Howdy, Ms. Zimmerman. I'm delighted by your refusal "to sit by as leaders of our community offer no solutions to the daily nightmare of occupation."
I’m a 47-year-old American. Many Palestinians my age have never known any kind of life except the life of occupation by a foreign government.
But most Americans of my generation don’t give much thought to the Palestinians in Gaza.
We’re too busy being fiercely pro-Jewish (which we should be). As a corollary, we spend a lot of energy being overwhelmingly pro-Israel (which we should also be). And as another corollary, we find ourselves being reflexively anti-Palestinian (which we should not be).
I can’t say how this happens in the minds of other Americans my age, but I want to expose how it once happened in my own. (The fact that this story reeks of my own white privilege may be precisely why it’s important for me to tell.)
As a college student, I made a conscious effort to be curious and open-minded. One semester, my next-door neighbor in my dormitory was a Muslim of Malaysian descent. I wanted to get to know him if only to broaden my own horizons, since the only Muslims I had met to that point in my life were of Arabic descent. We never became close friends, but we did eat lunch together sometimes.
During one of these lunches, he asked me what I thought about Israel.
I can’t recall what I said verbatim, but it was something to the effect that after the atrocities of Hitler, no sane person could oppose the right of the Jewish people to a self-determined government in a geographically defined territory.
“Yeah,” he replied, “but what about the Palestinians? Aren’t they entitled to self-determined government too?”
I’m not proud of the fact that alarm bells went off inside my mind at that point in the conversation, but they did. Something akin to cognitive adrenaline surged through my brain as I raced through a series of questions designed to let me prove to myself that I wasn’t anti-Semitic: “Why does this Muslim insist on forcing me to think about the Palestinians? Is he trying to turn me against Jews? Is this the kind of blind hatred that Israel faces from the nations surrounding it every day? Should I ever eat lunch with this jerk again?” Instead of answering his question, I told him I had to get to class and took off.
There’s no way for me to know what happens in the minds of most other Americans when they are asked to consider the plight of the Palestinians, but I suspect it’s similar to what I experienced in college. Moreover, I suspect that right-wing Jewish hardliners such as Benjamin Netanyahu rely on such thought patterns from supporters of Israel in America and throughout the world.
What if certain Israeli politicians (not Jews in general; not Israelis in general; not even Israeli politicians in general—but simply a self-selecting group of Israeli politicians seeking to consolidate their own power) are self-consciously exploiting a reflexive response against anti-Semitism as an excuse to oppress generations of Palestinians? Is that a question we can really keep ignoring forever simply because it’s too difficult for us to face?
Simone Zimmerman, who was recently appointed as the Jewish Outreach Director for the Bernie Sanders campaign, doesn’t seem to think so.
I don’t envy Zimmerman, who is up against the Jewish version of the right-wing hate machine in New York City. She has to combat such headlines as “If You’re Jewish, Don’t Vote for Bernie Sanders” (from the New York Post) and “The scary BernieSanders: The Democratic presidential candidate is very wrong on much surrounding Israel” (from Mort Zuckerman’s New York Daily News).
The latter article intentionally distorts a section of the transcript from Sanders’ interview with the Daily News in which he wrongly but innocently switched the numbers of Palestinian civilians killed in a retaliation by Israel in 2014 with the number of Palestinian civilians injured.
How do we know he was wrong? Because someone on the editorial board looked the numbers up on the spot and corrected him.
And how do we know that the mistake was innocent? Because Sanders, who had prefaced his remarks by acknowledging that he couldn’t trust his own memory, did not dispute the correction. His point was that too many innocent civilians were hurt in the retaliation, and that point remained relevant even if he momentarily confused a couple of related numbers.
Here’s the relevant section of the transcript from the Daily News interview:
Sanders: I don't remember the figures, but my recollection is over 10,000 innocent people were killed in Gaza. Does that sound right?
Daily News: I think it's probably high, but we can look at that. . . . We will check the facts. I don't want to venture a number that I'm not sure on, but we will check those facts. Now, talk about Hamas. What is it? Is it a terrorist organization?
. . . .
Daily News: Okay, while we were sitting here, I double-checked the facts. It's the miracle of the iPhone. My recollection was correct. It was about 2,300, I believe, killed, and 10,000 wounded. President Obama has taken the authority for drone attacks away from the CIA and given it to the U.S. military. Some say that that has caused difficulties in zeroing in on terrorists, their ISIS leaders. Do you believe that he's got the right policy there?
Sanders: I don't know the answer to that. What I do know is that drones are a modern weapon. When used effectively, when taking out ISIS or terrorist leaders, that's pretty impressive. When bombing wedding parties of innocent people and killing dozens of them, that is, needless to say, not effective and enormously counterproductive. So whatever the mechanism, whoever is in control of that policy, it has to be refined so that we are killing the people we want to kill and not innocent collateral damage.
Even though the Daily News presumably has access to its own transcript of the interview, it distorted Sanders’ remarks in “The scary Bernie Sanders”—for the embarrassingly transparent purpose of whipping up a frenzy of reflexive pro-Israel outrage against Sanders:
Stunningly, Sanders said he believed that Israel had been responsible for 10,000 deaths — a number almost five times the United Nations count of roughly 2,000 killed.
His use of the figure 10,000 was all the more remarkable and irresponsible coming from a presidential candidate who had previously put the death toll at 1,500.
Contrast this position with Rania Khalek’s summary of Sanders’ erroneous recollection of Palestinian casualties in the Daily News interview:
But [Sanders] went on to confuse the number of civilian deaths in Gaza with the number of wounded, saying, “I happen to believe … anybody help me out here, because I don’t remember the figures, but my recollection is over 10,000 innocent people were killed in Gaza. Does that sound right?”
The Daily News corrected Sanders, who accepted the casualty figures and everyone moved on. Well, everyone except for hardline Zionists. And Hillary Clinton.
If you’re unsure whether the Daily News or Khalek offers a fairer characterization of Sanders’ remarks, all you need to do is read those remarks, in context, for yourself.
The challenge that Simone Zimmerman faces is that it’s difficult to get lazy American voters (including some Jewish Democrats in New York) to delve deeply enough into issues to reach thoughtful, reasoned conclusions.
Is Zimmerman up to the task? This article from The Times of Israel gives me hope that she is. I’ll be cheering her on, in any case.