Last Thursday evening’s presidential debate between Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders was a groundbreaking moment for pro-Israel, pro-peace, pro-democracy Americans.
Finally, we heard an exchange of views that encapsulated what support and concern for Israel’s security and democratic future in the longer term really look like.
Rather than parading forth tired, empty clichés about Israel that we have all heard so many times and grown heartily tired of, the candidates actually addressed the real issues. For almost the first time in US presidential election politics, we heard candidates talking fervently about their support for Israel — but they did so without ignoring the other side. They acknowledged the Palestinians as actual human beings who also have needs that must be met.
Bernie Sanders said:
“As somebody who is 100 percent pro-Israel, in the long run — and this is not going to be easy, God only knows, but in the long run if we are ever going to bring peace to that region which has seen so much hatred and so much war, we are going to have to treat the Palestinian people with respect and dignity.”
To which Hillary Clinton responded:
“As Secretary of State for President Obama, I’m the person who held the last three meetings between the President of the Palestinian Authority and the Prime Minister of Israel. … Three long meetings. And I was absolutely focused on what was fair and right for the Palestinians.
I was absolutely focused on what we needed to do to make sure that the Palestinian people had the right to self-government. And I believe that as President I will be able to continue to make progress and get an agreement that will be fair both to the Israelis and the Palestinians without ever, ever undermining Israel’s security.”
Clearly there were differences between the two candidates. There was a substantive debate of the complexities of the 2014 war between Israel and Hamas and whether the Israelis used disproportionate force in defending themselves against rocket attacks. These are not easy calls and the candidates also gave due deference to the painful background that led to that horrible violence.
We as individuals may differ as to which candidate made their case more effectively. But collectively, as a movement we should rejoice. We should recognize the importance of this debate. Finally, presidential candidates, at least on the Democratic side, have realized that the way to win Jewish voters is not to voice empty slogans about Israel but to put forward sensible, balanced policies based on US interests and values.
These candidates both realized that demonstrating love and support for Israel does not mean blindly backing damaging Israeli government policies. In fact, such an approach is counterproductive. Support for Israel means support for its secure, Jewish and democratic future. It means support for real US leadership to help bring about a just resolution of the conflict. Clinton and Sanders both clearly realized that what voters want to hear is how they can take action to help end the conflict, recognizing that it has two sides and that both have legitimate rights.
One may argue whether this would have happened had J Street never existed. But there is no doubt that in creating and expanding a political space for sensible policies on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we have helped these candidates understand where our community really stands and what it really wants.
Now we have to make sure that if either of these individuals is elected the next President of the United States, their policies follow the politics. That’s the hard part. Words are important but actions are more important. Now we can see that something fundamental has changed in America on our issue. We have work to do — but many reasons to believe that we are succeeding.