Bernie Sanders on Wednesday delivered a speech from Burlington, Vermont to his die-hard fans nationwide, calling on them to continue to support progressive politicians to achieve goals like campaign finance reform, universal healthcare and fixing an unfair criminal justice system.
Absent from his address was any mention of Israel/Palestine or American foreign policy in the Middle East. His own progressive stances on these issues drew many supporters during the Democratic primary, especially ones who felt his rival Hillary Clinton was too hawkish and beholden to Israel. But in the wake of Clinton’s nomination in Philadelphia last month, Sanders has been reabsorbed back into the Democratic party, but appears to have left behind his primary season positions on foreign policy. The speech came as a disappointment to some of Sanders most ardent fans: Arab and Muslim Americans.
“I think it shows a lack of courage,” said Robert Akleh, co-founder of Arabs for Bernie, a Brooklyn-based grassroots group. Akleh, a Palestinian Christian whose family comes from Haifa, said that the foreign policy and domestic policy are also interlinked, given the astronomical cost of U.S. wars in Iraq and elsewhere.
“The problems in the Middle East are getting worse and worse and the amount of blood and money spent are big issues that both sides, corporate dems and progressives, would rather not talk about. We spent over 1 trillion on Iraq. That would have been enough to give everybody health care and all the other stuff this group is fighting for,” he said, referring to the new Sanders-backed non-profit, Our Revolution.
Our Revolution got off to a rocky start, with the abrupt resignation of staffers who felt that it had lost the grassroots credentials Sanders brought to the primary campaign. They felt Sanders’ former campaign manager, Jeff Weaver, now head of Our Revolution, would let untransparent sources of cash flow to the new effort.
It’s also not clear how much Our Revolution’s goals differ from Clinton’s since Sanders made its priorities sound like the defeat of Donald Trump first and foremost. That’s a common refrain from the Clinton camp. He mentioned Muslims only once in the almost hour-long speech.
“This campaign is about defeating Donald Trump, the Republican candidate for president. After centuries of racism, sexism and discrimination of all forms in our country we do not need a major party candidate who makes bigotry the cornerstone of his campaign. We cannot have a president who insults Mexicans and Latinos, Muslims, women and African-Americans,” he said.
That goes without saying for many Arab and Muslim Americans. Better than a candidate who simply does not insult them, would be a candidate who stands up for the dignity of Arab and Muslim lives around the world, and respects, as Cornel West said, the preciousness of human life. That message had resonated and inspired, but now seems absent from the Sanders campaign.
Akleh was also disappointed in the complete lack of mention of Israel/Palestine. During the campaign, Sanders had distinguished himself by sounding almost impossibly progressive on the issue compared to Clinton. He doesn’t think it will come up again
“Probably not. It serves him no purpose,” Akleh said. “I suppose this is the best showing they’ll have,” he added, referring to Palestinian rights activists.
Akleh said that Sanders speech on Wednesday reflected the hostility to recognizing Occupation that one saw during the platform drafting before the DNC. There, despite the advocacy of West, a Sanders appointee, and others, the party adopted a status quo plank that sounded much like 2012. All the same, Sanders in his speech hailed the platform as the most progressive in history.
“The corporate Democrats are fully on the side of Israel,” he said.
On the bright side, Akleh feels that Sanders was able to make advocacy for Palestinians less of a taboo.
“Well what it did do was make it more acceptable to support Palestine, so it expanded the discussion,” Akleh said. “But will it solve the issues? Nope.”
Meanwhile, in California, Rusha Latif, 35, an Egyptian-American Muslim author and Bernie supporter, said she also felt disappointed that Sanders had left behind his advocacy on behalf of Palestine or his opposition to militarism. After all, those subjects had brought him votes and passionate support during the primaries.
“Some of the things that excited people were Bernie’s vocal support of Palestine and opposition to the Iraq War. These were not side issues. They were central,” she said.
