Bernie Sanders’ progressive take on ‘how to fight antisemitism’ reveals an outdated understanding of Israel

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Bernie Sanders’ editorial, “How to Fight Antisemitism,” strikes many right notes with today’s progressives.  Noting that hate crimes have risen since Trump’s election, he writes: “The antisemites who marched in Charlottesville don’t just hate Jews. They hate the idea of multiracial democracy. They hate the idea of political equality. They hate immigrants, people of color, LGBTQ people, women, and anyone else who stands in the way of a whites-only America. They accuse Jews of coordinating a massive attack on white people worldwide, using people of color and other marginalized groups to do their dirty work.”

Bernie goes on to denounce the weaponization of antisemitism, both as a strategy to divide progressives, and as an attempt to smother criticism of Israel.  Antisemitism, Bernie asserts, is “a conspiracy theory that a secretly powerful minority exercises control over society. Like other forms of bigotry—racism, sexism, homophobia—antisemitism is used by the right to divide people from one another and prevent us from fighting together for a shared future of equality, peace, prosperity, and environmental justice. So I want to say as clearly as I possibly can: We will confront this hatred, do exactly the opposite of what Trump is doing and embrace our differences to bring people together.”

So far, so good.  But then, Bernie goes on to make a shockingly anachronistic statement, namely that  “One of the most dangerous things Trump has done is to divide Americans by using false allegations of antisemitism, mostly regarding the US–Israel relationship. We should be very clear that it is not antisemitic to criticize the policies of the Israeli government.”

For any justice-minded activist who has supported Palestinian rights for many long years before Trump even aspired to the presidency, and who has been smeared as antisemitic by liberals and PEPS (Progressive Except for Palestine) alike for decades, who has been placed on blacklists, been denied promotions, or lost their livelihood for criticizing the policies of the Israeli government, long before Trump, this statement is offensive. The systematic censorship of any progressive criticism of Israel, the “Palestine Exception to Free Speech,” as it has become known, has long relied on the false allegation of antisemitism.   It is not, as Bernie would have it, Trump’s doing.

Bernie’s misjudgement of the chronology of the weaponization of the charge of antisemitism is, however, in tune with another serious historical blunder he makes, namely his liberal Zionist nostalgia for pre-1967 Israel.  Despite his oddly vague claim, that “the founding of Israel is understood by another people in the land of Palestine as the cause of their painful displacement,” Bernie is quick to assert that Israel’s serious crimes only started with the 1967 occupation.

“When I look at the Middle East, I see Israel as having the capacity to contribute to peace and prosperity for the entire region, yet unable to achieve this in part because of its unresolved conflict with the Palestinians. And I see a Palestinian people yearning to make their contribution—and with so much to offer—yet crushed underneath a military occupation now over a half-century old, creating a daily reality of pain, humiliation, and resentment. Ending that occupation and enabling the Palestinians to have self-determination in an independent, democratic, economically viable state of their own is in the best interests of the United States, Israel, the Palestinians, and the region,” Bernie writes.

Clearly, the two-state delusion is a hard one to give up.  So I will be very honest: Bernie is not my dream candidate.  His nostalgia about pre-1967 Israel reveals a blindness to the structural oppression inherent in the foundation of the ethno-nationalist state he cherishes. He asserts that “My pride and admiration for Israel lives alongside my support for Palestinian freedom and independence. I reject the notion that there is any contradiction there,” and yet he seems unaware that the same discrimination he decries in the West Bank after 1967 was, and remains, the daily experience of Palestinians within the Green Line. He does not acknowledge that Israel has denied Palestinians the Right of Return to their towns and cities beginning in 1948, not just since 1967, and that Israel was already shooting Palestinians attempting to reclaim their properties in 1948, 1949, and ever since, not just since The Great March of Return.

Nevertheless, this election cycle, I am nothing but pragmatic.  While I still denounce all Zionism as racism, my criticism of Bernie does not mean I will not vote for him, even encourage others to vote for him, should he be the Democratic nominee. And in many ways, Bernie remains the best viable presidential candidate as far as Palestinians are concerned, not least because of his recent statement about redirecting some of the US aid to Israel towards humanitarian aid for Gaza, and his recognition that there can be no solution that does not address Palestinian rights and aspirations.

This country has come so far to the right that a Bernie Sanders presidency, while not solving most problems, will bring about a much needed corrective, both domestically, and in terms of foreign policy.

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My hope is that Bernie is inching slowly toward the truth he knows is there.

“… this election cycle, I am nothing but pragmatic. While I still denounce all Zionism as racism, my criticism of Bernie does not mean I will not vote for him, even encourage others to vote for him, should he be the Democratic nominee” Nice. How pragmatic is it to expect that this time around, he intends to “be the nominee”, unlike the other time, when he announced that he was there to gather the disgruntled… Read more »

Bernie: “It is true that some criticism of Israel can cross the line into antisemitism, especially when it denies the right of self-determination to Jews …” Isn’t this a point where Sanders’ logic goes fundamentally awry? The people of the former Mandate Territory of Palestine (including modern Israel, Jordan, Gaza, and the West Bank) collectively have a legal right to self-determination of their form of government under the U.N. Charter, but that is not a… Read more »

Shouldn’t the lede be: Bernie Sanders’ progressive take on ‘how to fight criticism of Israel’ reveals an outdated understanding of Israel. Things are not what they used to be. Yesterday’s real anti-Semites are today’s allies. For example, Ukraine-Jewish oligarchs control neo-Nazi battalions in Ukraine that are busily trying to ethnically cleanse east Ukraine of its Russian-speaking Ukranian inhabitants. They are reported to have received training from (presumably ‘ex-‘) IDF members. Borislav Bereza, the leader of… Read more »

“So I will be very honest: Bernie is not my dream candidate. His nostalgia about pre-1967 Israel reveals a blindness to the structural oppression inherent in the foundation of the ethno-nationalist state he cherishes.” Bingo!! In 2004, when asked by Ha’aretz journalist, Ari Shavit, what new information his just completed revised version of The Birth of the Palestinian Problem 1947-1949 would provide, historian Benny Morris replied: “It is based on many documents that were not… Read more »