Liberal and Pro-Israel: An Oxymoron?

By: Tzivya Beck  |  April 12, 2016



At a university that is as pro-Israel as YU, it is not uncommon to hear people voicing their opinions about American policy towards Israel. Especially with the presidential election season firing people up, there are constant debates regarding the relative pro-Israel“ness”of various candidates. However, there is one point that I feel must be clarified in order for these conversations to be fully productive: you CAN be pro-Israel and liberal, even at YU—an institution which often leans more to the right.

At other universities throughout the country, many pro-Israel organizations have been initiated to teach the progressives on campus that one can be both liberal and pro-Israel. At YU, the problem seems to be a bit different: it is the students who are already pro-Israel and who would otherwise have progressive views who must be told that the two are not mutually exclusive.

Hearing the presidential candidates at AIPAC two weeks ago  (minus Bernie Sanders) describing their pro-Israel views, and trying to prove that they would be better for Israel as president, forced me to analyze what the candidates’ actual views on Israel are. Despite what people say about Democrats, could Hillary Clinton possibly be as pro-Israel as Ted Cruz (or Trump)? As for Bernie Sanders, could he be a good friend for Israel if he is president? Can someone as progressive as he is be pro-Israel? The talk around town seems to suggest that Sanders, and to some extent Clinton, are not pro-Israel, and that they might even be anti-Israel. But is this true?

To some extent, one might say that describing Sanders as anti-Israel (whatever that means) could be a self-fulfilling prophecy. After all, if “pro-Israel” people do not support him in the election, and he becomes president, he would not be relying on the pro-Israel vote for re-election. But this line of thinking does not do justice to the importance of the Israeli-American relationship, regardless of which president is in office. It would be more productive for students to actually study Sanders’s (and Clinton’s) statements regarding Israel to see what their opinions are before jumping to conclusions.

According to, Sanders’s official campaign website, Sanders states that he is a supporter of the two-state solution because “Israel has a right to exist in security, and at the same time the Palestinians have a [right to a] state of their own.” Though he does characterize Israel’s relationship with Palestinians as an “occupation” and explicitly states that he “does not favor Israel over the Palestinians,” it is clear to me that these statements are in no way “anti-Israel.” It might even be said that his explicit avoidance in siding with either the Palestinians or Israelis would make him an excellent person to work with both sides in arriving at an agreement. True, for people who do not support the two-state solution or for those who are looking for a candidate who is an explicit supporter of Israel, Sanders might not be the person to vote for. But he remains dedicated to Israeli security and to the overall security in the Middle East. His disapproval of Netanyahu is also not worrisome, seeing as many people who are pro-Israel are also not fans of Netanyahu.

It is even easier to deflect arguments about Clinton being anti-Israel. Clinton has incomparable experience related to the peace process because of her husband’s involvement with Oslo, which can give her perspective about the conflict in Israel that is beneficial for Israel. Israel’s attempts to create a Palestinian state in the 1990s are clear signs that Israel’s end goal is not to continue “occupying” the Palestinian territory. Further, though she remains a supporter of the Iran deal, she continues to condemn Palestinian attacks on civilians and was a defender of the recent operation in Gaza.

Based on this quick analysis of the left-leaning presidential candidates, it is clear to me that there is ample room for pro-Israel students to continue supporting Israel even when adopting more progressive views and voting for progressive candidates. True, such students might advocate for policy changes such as the two-state solution and might desire a more leftist government in Israel. But these changes are not “anti-Israel,” and they could even be pro-Israel in the sense that they bring necessary changes to Israel that would benefit both Israel and other populations in the Middle East.

Though the above analysis might not sit well with right-leaning, pro-Israel students on campus, understanding that there are different approaches to being pro-Israel will allow for constructive discussions regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict. As one Reform rabbi at the AIPAC conference said, “We can’t afford to waste anyone’s support.” Being pro-Israel might not mean the same thing for those who lean more to the left and for those who lean more to the right, but there are many types of support for Israel that should be respected and encouraged on campuses. This is especially true at YU, where liberals often seem to be the minority; there should be a way for students to channel their progressiveness in a way that is conducive to insightful conversation on the topic of the Arab-Israeli conflict.