Bernie Sanders is currently the Democratic front-runner for President, and has spent his whole career as a leftist maverick, pushing the boundaries on what is acceptable discourse in the Democratic Party. Because of Sanders, once fringe issues such as universal healthcare and tuition-free college have come to the forefront of debate within the party. Sanders has been no exception to paving the way on Palestine. While Sanders’ discourse in support of Palestinian rights went where no Democrat has gone before (with the exception of maybe Jesse Jackson in 1988), the reality is that Bernie Sanders’ policies on Palestine are still more right-wing than the majority of Democratic voters. Democratic voters in general, and Sanders’ base in particular, are significantly more pro-Palestinian than Bernie Sanders.
At CNN’s recent town hall, Sanders courageously asserted that “Israel is run by a racist government” and called for “a level playing field” between Israel and the Palestinians. The next day, when asked by a Palestinian-American college student from New Hampshire, Sanders’ doubled down on this rhetoric. He stated that “The United States needs to have an even-handed approach” and “cannot simply be pro-Israel and ignore the suffering of the Palestinian people.”
While such rhetoric is a breath of fresh air in a political climate that struggles to acknowledge the basic humanity of Palestinians, the reality is that Bernie Sanders has refused to take the tangible actions that a plurality of rank-and-file Democratic voters want him to take. A 2016 Brookings poll found that 60% of Democrats support sanctions on Israel, while 46% of Americans overall support such sanctions. Despite this, only two out of 435 members of Congress, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, and not a single member of the Senate have endorsed sanctions on Israel. Bernie Sanders has been the most progressive on this issue suggesting this “even-handed approach” and that “a portion” of American aid to Israel “should be directed toward…humanitarian and reconstruction materials in Gaza.” It remains a question why Bernie Sanders remains right-wing of 60% of Democrats and 47% of Americans on any issue. Supporting Palestinian rights appears to be the only issue where Bernie Sanders stands to the right of nearly two-thirds of Democrats and nearly half of Americans.
In addition, among Sanders’ progressive Democratic base, he is even more out of touch with their views on the issue. In his CNN town hall, Sanders qualified his remarks by stating that “I am 100% pro-Israel.” Such a view is vastly unpopular among liberal Democrats. A 2018 Pew poll found that liberal Democrats support consider themselves pro-Palestine more than pro-Israel by a nearly two to one margin. Another poll found that in 2009, 42% of Democrats considered themselves more pro-Israel, while the number has now fallen to just 27% today. This led Mondoweiss’ own Philip Weiss to refer to Israel as a “tanking stock” among Democrats. It seems Sanders is still salvaging this sinking stock despite his mild critiques.
Moreover, Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), the rapidly-growing grassroots organization that represents the heart of Sanders’ base, endorsed the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement near-unanimously at their 2017 convention. It remains a question how Sanders could stray from a position that his base has established such consensus on. The DSA wrote an open letter to Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a DSA member and endorsee, because, as was stated in the letter, “she has never outright expressed her commitment to Palestinian liberation, BDS, or the end of Israel’s brutal occupation of Palestine.”
The letter ended by rather bluntly stating that:
“If she had wanted to avoid the issue of Palestine, she should not have run for federal office…And when Ocasio-Cortez faces this issue she will have to support either settler-colonialism or justice for Palestine. There is no third way as long as Israel exists as a Zionist ethno-state.”
Ultimately, Bernie Sanders must make that same choice. Until he endorses sanctions on Israel, he will remain to the right of the supermajority of Democratic voters, and extremely out of touch with his progressive base. It is fair to say that Bernie Sanders has come far on the issue. After all, five years ago, Sanders infamously told his constituents to “shut up” after they called on him to condemn Israel’s 2014 killing of 551 Palestinian children in Gaza.
But despite coming a long way on the issue, Bernie Sanders still has a long way to go, both in being a credible voice for the oppressed, and in representing what Democratic voters believe. Cornel West stated in 2016 that, on Palestinian rights, “We’re at a turning point now and of course it’s going to be a slow one in the Democratic Party, but some of us are working outside the Democratic Party to make it quicker…That’s why I support BDS.” It is vital that Bernie Sanders not be patted on the back for his lukewarm critiques of Israeli occupation. Rather, he must be pressured to criticize the occupation with the same passion that he criticizes Wall Street, and support sanctions on Israel and other tangible steps that side with the majority of Democratic voters, and Palestinians living stateless and under occupation.