One Small Step for Bernie, One Giant Leap for Humankind

It used to be taken for granted that Social Security was “the third rail” of American politics. This was before Reaganites, and then Clintonites, set out to privatize some or all of it.

Hillary Clinton now finds it expedient to present herself as a defender of Social Security, distancing herself from her husband’s administration and from “the nineties.”

This is not necessarily dishonest; politicians’ views do “evolve,” as Hillary’s supporters point out. The liberals who do might note, however, that it was her purported role in her husband’s administration that supposedly qualified her to become New York’s Senator. Why would they bother, though, if they can have it both ways?

Hillary’s supporters can use or forget about the past as they please. But the plain fact remains: were it not for Bill’s troubles over his dalliance with Monica Lewinsky, the Clintons might have gotten away with giving some or all of Social Security away to their Wall Street paymasters.

If only for that reason, it would be fair to say that “that woman,” the one Bill Clinton “did not have sex with, never,” did more good for her country than Hillary or any of the other women in that old horn dog’s life.

After Hillary becomes President, as now seems inevitable, her fans will soon find themselves on board with that assessment. In short order, they will experience a level of disillusionment unseen since the days of LBJ.

Indeed, with Hillary in the White House, the degree of buyer’s remorse could reach unprecedented heights. After all, Johnson was ten times the politician, and a hundred times the statesman, that she is.

Hillary’s sole redeeming feature is her gender. Otherwise, she is unadulterated bad news. Everything she works on – from Hillarycare to Honduras, Libya, Syria, Ukraine and so on – goes to hell. Monica, on the other hand, made the world better just by being there and by appealing to Bill’s prurient desires. Much of the credit for the fact that Social Security has remained secure until now goes to her.

Social Security is safe, for now, for a different reason: with so many people feeling the Bern, the Clintons wouldn’t dare mess with it.   But it is no longer the third rail of American politics. Most Republicans and more than a few Democrats would gladly privatize some or all of it, if they could.

Social Security was said to be the third rail, but it was never the only one. There is, or was, another one that was too deeply entrenched even to warrant notice. It boiled down to this: that anyone running for high elective office in the United States must never question the conviction that, right or wrong, Israel is always right.

This implies that no matter how just their cause or how severely the Israelis keep them down, that Palestinians are always wrong – not in principle but insofar as their interests and the interests of the state of Israel, as determined by Israeli governments, conflict.

In the Sanders-Clinton debate last week in Brooklyn, Bernie Sanders steeped onto that third rail and survived. He showed that it could be done.

Or, more precisely, he showed that when Israel does something conspicuously outrageous – as it does repeatedly to Palestinians living in Gaza — it is safe to call them on it.

American media work hard to make rightwing Israeli politicians, Benjamin Netanyahu especially, seem like good guys. And they are good at keeping Americans ignorant of the nature and role of the settler movement in Israeli politics and society; and at keeping news of Israel’s rightward, indeed fascisant, drift out of public view.

But some information does seep out, and public opinion is slowly wising up.

This has made some Jews, older ones especially, more reflexively Zionist, nuttier, and more mean-spirited than they used to be. Meanwhile, other American Jews are in the forefront of efforts to stop the United States from supporting Israeli efforts to take over and ethnically cleanse as much of Mandate Palestine as the world will allow.

Opinions are changing, but through it all, the American political class has remained unmoved. On Israel-Palestine, Democrats and Republicans care more about what the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and other Israel lobby organizations demand of them than about the views and attitudes of the people they purportedly represent.

In case their constituents call them to account, AIPAC and the others keep their flunkies supplied with timeworn talking points.   For the most part, they revolve around the claim, preposterous on its face, that despite its nuclear weapons and its enormous and well-supplied military, poor little Israel is besieged by “terrorists” intent on destroying “the Jewish state.”

If that doesn’t work, there is always the Holocaust. It has somehow never mattered that the moral capital from the Nazi Judeocide was never really Israel’s to spend. More than seven decades on, it is pretty well spent anyway.

As a last resort, when all else fails, apologists for Israel will say that Israelis, the Jewish ones anyway, share “our” values, and that we should support them on that account. Or, if that still isn’t enough, they will remind the faithful that God (or G-d) is on their side.

Lately, Hillary has been laying all this and more on thick. Courting right-wing ethnocrats is business as usual for the Clintons. But her speech to AIPAC earlier this month marked a new low.

Hillary’s handlers must think that by pandering even more abjectly than she usually does, she will neutralize the Zionist billionaires who, under Netanyahu’s aegis, have found a home in the bowels of the Republican Party. Since those miscreants are wary of Trump, and since Cruz may be too vile even for them, this is not a far-fetched idea.

Or maybe the Democrats’ Zionist billionaires, along with their millionaire friends, are putting on the heat. For every Sheldon Adelson, there are a dozen Chaim Sabans, after all.

Clintons lie and their opportunism is boundless. There is therefore no telling how long their support for Social Security will last. For now, though, it is good news that, at least in the view of Clintonized (neoliberal) Democrats, the juice is flowing again in that old third rail, the one that Hillary and Bill tried to discharge a generation ago.

