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Despite brave stances, Bernie Sanders is still to the right of Democratic voters on Palestine

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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.

Hamzah Raza

Hamzah Raza is a graduate student at Harvard University and an alumnus of Vanderbilt University. He has been previously been published at the Huffington Post, Alternet, the Grayzone Project, Raw Story, and the Tennessean. Follow him on Twitter @raza_hamzah

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17 Responses

  1. Rusty Pipes on April 24, 2019, 2:29 pm

    When Howard Dean used the term “evenhanded” fifteen years ago, he was labeled an anti-Semite and relegated to the fringe of the party. When Sanders uses the term today, he is smack dab in the middle of party members. He is certainly to the left of Establishment politicians and their donors and to the right of his hard-core supporters, especially the younger ones. But average liberal Democrats who get their info from the MSM and are too wrapped up in Russiagate to pay much attention to foreign policy are just feeling safe enough on the topic of Israel to weigh in against Netanyahu and the Israeli Right. Bernie’s calling for evenhandedness is still to the left of the Liberal Zionist stance of the rest of the contenders.

  2. Keith on April 24, 2019, 6:20 pm

    HAMZAH RAZA- “At CNN’s recent town hall, Sanders courageously asserted that “Israel is run by a racist government”….”

    In view of the fact that Netanyahu is strongly disliked by both the Democratic base AND the Democratic leadership (Netanyahu = Trump), just how “courageous” is Bernie Sanders? Why is everyone so servile and ingratiating? The hour is late and the situation grim, time to cut the crap.

    • pabelmont on April 26, 2019, 8:34 am

      I suppose the root of the problem is that there are a lot of voters and each “knows” a different story on I/P. So politicians must (or so most appear to think) “ease” their way by taking baby steps toward a new position that many voters may think radical. Hooray for AOC and Tlaib who are to some extent educating the voters and marking out a path based on telling the settler-colonialist and the apartheid stories. Bernie is trapped in his own old-time Zionism and seems cannot break loose, at least not as quickly as some here might wish. But calling Bibi a racist is a start. Any Republicans doing that? Did Obama or Pelosi do that?

      • Keith on April 26, 2019, 2:12 pm

        PABELMONT- “I suppose the root of the problem is….”

        The root of the problem is that we are an empire essentially run by the corporations and fat-cats, the government in charge of managing the population in accordance with elite objectives, elections little more than marketing extravaganzas designed primarily to convince the citizenry that they have some input into governmental decision making. Bernie Sanders is a militarist, imperialist and a Zionist. His calling Netanyahu a racist is of little importance other than as an appeal to the targeted audience sheepdog Bernie is trying to lure back to the Democratic fold, or at least divert from meaningful activity. The Democratic Party is the graveyard of progressive activism and devoting significant resources to electoral politics where one dollar equals one vote is a losing strategy in any event.

      • Mooser on April 26, 2019, 4:20 pm

        ” or at least divert from meaningful activity.”

        Don’t be diverted. Now is the time to disorganize!

  3. Nathan on April 24, 2019, 9:05 pm

    Hamza Raza feels that “Bernie Sanders must make that same choice” (between “settler-colonialism or justice for Palestine”). In other words, Hamza Raza feels that Bernie Sanders must adopt the anti-Israel outlook. However, Bernie Sanders is not anti-Israel. He does not define Israel as “settler-colonialism” (i.e. as an illegitimate state), nor does he support “justice for Palestine” (i.e. to bring about the end of the Jewish state). In the anti-Israel world, “criticism of Israel” means that you oppose the existence of Israel. However, in the non-anti-Israel world, “criticism of Israel” means that you wish to improve Israel. Bernie Sanders is part of the regular non-anti-Israel world. It should be added that the Democratic voters are not anti-Israel either. The end of the Jewish state is not on the agenda. Again, Hamza Raza is misunderstanding the concept of criticism.

    • bcg on April 25, 2019, 9:34 am

      @Nathan: Well. here he is in his own words: “Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is standing by his criticism of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, saying the US goal in the Middle East must be to try to bring people together and “not just support one country, which is now run by a right-wing, dare I say, racist government.” ”,7340,L-5498442,00.html

      I think this is clear enough not to require any complex interpretation. Don’t you?

    • Misterioso on April 25, 2019, 10:32 am


      Sigh! Just another pathetic attempt to rationalize and dismiss the thoroughly documented violent, brutal dispossession and expulsion (i.e., by force of arms, several massacres, mass rape and intimidation) of about 1,250,000 indigenous Christian and Muslim inhabitants of historic Palestine between late 1947 and the summer of 1967 by Zionist Jews of foreign origin in order to create a so-called “Jewish state” brutally and illegally occupying the remaining native Palestinians in the West Bank and Jerusalem while subjecting the rest to well documented apartheid west of the “green line” and pure evil in the still occupied Gaza Strip, i.e., as per the Fourth Geneva Convention, “Collective Punishment.”

