Last week, Senator Bernie Sanders spoke to the annual J Street policy conference, held in Washington, D.C.
Senator Sanders, who is widely seen as the head of the progressive wing of the Democratic party, articulated his vision for an Israeli-Palestinian peace process. He reiterated many of the themes that he had laid out during his unsuccessful run for the presidency last year to the 3,500 participants there. These themes included his strong backing for a two-state solution and for a territorial compromise by Israel in a negotiated settlement.
Moreover, he once again critiqued many Israeli actions over the course of the last number of years, including its prosecution of the war in Gaza in the summer of 2014. He further made the point, which is unassailable, that it is possible to be opposed to the Netanyahu government without being anti-Israel or anti-Semitic, just as it is possible to be opposed to the Trump administration without being anti-American or anything other than an American patriot.
Unfortunately, Senator Sanders also included a section in this speech that is deeply troubling and reflects a tin ear to the historical, religious, and political self-understanding and reality of the Jewish people, the modern-Zionist movement, and the reality of Jewish history.
Senator Sanders said:
“I think it is very important for everyone, but particularly for progressives, to acknowledge the enormous achievement of establishing a democratic homeland for the Jewish people after centuries of displacement and persecution, and particularly after the horror of the Holocaust.
“But as you all know, there was another side to the story of Israel’s creation, a more painful side. Like our own country, the founding of Israel involved the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people already living there, the Palestinian people. Over 700,000 people were made refugees.
“To acknowledge this painful historical fact does not ‘delegitimize’ Israel, any more than acknowledging the Trail of Tears delegitimizes the United States of America.”
A number of elements in this presentation are troubling.
First, the analogy to the Trail of Tears experience of native Americans is deeply flawed. The Trail of Tears refers to the explicit and official governmental policy of the forced removal of tens of thousands of native Americans by the U.S. government during the 1830s and 1840s. These acts were carried out as part of Indian removal laws and executive actions that were part of the master plan of the U.S. government of the time. Whatever the exact causes of the Palestinian refugee phenomenon in 1948 may be — and historians continue to debate them — an unassailable fact is that the refugee crisis emerged in the context of Israel’s War of Independence and its struggle to survive in the midst of attack by many Arab nations as well as local Palestinian militias and irregulars.
As noted historian Benny Morris concluded in discussing his nuanced research on the topic in his 2004 book, “The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited,”:
“The book that emerged undermined both the official Zionist and the traditional Arab narratives. The documents showed that the 700,000 or so Arabs who had fled or been driven from their homes in the area that became the state of Israel in 1948-49 had not done so, by and large, on orders from or at the behest of Palestinian or outside Arab leaders, as Israelis were educated to believe; but, at the same time, they had not been expelled by the Israelis in compliance with a preset master plan or in line with a systematic policy, as the Arabs, in their demonization of Israel, have been taught.”
Second, the analogy speaks to a profound misreading of the historical connection of the Jewish people to the land of Israel. The European settlers who came to the new world, beginning with Columbus, indeed were colonialists and imperialists who would have worn that badge proudly. They did come and displace an indigenous population from a land to which they, the Europeans, had no historical, religious, or political ties.
In sharp contrast, the Zionist movement was a movement of “return” of a people to its historic homeland, for which it yearned and to which it retained its ties for two thousand years. Those ties include the uninterrupted presence of a small group of Jews who remained through the thick and thin of history and persecution. Indeed, the classical Hebrew term for the Zionist enterprise was and is “shivat Tzion” — the return to Zion.
It is true that the old Zionist slogan, “a people without a land returning to a land without a people,” was false in that there were other groups of people living in the land when the masses of Jews began to return. This, of course, is part of the tragedy of the reality of two indigenous peoples and two historical narratives in conflict over one small parcel of land. The distortion of the Jewish people’s connection to the land, however, and their buying into the classic Palestinian narrative of the white European Jewish settlers as colonialists and imperialists should not be the lingua franca of Jewish progressives. The Jewish people did not simply “establish a homeland,” as Senator Sanders said, but were returning to a homeland.
This critical point cannot be emphasized enough, and it is a point that progressive Jews especially must be willing to articulate to themselves and to the world. It is then, with a sense of truth and the recognition of our own narrative and history and justice, that we can then pivot and recognize the mistakes and pain we have also caused to Palestinians in our legitimate struggle to return to our home.
It is only then that we can truly engage in any painful compromise and negotiation which will, we hope, lead to peace, security, and dignity for Israelis and Palestinians alike.
Nathaniel Helfgot is the rabbi of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Teaneck.