NEW YORK (AFP) — When Bernie Sanders called Israel’s response in the 2014 Gaza war disproportionate and urged America to be more balanced on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he smashed a presidential campaign taboo.
His remarks at the April 14 Democratic debate ahead of New York’s decisive primary on Tuesday was labeled by political pundits as unprecedented criticism of Israel and promotion of Palestinian rights from a canvassing US presidential candidate.
Jewish Americans make up some 20 percent of the New York electorate. The majority of them are Democrats, meaning that air-tight support for Israel has long been considered a campaign must.
But Sanders’ words reflect changing attitudes among Jewish voters, particularly Millennials who grew up seeing Israel as a strong state and for whom the horrors of the Holocaust are more removed.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “is not right all of the time,” said the Vermont senator at the debate. “We cannot continue to be one-sided.”
He criticized Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton for not saying that she would do more to promote Palestinian rights when she addressed the powerful right-wing American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) lobby in Washington in March.
“If we are ever going to bring peace to that region, which has seen so much hatred and so much war, we are going to have to treat the Palestinian people with respect and dignity,” Sanders said.
Sanders, who is the only Jewish presidential hopeful this year, spent a several months working on a kibbutz in Israel in 1963, a fact he often uses to build his bona fides for his positions on the Jewish state.
In other countries the remarks would have been considered run of the mill, said Daniel Sieradski, national organizer of the group “Jews for Bernie” which has 8,000 supporters on Facebook.
“But because the discourse in American Jewish politics has been pulled so far to the right in the last couple of decades, Bernie is being made to sound like some anti-Israel extremist,” he said.
During the last contested Democratic New York primary in 1992, it might have been political suicide, The New York Times wrote.
Sieradski disagreed. “I don’t think it’s political suicide,” he told AFP. “But it definitely didn’t help him among people who have hard-line views on Israel.”
Democrat Sharon Goldtzvik, 29, told AFP she was “really excited” to see a presidential candidate bring up the issue of Palestinian dignity.
She founded and runs Uprise, a non-profit focused on human rights issues in the Middle East. Goldtzvik has lived in Israel, is married to an Israeli, and describes Sanders as “a breath of fresh air.”
“I’m under 30. People in my cohort were not willing to accept (that) there is only one way to support Israel, so I do think that he represents the views of many, many Jews and a growing number of Jews.”
According to a Pew Research Center poll, 35 percent of Democrats thought Israel had gone too far in its response during the 2014 Gaza.
Sanders has “at least opened up the discourse so the conversation can shift in the Democratic Party, and that’s a big deal,” said Sieradski.
Polls show that Sanders trails Clinton 40-60 percent among Jewish Democrats in New York City, and 13 points behind his opponent on a statewide average.
Documentary filmmaker Gaylen Ross is voting for Clinton and believes she is the candidate best able to negotiate a two-state solution.
“Frankly if that’s the kind of language that he comes to a negotiating table with he is already 10 steps behind,” she told AFP.
“You don’t play your hand before you get to the table and you don’t play your hand before you get to a national election.”
Sanders’ suspension of his Jewish outreach director for referring to Netanyahu in vulgar terms also signals a lack of experience or suggests he is not informed, Ross said.
Sanders was the only the candidate who declined to speak at the AIPAC event in Washington on March 21. He also told the New York Daily News that he thought more than 10,000 civilians were killed in Gaza in 2014, a figure seven times higher than Gaza’s own Hamas terrorist rulers have stated.
According to Palestinian figures of the 2014 conflict, which are cited by the UN Human Rights Council, 1,462 civilians were killed out of a total of the 2,251 Gaza fatalities during the 51-day conflict. Israel, for its part, has said that up to half of those killed on the Palestinian side were combatants, and has blamed the civilian death toll on Hamas for deliberately placing rocket launchers, tunnels and other military installations among civilians. Seventy-three people were killed on the Israeli side of the conflict.
Sanders has since admitted to his mistake regarding the number of civilian casualties in the Gaza war, but has maintained his stance that Israel used disproportionate force during the conflict.
Howard Graubard, a New York lawyer active in Democratic politics in the state, does not expect Sanders to suffer much at the ballot box “because he was going to lose anyway.” Graubard believes Sanders’s stances won’t alienate his progressive Jewish supporters, but his criticism of Israel gives Orthodox and right-wing Zionist Democrats, who feel little enthusiasm for Clinton, a reason to get out and vote.
“They’re nominal Democrats and need a motivator,” Graubard said.
“People are being emailed, fliers will be going up this weekend, there will be phone banks, and the message about Bernie and Israel is going out to pull those people out to vote.”
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report