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Bernie Sanders says Netanyahu is attacking campus protests to deflect war criticism

Bernie Sanders is pictured in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on April 3 in Washington, D.C. Sanders accused Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of using claims of antisemitism as a deflection of criticism of the war.
Chip Somodevilla
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Getty Images
Bernie Sanders is pictured in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on April 3 in Washington, D.C. Sanders accused Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of using claims of antisemitism as a deflection of criticism of the war.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is one of the most high-profile Jewish officeholders in the United States. He's also emerged as one of the fiercest critics of Israel's ongoing war in Gaza. Sanders has urged the U.S. to end financial and military support for Israel.

After Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu posted a video on Wednesday criticizing ongoing campus protests across the U.S. as antisemitic, Sanders responded with a video of his own, directly refuting the prime minister's statement.

In an interview with All Things Considered, the independent lawmaker said he felt the need to respond because Netanyahu, in his mind, has tried "to deflect attention from that horrendous reality [of the Israel-Hamas war] to talk about antisemitism, to deflect away from what he is doing," in Gaza.

"In my view, and I think the view of most Americans now, Israel's response has been grossly disproportionate," Sanders told NPR's Scott Detrow. "Gaza has 2.2 million people, mostly very poor Palestinians. And over the last six months, 33,000 people have been killed, 77,000 have been wounded, two thirds of whom are women and children."

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

In response to critics who argue that the intense college protests are linked to a broader wave of rising antisemitism

Look, antisemitism has always existed. It exists today. And you're right, it is getting worse. Islamophobia is getting worse. And we're living at a time when bigotry is on the rise. And I hope that all of us condemn all forms of bigotry, including antisemitism.

But to suggest that when you have a significant majority of the American people who, among other things, do not want to support more U.S. military aid to Netanyahu's war machine, we're not going to suggest that all of those people are antisemitic.

The overwhelming majority of the people who are protesting, who feel strongly about this issue, do not like Hamas. They understand Hamas is a terrorist organization and they are not antisemitic. They are disgusted by what is going on in Gaza right now, which — among other things, is not only, to my mind, immoral — it is clearly illegal. It is breaking U.S. law. We should not be funding Netanyahu's war machine.

In response to Pennsylvania Democratic Sen. John Fetterman, who posted on social media, "These 'protests' are antisemitic, unconscionable, and dangerous. Add some tiki torches and it's Charlottesville for these Jewish students."

I strongly disagree with Sen. Fetterman. Again, are there antisemites in this country and on campus and at these protests? Absolutely. But I think the overwhelming majority of people who are protesting — and this is not just college students — poll after poll shows that the American people are sick and tired of funding a war machine for a right-wing extremist government in Israel right now that is doing unprecedented harm, I mean, just disastrous harm to the people in Gaza and to their entire way of life.

You know, people talk about the day after, what happens when this war ends. There's not going to be much left in Gaza. Five percent of the population of Gaza, two-thirds of whom are women and children, have been killed or wounded. That is what I think is upsetting the American people, and obviously all of us should condemn any form of antisemitism or pro-Hamas activity.

On how concerned he is that the deep anger about the president's policy on the war in Gaza among young voters could keep Biden from winning the election

I am very concerned. I mean, I think not only is supporting Netanyahu's right-wing and racist government horrible policy, I think it's very bad politics. And I think you're going to see not just young people, not just people of color, but as you mentioned, a significant part of the Democratic base, very, very upset about the role the Democrats and the president are playing in this whole process.

But on the other hand, what I also believe is that given the choice between Joe Biden and Donald Trump, the choice is very clear and the American people will understand that. And that is you have a president who, for the first time in American history, Biden, walked the picket line in defense of workers; [is] strong on climate change. [Biden] understands, unlike Trump, that it is women who must control their own bodies, not local politicians. Who is understanding that climate change is real and has put more money into fighting climate change than any president in history.

So while I and I think many millions of people are upset about Biden's position on Gaza and the war there, I think when push comes to shove, young people and the American people understand that there is a very clear and historic difference between the two and they're going to vote for Biden.

On if any pressure from the administration will work as long as the U.S. is still providing funding and military support to Israel

I think we should do everything that we can. And in fact, there has been some improvement in humanitarian aid getting into Gaza, probably because of the president putting pressure on Netanyahu. But at the end of the day, you know, you can criticize Netanyahu on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. And then on Thursday if you give him $10 billion in unfettered military aid, I think everybody knows what the story is.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.
Michael Levitt
Michael Levitt is a news assistant for All Things Considered who is based in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in Political Science. Before coming to NPR, Levitt worked in the solar energy industry and for the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. He has also travelled extensively in the Middle East and speaks Arabic.
Adam Raney