On the other hand, the only thing newsworthy about Hillary’s continuing respect for that other third rail, the one that AIPAC et. al. keep charging up, is the intensity with which she is now proclaiming her determination to steer clear of stepping on it.

She must have concluded that there is some percentage for her in coming on strong. The fact is, though, that, substantively if not rhetorically, she is only doing what has long been par for the course in American politics.

Until last week, that is.   American politics changed forever when Bernie took one small step onto that third rail.

AIPAC’s stranglehold over the American political class is still intact, of course; it will require a long and protracted struggle to free American politics from that. But thanks to Bernie’s one small step, monumental change is no longer out of the question.


The step he took was small indeed. Sanders did little more than criticize Israel’s disproportionate use of force in its periodic assaults on Gaza. And the only principle he appealed to – implicitly, at that – was one that all American schoolchildren know: that, in the moralized sense assumed by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence, “all men (sic) are created equal.”

He did not fault the ethnocratic character of the Israeli state. In a less indoctrinated world, that is something someone calling for a “political revolution” in the United States might be expected to bring up, if only for his slogan’s associations with the Revolution that began in 1776. The American Revolution established the United States as a state of its citizens – not of particular religious, national or ethnic groups.

To be sure, the United States was, from Day One, a settler state; one that subjected the indigenous peoples of North America to atrocities far more devastating than those that Zionist settlers have afflicted upon Palestinians. Even the most violent and brutal forms of ethnic cleansing hardly compare with outright physical annihilation and cultural genocide.

Our “founding fathers” were okay too with indentured servitude and chattel slavery, and with the African slave trade. And, as creatures of their time, they took it for granted that women should be denied full citizenship rights.

But, to their everlasting credit, they did advance a notion of equal citizenship as a core founding principle of the nation.

The French Revolution, which followed shortly thereafter, went on to deepen the founders’ understandings of political equality and equality before the law, of secularism, and of equal rights for all.

The leading figures of classical German philosophy in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries — Immanuel Kant and G.W.F. Hegel, among others – depicted the French Revolution as a marker of an enormous “spiritual” advance in human history. They had in mind not only its political importance, but its philosophical significance as well. This understanding has long been part of what Kant would call “the common rational knowledge of mankind.”

The very idea of a Herrenvolk democracy in Israel-Palestine – of a democracy for Jews that superintends the colonial domination of Palestinians – is therefore antithetical to a basic principle of the American and French revolutionary traditions. Insofar as Kant and Hegel and the others were right, it is antithetical to the spirit of modern political morality generally.

And yet, remarkably, this inherent tension in the Zionist project is seldom discussed, and almost never deemed fatal.

It would have amounted to a “huge” step forward were Sanders to have spoken out forthrightly for equal citizenship rights for the peoples of Israel-Palestine. The step he actually took was miniscule in comparison.

But it was nevertheless a spectacularly brave step – especially for a candidate running against an Israel lobby sycophant in a primary contest in a city and state where Zionist ethnocrats abound; and at a time when, thanks to the seemingly inexorable advances of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, the entire Zionist establishment is going bat shit crazy.

Nevertheless, Bernie stepped onto that third rail. Predictably, this brought on a firestorm of vitriol in social media. Even so, his bravery seems to have done him more benefit than harm.

He would merit even more credit had he also stood by Simone Zimmerman, his campaign’s newly appointed coordinator for Jewish outreach. In the circumstances, however, that would probably have been too much to expect.

Campaign staffers who cause their bosses grief are almost always sent packing. Well known examples include Lani Guinier, Bill Clinton’s nominee for Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, and Van Jones, who was slated to become an advisor to Barack Obama on green jobs. Now add Zimmerman to the list.

It seems that she, a twenty-five year old Angelino and Berkeley graduate, having passed through the full panoply of institutions that the Conservative movement in modern Judaism deploys to indoctrinate young Jews with Zionist ideology, left AIPAC thinking behind as her views on Israel and Zionism evolved into J-Street territory and beyond.

Contrary to what has been claimed in social media, Zimmerman is not a BDS supporter, though she does seem to have some connections with Jewish Voices for Peace (JVP), a group that unreconstructed Zionists detest.

Many, maybe most, younger Jews could care less about Israel, but among those who do, Zimmerman’s path is exemplary. For targeting “millennials,” a more suitable Jewish outreach coordinator would be hard to imagine.

However, she is on record for having called Benjamin Netanyahu an “asshole.” Well, duh! The point is incontestable, but this is an inconvenient truth for the Sanders campaign to own, especially with rightwing Zionists attacking Zimmerman mercilessly in social media.

It is troubling, even so, that Sanders didn’t stand by her; but then, with the New York primary looming, he didn’t need the distraction. In this time and place, with the remaining third rail of American politics still deemed live by the entirety of the political class, the wisest maxim for him to follow might well be: take care picking your fights.

Zimmerman does represent the evolving present and the future, but there are still too many Zionist chauvinists out there for Sanders, or anyone else, to act as if that future were not still far off.

