For presidential candidate Sanders, is Israel on the radar

He’s a Jew from Brooklyn. He’s running for president. But is Israel on his radar?

Once considered a long shot for the Democratic presidential nomination, Sen. Bernie Sanders has gained significant momentum in recent weeks. The Vermont Independent trails former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton by only 8 percentage points, according to a CNN/WMUR poll in New Hampshire released June 26.

Sanders had a bar mitzvah and was raised in a “large Jewish community full of striving middle-class Jews who wanted to get up through the education system,” said Alan Abbey, director of Internet and media for the Jerusalem-based Shalom Hartman Institute. Abbey was a political reporter for the Burlington Free Press in the early 1980s, when Sanders was elected mayor of Vermont’s largest city.

Abbey’s parents both attended Brooklyn’s James Madison High School, a New York City public school with a largely Jewish student body, around the same time that Sanders did.

“These were working-class assimilated Jewish Americans, and that culture is very deep in his bones,” said Abbey.

Sen. Bernie Sanders addresses a Brookings Institution event in February. photo/paul morigi photography-brookings institution

Sanders spent time on an Israeli kibbutz following his graduation from the University of Chicago in the 1960s. Yet in Congress, Israel has been far from the forefront of his agenda, taking a backseat to issues like income inequality, challenging Wall Street, and raising the minimum wage.

“Sanders has been relatively quiet as a senator on Israel issues,” said Tevi Troy, who served as White House liaison to the Jewish community under President George W. Bush. “Compared to Hillary Clinton, Sanders has been consistent in his role as a backbencher on Israel.”

At the same time, while Sanders has kept his distance from his Jewish identity over the course of his career, he has not been able to completely escape it. Abbey said Sanders faced some anti-Semitism during his campaign for mayor of Burlington in 1981.

“When Bernie was gaining steam in the local political campaign, blatant anti-Semitism bubbled up as a tool to try and discredit him,” said Abbey. “They would use phrases like ‘Bernie is from New York,’ which in some places is code for Jew.”

In a June interview on National Public Radio, host Diane Rehm claimed that Sanders had “dual citizenship with Israel,” a false statement that offended the senator and drew charge of veiled anti-Semitism from major American Jewish organizations.

In an interview with the Christian Science Monitor following the NPR incident, Sanders, who noted that he has “visited Israel on a couple of occasions,” said he is “proud to be Jewish” but that he is “not particularly religious.”

On Israel, Sanders’ record is a mixed bag. In particular, last summer’s conflict in Gaza brought to light his complex feelings on the Arab-Israeli conflict. Sanders was one of 21 U.S. senators who did not sign on as co-sponsors to Senate Resolution 498, which expressed support for Israel “as it defends itself against unprovoked rocket attack from Hamas.”

But during a town hall meeting last August in Cabot, Vermont, when Sanders was verbally attacked by pro-Palestinian activists who yelled expletives at him for condemning Hamas for firing rockets at Israeli civilians, Sanders responded to the hecklers with pro-Israel comments.

“You have a situation where Hamas is sending missiles into Israel … and you know where some of those missiles are coming from? They’re coming from populated areas,” Sanders said. “Hamas is very clear. Their view is that Israel should not have a right to exist.”

After the activists replied to him, “Bullshit, f— Israel,” Sanders went on to explain that there are more pressing issues in the Middle East, such as the Islamic State terror group, which he condemned for attempting to turn parts of Iraq and Syria into a “seventh century caliphate” that oppresses women.

During the same meeting, however, Sanders described Israel’s Operation Protective Edge in Gaza as an “overreaction.”

“His statement blaming Israel for ‘overreacting’ to Hamas missiles, incitement, and terror tunnels is worrisome,” said Troy.

Sanders has also been outspoken in his criticism of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He was the first senator to announce that he would boycott Netanyahu’s controversial speech to Congress in March, calling it  “opportunistic.”

Abbey believes Sanders’ willingness to go against liberals on certain issues counters a fundamental misunderstanding of what type of “progressive” the Vermont senator really is. Since being elected to the House of Representatives in 1990, Sanders has been the only openly socialist member of either body of Congress.

“It is interesting to look at his relationship with the left,” Abbey said. “Sanders is an old left-wing politician, more akin to a 1930s blue-collar socialist working-class type.”

Abbey believes that Sanders would continue many of the same policies as President Barack Obama on Israel and the Middle East. Obama and Netanyahu have had a rocky relationship. Abbey also thinks that because of Sanders’ Jewish upbringing and the time he spent in Israel, Sanders as president would bring a unique understanding about the Jewish state.

“I think there would be a piece of Bernie that would understand Israel and get the Israeli mentality more than Obama has and even Hillary Clinton would, despite her close contacts with Israel and American Jews over the last few decades,” Abbey said.