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March 2, 2020 7:21 am

For Bernie Sanders, AIPAC Is Worse Than North Korea or Cuba

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avatar by Ian Cooper


Democratic 2020 US presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders speaks at the debate at the Gaillard Center in Charleston, South Carolina, Feb. 25, 2020. Photo: Reuters / Jonathan Ernst.

According to AIPAC, more than two-thirds of Congress were in attendance at its annual policy conference this week. Senator Bernie Sanders was not among them.

Sanders’ decision to skip AIPAC may not come as a surprise, but it smacks of the kind of cowardice and cynical opportunism that he has reliably used during his congressional career and presidential campaigns.

Much has been made — and much more will certainly be made if he wins the nomination — of Sanders and his wife Jane’s 1988 visit to the Soviet Union. The images of a middle-aged Bernie “bro-ing out” with his apparatchik minders and coming home to sing the praises of a totalitarian regime then in its death throes are certainly cringe-worthy, and make him look ridiculously naïve.

But buried in those images are some laudable ideas, namely that the world is not entirely black and white, people are not all good or evil, and that by engaging with our enemies, we can learn something from each other and bridge divides.

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Indeed, that was the whole purpose of the visit: to build a connection between two obscure cities separated by thousands of miles and plenty of political rhetoric. Ideally, Sanders would have returned with a more nuanced view, but one can’t ask for everything.

In a 60 Minutes interview this month, Sanders was asked about North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. Sanders’ response echoed these earlier sentiments: “Meeting with people who are antagonistic is, to me, not a bad thing to do. … I think, unfortunately, Trump went into that meeting unprepared. I think it was a photo opportunity and did not have the kind of diplomatic work necessary to make it a success.”

This position sounds great. Sanders has preserved his open-mindedness while recognizing that, unlike on his Soviet tour, he must be shrewd in conversations with adversaries.

Sanders has also come under fire for his eagerness to highlight the accomplishments of the dictatorships of Fidel Castro and Daniel Ortega. Both presided over brutal regimes, but once again, Sanders’ views portray a candidate who sees the world in forgiving shades of grey.

Which brings us to his position on AIPAC.

Whatever cold war might have existed between Sanders and the portion of the Jewish community that is unapologetically supportive of the Jewish state devolved into open warfare when Sanders announced on Twitter, “I remain concerned about the platform AIPAC provides for leaders who express bigotry and oppose basic Palestinian rights. For that reason I will not attend their conference.”

No doubt members of the so-called progressive wing of the Democratic Party were delighted at this critique, but those with an interest in facts might want to take a look at the list of this year’s speakers before effectively declaring the conference a Festival of Hate Speech.

To name a handful, they include a former Canadian prime minister, the Executive Director of Alliance for Middle East Peace, the Executive Director of Equality California, two Canadian members of parliament, multiple rabbis and Jewish academics, executives representing Dell and Google, the founder of Jewish dating site JSwipe, Senators Cory Booker, Bob Menendez, and Chuck Schumer, and several other members of Congress from the party to which Sanders belongs for the purposes of his presidential campaigns.

Which of these business, religious, academic, and political thought leaders does Sanders consider to be purveyors of bigotry?

More worrying, how did the man who had so much time to expound upon the virtues of the Soviet Union, Castro, and Ortega, or who doesn’t consider it beneath him morally to meet with Kim Jong-un, conclude that dialogue with AIPAC attendees is beyond the pale?

At a recent debate in South Carolina, Sanders doubled down on his AIPAC boycott, justifying it on the basis that Israel is currently being led by a “reactionary racist.”

Benjamin Netanyahu has his share of detractors in Israel and abroad, but it’s a rather perfunctory dismissal of a man who is surely a step up from Castro or Ortega.

No doubt there are people at the AIPAC conference who vibrantly support Netanyahu and oppose Sanders. Unfortunately, that’s all the more reason he should have attended. His brand — as a tireless contrarian warrior willing to swim upstream for the good cause — demands nothing less.

If Sanders had shown up at AIPAC to speak to his supporters and face his detractors, he would have displayed leadership. Instead, he chose to follow the Democratic Party’s fringe, whose cancel culture has embraced the BDS movement and a caricature of Israel, its democratically elected leader, and its leading voice in Washington.

For American Jews, such a shamelessly cynical capitulation should disqualify Sanders from any serious consideration as America’s next president.

Ian Cooper is a Toronto-based entertainment and technology lawyer.

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