Bernie Sanders v. AIPAC: not a new story.
DISCLAIMER: The following is not a recommendation regarding Bernie as a candidate at large for the Democratic party; rather it is a statement about this specific topic.
Sadly, but predictably, Bernie Sanders is refusing the invitation to speak at the AIPAC national policy conference this coming Sunday-Tuesday, March 1-3. He has never attended the conference, one of only a handful of senators to have so vehemently opposed the work of the main pro-Israel educational organization in the country. Worse, however, this year he tweeted that AIPAC gives a platform to bigotry and prejudice, and that is why he will not attend.
To quote him, "To be for the Israeli people, and to be for peace in the middle east does not mean that we have to support right wing racist governments that currently exist in Israel." You can listen to the Haaretz presentation of Gideon Levy in support of Bernie's comments here. Respectfully, regardless of their politics, boycotting AIPAC is counterproductive.
Here is why he is just dead wrong on the topic:
Why AIPAC should be attended by all candidates:
First, AIPAC national policy conference is a fairly inclusive conference (within the pro-Israel camp), with voices of the left and the right present in the sessions. I find the conversations, presentations and panels of tremendous value, precisely because I am exposed to voices from across the spectrum of Israeli beliefs in a way that no other conference does. AIPAC policy most often closely parallels the Israeli government of the day, so under Rabin and Peres it was the flag waver for the Oslo accords and peace. Under Netanyahu, the policies are considerably different. The conference is a great exercise in learning and exploring the issues of the day. J-Street, which Bernie attends, only invites voices from the left and is forever stuck in that side of the issue. Like my view of watching the news, if we only conference with people we agree with, what are we doing?
Second, as a front-runner candidate of a major political party, Sanders is signaling his approach as President towards the State of Israel and its supporters in the USA. It is, unfortunately, not a unifying posture. Granted, the current President is also representative of only one side of the pro-Israel camp. That doesn't make an equally one-sided, opposite stance acceptable.
Third, Bernie is falsely teaching the new left that it is only in the Israel camp that there is "bigotry and prejudice." The new progressives, under 30 and voting for the first or second time, are being told that "Israelis and Palestinians" deserve to live in peace, but it is only the pro-Israel AIPAC voice that gives a platform for "bigotry and prejudice." This horrific myopia about Palestinian incitement against Israel, and Palestinian violence out of Gaza is inexcusable. He is not just a candidate, he is a teacher. He is creating this progressive voice, and on this topic he is beyond impartial or imbalanced - he is biased.
Analysis of his point of view:
While I agree that bigotry should not be validated, I disagree that bigotry should not be engaged - especially if it exists in the person of freely elected officials and sanctioned representatives of a state actor. And so did Bernie when he went to Liberty University and said "I understand that issues such as abortion and gay marriage are very important to you and that we disagree on those," and went on to suggest that the points in common required engagement and dialogue for the common good (https://www.vox.com/2015/9/14/9323041/bernie-sanders-liberty-university). Despite the anti-homosexual bias of that institution, which he also would consider prejudice and bigotry, he was willing to engage. That was a presidential posture. But he won't do the same when it comes to Israel.
Are there voices in the pro-Israel camp, and in the Kenneset in Israel that are decidedly anti-Palestinian, even bigoted or prejudiced? They exist, yes. And they have a legal right in a democracy to be so, as do those Palestinians who are anti-Zionist. And we have to be able to hear them all, and be present for them all when they are willing to join in dialogue, conversation, exploration and education with the spectrum of beliefs. They are in the political spectrum of Israeli politics, and must be encountered if you want to understand all of Israel. Is AIPAC itself bigoted or prejudiced for bringing all of those voices, and Democrats and Republicans together? Absolutely not.
Also, Bernie is not naming the voices. Is he talking about Netanyahu himself, or some voice farther to the right or more strident against the Palestinians? If he is against the supporters of Kahane, he should be clear. If he is against the Likud, he should be clear. The impression is that his opposition is broad, and his use of the terms bigoted and prejudice is expansive.
Will Bernie refuse to debate with the President if he is the nominee, because he believes the President to be bigoted and prejudiced, as he has called him? Will he refuse to sit in the Senate because he believes that other members of that body are bigoted and prejudiced? As with Liberty University, he holds that engaging is the essence of democracy. Unfortunately he saves this particular brand of boycott for the Pro-Israel camp and AIPAC.
Sad, but true.