      Zionism is racism; Zionism is fascism; Zionism is theft; Zionism is a horror story for the indigenous Palestinians; Zionism and its consequences are a betrayal of the six million Jews who perished at the hands of the Nazis; Zionism is over 70 years of trying to pound a square peg into a round hole, i.e., “Israel” is still dependent on massive US taxpayer provided financial aid and Washington’s protection in the geopolitical arena. Meanwhile, ever increasing numbers of people around the world, especially youth, including Jews, are becoming utterly disgusted and enraged at “Israel.” All so predictable!!

  4. William3 on April 25, 2019, 12:45 pm

    Good article. It explains reasons why I have voted Green 24 years going back to Nader/LaDuke. The Democratic Party is in most cases fully supportive of the Apartheid regime.

  5. genesto on April 25, 2019, 1:19 pm

    While I am as anti Zionist as any non Palestinian can possibly be (I was part of the 2010 Gaza Freedom Flotilla, was attacked and spent 3 days in Israeli prison), I don’t have a particular problem with Bernie saying, ” I am 100% pro Israel”. So am I, for that matter, if Israel chooses to be, as advertised once upon a time, a true democracy. To me, this is little more than a motherhood statement meant to appease the electorate still wary, albeit unreasonably, of an anti Jewish tilt in the progressive movement. What’s much more important is what he DOES about Palestinian injustice. He has come quite a ways on this issue, thanks in great part to his associations with Zogby and West, but certainly has a ways yet to go. I think this is all part of Bernie’s evolution on the issue. I still trust his integrity but, yes, he must be continually pushed by the progressive base towards a clear, consistent and, most of all, principled position on the issue.

    • Citizen on April 25, 2019, 1:48 pm

      Why must Sanders, who has a long history of speaking up for the downtrodden, have to be pushed by his own base on the issue of Israel? Anybody? Before you answer, don’t forget his last campaign was funded by individuals with an average donation of $27.00.

  6. Davnew on April 25, 2019, 3:26 pm

    While Bernie is a long way from where I would like him to be on questions related to Palestinian rights, I believe he will get there if the left gives him a chance. I am reminded of Obama’s stance on same sex marriage. Obama went from being opposed, to apologizing for his previous opposition in six years.

    In recent years I have already seen Bernie evolve. Not long ago you would have been hard put to find daylight between his position on Israel and AIPAC’s. However the 2014 Gaza incursion seems to have caused a shift in his thinkking. He said at the time,

    “the Israeli attacks that killed hundreds of innocent people – including many women and children,” calling the bombings “disproportionate” and “completely unacceptable.”

    By 2017 he was comparing the Nakba to the Trail of Tears. In a speech to J-Street he said,

    “Like our own country, the founding of Israel involved the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people already living there, the Palestinian people. Over 700,000 people were made refugees,” Sanders said. “To acknowledge this painful historical fact does not delegitimize Israel, any more than acknowledging the Trail of Tears delegitimizes the United States of America.”

    This statement indicates to me that the blinders are starting to fall off. It also puts him significantly to the left of any of the other Democratic presidential contenders. One of things I admire about Sanders is that he can be trusted to say what he really believes and does not often bend to political expediency. Like myself, Bernie came to age steeped in Zionist mythology. The Israeli narrative is deeply ingrained in many of us who should be able to see through the b.s. Bernie should be applauded for how far he has come not disparaged for not completely rejecting the kool aide.

    • genesto on April 25, 2019, 6:50 pm

      Very well put! As I said, Bernie, despite his being 77 years old, is still evolving on the issue. In fact, to greater and lesser degrees, most everyone I know, who takes an active interest in this, is still learning about the history of the issue and, therefore, still evolving. Bernie has yet to see the evil of Zionism as an ideology, as the majority of the readers of Mondo apparently do, and that is likely still a ways off. But, with continued efforts by the progressive base to open his eyes and see the ugly truth of the Zionist enterprise and all the damage it causes, I believe he could, as President, threaten Israel to behave itself or suffer serious consequences in its relationship with the US.

      Of course, getting the support of a majority of the Congress is, as always, yet another and much bigger story.

    • Citizen on April 25, 2019, 8:04 pm

      OK, but Bernie only has a few years of life left on this planet and he has the power and influence to help end the misery of the Palestinians, which is on-going, daily. Time for him to ditch all the kool aide in plain sight.

      • genesto on April 26, 2019, 12:45 pm

        I’m with you. As for not having much time left, though, I’m not so sure. When I went to see him in Berkeley a few months ago, he was as sharp and energetic as I’ve ever seen him. He’s in top health. He’s still a match in this regard for all his competitors – and probably ahead of ‘touchy feely’ Grandpa Biden!

      • Citizen on April 28, 2019, 3:03 pm

        I’m Bernie’s age & it’s a fact–not long left on this earth, even if fully alert.

  7. JustJessetr on April 25, 2019, 8:20 pm

    The polls, the polls! What if the polls are wrong and Trump wins the election?

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