“The Bernie campaign was about restoring people’s dignity. We can’t just be about American dignity,” but the dignity of people overseas as well.
“So do you think that Clinton is going to be handling the foreign policy and Sanders is going to be doing domestic stuff?” I asked.
“Oh God, I hope not,” Latif responded.
Latif said she appreciated Sanders domestic priorities, but worried that he is leaving behind some of his most fervent supporters by walking away from a progressive foreign policy. Beyond that, reducing militarism is central to achieving progressive domestic policy goals, Latif feels.
More than that, American tax dollars are going directly to the perpetuation of occupation and destruction of Palestinian lives, Latif said.
“We are actively supporting a government that is oppressing people,” she said of Israel. “It’s not like some other government we’re just allies with. We’re invested in that repression. One of the reasons I am still engaged is that I want to keep conversations about Palestine happening,” she said.
Latif on Tuesday went to a meeting of Bay Area progressives called Brand New Congress, a national group focused on the 2018 midterm elections. She felt sympathy from fellow Bernie supporters on issues like Palestine and reducing American militarism, but also that it wasn’t their top priority. Nevertheless, the advocacy of activists like West and Linda Sarsour, both Sanders surrogates during the primary, will help continue the conversation she and fellow progressive Arab and Muslim Americans want to have.
“And a movement like Black Lives Matter allying with the Palestinian cause, that’s huge. We’re with these groups. We’re all suffering from a structure of repression. I think what BLM did was really powerful, and seeing a presidential candidate in New York City [Sanders during a primary debate] say Palestinian lives matter,” still resonates, but not as loudly.
At a Brooklyn loft on Wednesday, some of the “Berners” I’d met during the primary held a watch party. These were some of Sanders’ most dedicated Brooklyn boosters during the primary, the ones who trudged out into chilly early spring weather and knocking on doors all day. They felt that the domestic focus was appropriate, or at least understandable.
“Foreign policy is way too complicated for most people,” said Brian Johnston, 36. “Noam Chomsky has a book called The Fateful Triangle that is this thick. Asking every American to understand foreign policy is like asking them to be astronauts or rocket scientists.”
It is indeed a science of rockets, foreign policy, deciding when to fire them. It’s also a divisive subject, and something the Democratic party doesn’t want to bring up, said Michael, a Sanders volunteer now working to get other Sanders-style Democrats elected.
“Foreign policy exposes divisions in the Democratic party between Bernie and the Clinton wing of the party. She’s hawkish. On Israel/Palestine it’s a similar story because the Democratic party is not interested in defending the Palestinians or criticizing the behavior of Israel,” he said.
Sherrie Gonzalez, a Bernie canvasser turned Jill Stein supporter, said that Sanders drifting away from a progressive foreign policy means voters who care about those issues should give Stein a second look.
“If you’re interested in BDS,” she said, referring to the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement that aims to pressure businesses not to invest in Israeli human rights violations.
There was a British guy there, Matthew, a member of the Labour party, who had an interesting outsider’s take. He said that even if Sanders had won, he would’ve found the brutal reality of the presidency a challenge to establishing a foreign policy based on the dignity of human beings, not realpolitik or imperialism.
“With regards to this foreign policy, if you go back to Jimmy Carter, he was this massive humanitarian. That doesn’t work in office where human lives don’t cost anything in the big bad world. So humanitarianism is expendable. It’s unfortunate, but that’s the harsh reality,” Matthew said.
Grim. The foreign policy establishment and the military-industrial complex in the US basically keeps handing the president live grenades with the pins pulled, and he or she has to find somewhere to throw them, in Matthew’s view. Or hand them to someone else to hurl.
“Meanwhile, Palestine is a massive touchy subject,” Matthew said. “My leader is Jeremy Corbyn, and he is massively backing Palestine. But you can’t do that without causing an uproar. In politics, sometimes you can’t do that.”
“I don’t think Sanders ever really wanted to win,” he added.