, Sanders named the kibbutz where he volunteered as Sha’ar HaAmakim, a fact Melman published in his Haaretz interview.

But the very fact that journalists had to go to the archives in an effort to sleuth out the location of the 22-year-old Sanders’s volunteering highlights the senator’s reticence in raising his views on and ties to Israel in the current campaign.

Sanders has long been critical of Israeli settlement building and its conduct of recent fighting against Hamas in Gaza, but has also been vocal about Israel’s right to defend itself against attack.

The republication of the 1990 interview last week suggests that Sanders’s criticism is not new.

“I’d like to see the United States pressing Israel more on the Palestinian issue,” he said in 1990, according to an English translation of the Hebrew translation of Sanders’s original English-language interview with Melman.

He also had some choice words about Israel’s willingness to sell weapons in the Western Hemisphere at the time.

“As a Jew, I feel quite ashamed at Israel’s involvement in this continent” – i.e., Central and South America. “It’s embarrassing that Israel of all nations is selling guns to the worst of all regimes. Why do you need to be the mercenaries of the American government?” he demanded.

In the 1990 article, reproduced Thursday on Haaretz’s website, Sanders told Melman that he visited Israel in 1963 as a guest of the leftist Zionist Hashomer Hatzair movement and stayed at its affiliated kibbutz, northeast of Haifa.

Sha’ar HaAmakim was founded in 1935 by immigrants from Romania and Yugoslavia who had been trained in farming techniques. The kibbutz still includes farmland and has a flour mill and a dairy, but its primary income is currently from the manufacture of solar panels, according to its website.

It’s not clear what drew Sanders to Israel; his older brother, Larry, was spending some time there. He also had earned some renown as a civil rights activist at the University of Chicago.

Sanders’s own reticence during this campaign to discuss his Jewish upbringing and his time in Israel, where he traveled with his first wife, Deborah Shiling, who also was Jewish, are reflected by his campaign, which has turned away queries about his Israel stay.

Kibbutz Sha'ar HaAmakim in 2008 (John Dodo/WikiCommons)
Kibbutz Sha’ar HaAmakim in 2008 (John Dodo/WikiCommons)

It’s not exactly clear when he was in Israel; although he tells Haaretz he was there in 1963, he did not graduate from university until 1964. He also had not married Shiling by June 1964, when she is listed as a maid of honor at her sister’s Baltimore wedding in a New York Times notice.

Sanders, born in Brooklyn to a Polish immigrant whose family perished in the Holocaust, had divorced Shiling and was living in Vermont by the late 1960s.

At the time of the interview with Melman, Sanders was the mayor of Burlington, the state’s largest city, and was a sharp critic of the foreign policies of the Reagan and first Bush administrations, particularly in Central America.

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