Also, it could be awkward, were he actually to become President, for a spokesperson of his to be on record badmouthing the leader of a foreign country.

To be sure, Hillary badmouths foreign leaders all the time, notwithstanding her purported mastery of diplomacy. No one objects, however, because, like other true blue neocons, she only targets “dictators” – “bad guys” who resist American domination.

Netanyahu doesn’t tow the line either – if anything, he is more likely to issue orders to the American Congress and executive branch than to follow their dictates. But nobody cares because it is axiomatic that he is a “good guy,” one of “us”. More importantly, AIPAC would have it no other way.

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Stepping lightly onto that third rail actually seems to have done Sanders some good in liberal Zionist circles, establishing him as a J-Street, not an AIPAC, type of guy.

But liberal Zionism is in terminal straits. Better J-Street than AIPAC, but AIPAC does have a point: that liberal Zionism is more of an exit strategy for persons in the grip of Zionist ideology than a sustainable position in its own right.

It didn’t always seem so. It does now because Netanyahu has driven the point home.

The liberal Zionist idea was for Israel to be a benign social democracy, a circa 1970s Denmark, but with Jews (and maybe, for show and local color, a few Arabs) instead of Danes; a northern European country removed to the Middle East.

Because geography and demography are destiny, this basically incoherent vision was never really sustainable, though the problems associated with it have been smoothed over for nearly a century.   They could probably be smoothed over still if a viable “two state solution” were still feasible.

However, it is now harder than it ever was to think that a two state solution actually is feasible, and it is becoming even harder all the time.

For this, the Zionists blame the Palestinians. The real problem, of course, is, and always has been Israeli intransigence.

But even when it did seem feasible for Mandate Palestine to be shared by a Jewish and a Palestinian state, it was never clear how the Jewish one could remain genuinely democratic in the face of demographic realities. The Danish model could work for Denmark, but not for a colonial implant in the Arab world.

In the long run, the incoherence of the liberal Zionist idea was therefore bound to prove fatal. Thanks to Israel’s rightward turn, the long run is already upon us.

The great tragedians of Greek antiquity would sometimes deal with otherwise intractable problems by mechanically bringing a figure representing a god on stage; the god would set matters right. The need for such a deus ex machina solution is painfully apparent in Israel-Palestine today.

If none is forthcoming before long, liberal Zionists will have no choice but to give up either their liberalism (and their commitment to democratic values) or their Zionism.

Many Zionists these days, in Israel especially, are illiberal and anti-democratic; they can live with a Herrenvolk democracy, but what matters to them is that Jews be the Herrenvolk.

Zionists in America and other Western countries think differently, for the most part; and do the vast majority of their fellow-citizens.

Meanwhile, it is becoming increasingly clear that a “solution” negotiated by Israelis and Palestinians is not and never will be forthcoming. Because the Israelis hold nearly all the cards while the Palestinians hold almost none, a deus ex machina, or its functional equivalent, is the only way out.

This is why Bernie’s small step is so important; why it amounts to a great leap forward not just for Israeli Jews and Palestinians, but for Americans as well.

The United States – preferably, but not necessarily, in conjunction with other world powers — is the deus that must now drop into the stage to set the situation right; there is no other way.

Israel, “as we know it,” is dependent on American military and diplomatic support. Key sectors of its economy are currently doing well, but, as the world turns and the BDS movement grows, Israel’s economy too is again becoming dependent on American good will.

To the extent that the Israelis call the shots, it is only because we Americans let them – or, rather, because our politicians let them, and we go along. Some, maybe most, of those politicians don’t know better or don’t care. But even those who want to do the right thing and know what that would involve live in mortal fear of the Israel lobby.

This sorry state of affairs works to the detriment of the United States, and of Israel too, insofar as liberal and democratic ideals are still relevant there.

By stepping onto the third rail of American politics Sanders has shown that, even at the highest level, politicians do not have to be quite as afraid as they normally are; that they can thrive without swearing fealty to Israel’s rightwing government or promising, as Hillary has, to give Netanyahu and his co-thinkers, assholes all, everything that they ask for and more.

The taboo is broken now; the insanity can end.   A Clinton victory will, of course, set the situation back; but it would be fair to say that, no matter what happens in November, what Bernie accomplished is irreversible.

The small step that he took last week will sooner or later free America from its self-imposed bondage to a bellicose ethnocratic settler state half a world away.

A bolder, more principled, less J-Street, more JVP-like step would have been even more commendable from a moral point of view. But, in the real world of politics, sometimes, less is more.

That one small step that Bernie took last week is a case in point.

Netanyahu and Team Hillary would like nothing more than to treat Sanders the way they treated Zimmerman: to lambast him for being a “self-hating Jew” and a “delegitimater” of “the Jewish state. But the modesty of his remarks, and their unassailable probity, make this difficult, even for them.

And so, whether by design or good fortune, Sanders was able, with near impunity, to set a sea change in motion — with consequences as far-reaching and beneficial as anything that has so far transpired this remarkable electoral season.

ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).