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Bernie Sanders’ progressive take on ‘how to fight antisemitism’ reveals an outdated understanding of Israel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

Nada Elia

Nada Elia is a Palestinian scholar-activist, writer, and grassroots organizer, currently completing a book on Palestinian Diaspora activism.

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13 Responses

  1. JWalters on November 11, 2019, 8:11 pm

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

    • echinococcus on November 11, 2019, 10:59 pm

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

      Would you go so far as to call it “slowly”? After all, at this pace he might concede that Zionism and US imperial aggression are not exactly helpful …by the time he is 120 or so.

    • RoHa on November 11, 2019, 11:11 pm

      Slowly? He’s older than me! If he keeps inching slowly, just after his 101st birthday he’ll say ” Now I understand. Israel has always been Gaaaaack! …”

      • echinococcus on November 13, 2019, 11:25 pm


        I see our similar age similarly conditions our thoughts. I note that you were more generous — by 20 years.

    • eljay on November 12, 2019, 9:59 am

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

      Like all Zionists, Bernie has firmly entrenched in his mind the Zionist “truth” that self-determination is a right that belongs not just to people in and of a geographic region but also to people who choose to embrace the religion-based identity of Jewish.

      For Bernie – and for all Zionists – that’s the only truth they need to know is there.

      • genesto on November 12, 2019, 1:04 pm

        As I have said many times on this site, Bernie is still work in progress on this issue. It is unfortunate that it has taken this much time for him to get to this point, but he still appears to be evolving. And I know a number of once Zionists who, even at an advanced age, have eventually been able to eschew Zionism completely.

        I still support him and hope for the day when he comes completely around to recognizing Zionism, in all of its forms, for the evil it is. But, as a pragmatist like the writer and one who sees Bernie as essentially a good person ( a ‘mensch’, if you will), I too will vote for him for President.

  2. echinococcus on November 11, 2019, 11:06 pm

    “… 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 vote back to the Democrats and throw it to the official designee of the Owners — and proceeded to do just that?

    [hint: read the legend to the picture above: “Bernie Sanders speaking at a campaign rally for Hillary Clinton in Arizona…”]

  3. PaulMerrell on November 12, 2019, 9:00 am

    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 separate right of the Jewish-subset. There is no Jewish right of self-determination:

    “States have consistently emphasized that respect for the territorial integrity of a non-self-governing territory is a key element of the exercise of the right to self-determination under international law. The Court considers that the peoples of non-self-governing territories are entitled to exercise their right to self-determination in relation to their territory as a whole, the integrity of which must be respected by the administering Power. It follows that any detachment by the administering Power of part of a non-self-governing territory, unless based on the freely expressed and genuine will of the people of the territory concerned, is contrary to the right to self-determination.”

    Legal Consequences of the Separation of the Chagos Archipelago from Mauritius in 1965, ICJ (25 February 2019), pg. 38, (italics added); see also V. Gudeleviciute (2005). Does the principle of self-determination prevail over the principle of territorial integrity?. International Journal Of Baltic Law, (2), 48-74.

    Having begun from the false premise that Jews have a legal right to their own national government, it’s less than a hop, skip, and a jump to Sanders’ conclusion that the only just solution to the Palestinian question is the two-state solution, a conclusion that leaves unanswered thorny problems such as the Palestinian right of return and the issue of equality for Palestinians within the Jewish State, and reparations for Palestinians.

    But the premise is false. The people of Palestine have a legal right to a single state solution. See ICJ holding, above. Will Sanders ever be able to accept this and if so act upon it?

  4. Egbert on November 12, 2019, 9:30 am

    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 one such group, is quoted in Tablet Magazine as being ‘Jewish and proud of it’. In the article, he is photographed at the Western Wall.

    • Keith on November 12, 2019, 10:52 am

      EGBERT- “…Ukraine-Jewish oligarchs control neo-Nazi battalions in Ukraine….”

      Thanks. The ongoing Jewish Zionist support for Ukrainian neo-Nazis while hypocritically claiming a rise in European anti-Semitism needs to be pointed out continuously. Fight anti-Semitism? How about not supporting it.

  5. Misterioso on November 12, 2019, 9:42 am

    “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 available to me when I wrote the original book, most of them from the Israel Defense Forces Archives. What the new material shows is that there were far more Israeli acts of massacre than I had previously thought. To my surprise, there were also many cases of rape. In the months of April-May 1948, units of the Haganah were given operational orders that stated explicitly that they were to uproot the villagers, expel them and destroy the villages themselves.” (Ha’aretz, January 9, 2004)

    Re the massacre of Palestinians at Deir Yassin, April 9/48: “Whole families were riddled with bullets… men, women, and children were mowed down as they emerged from houses; individuals were taken aside and shot. Haganah intelligence reported ‘there were piles of dead. Some of the prisoners moved to places of incarceration, including women and children, were murdered viciously by their captors…” (Benny Morris, quoted by Ramzy Baroud in “A Hundred Deir Yassins and Counting.”)

    Morris described the Zionists’ Plan D** (Tichnit Dalet, devised in 1937) for the expulsion of the indigenous Palestinians as “a strategic-ideological anchor and basis for expulsions by front, district, brigade and battalion commanders… and it gave commanders, post facto, a formal, persuasive covering note to explain their actions….[It] was understood by all concerned that, militarily, the less Arabs remaining behind and along the front lines, the better and, politically, the less Arabs remaining in the Jewish State, the better.” (Benny Morris, Birth Of The Palestinian Problem 1947-1949, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988, p. 289)

    **”…there is no room for both people together in this country…. The only solution is a Palestine…without Arabs. And there is no way than to transfer the Arabs from here to the neighbouring countries, to transfer all of them; not one village, not one tribe, should be left.” (Yosef Weitz, My Diary and Letters to the Children – in Hebrew, Massada, 1965, ll, p. 81)

    After studying the IDF Intelligence Report, “The Arab Exodus from Palestine” dated 30 June, 1948, document, Morris stated that “the Intelligence Branch report…goes out of its way to stress that the [Palestinian] exodus was contrary to the political-strategic desires of both the Arab Higher Committee and the governments of the neighboring Arab states. These, according to the report, struggled against the exodus – threatening, cajoling, and imposing punishments, all to no avail.” (Benny Morris, “The Causes and Character of the Arab Exodus from Palestine: The Israel Defense Force Intelligence Board Analysis of June 1948: Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. XXII, no. 1, January 1986)

    John H. Davis, who served as Commission General of UNRWA at the time: “An exhaustive examination of the minutes, resolutions, and press releases of the Arab League, of the files of leading Arabic newspapers, of day-to-day monitoring of broadcasts from Arab capitals and secret Arab radio stations, failed to reveal a single reference, direct or indirect, to an order given to the Arabs of Palestine to leave. All the evidence is to the contrary; that the Arab authorities continuously exhorted the Palestinian Arabs not to leave the country…. Panic and bewilderment played decisive parts in the flight. But the extent to which the refugees were savagely driven out by the Israelis as part of a deliberate master-plan has been insufficiently recognized.” (John H. Davis, The Evasive Peace, London: Murray, 1968)

    What happened in Palestine in 1947 and 1948 was described by eye-witness Nathan Chofshi, a Jewish immigrant from Russia who arrived in Palestine in 1908 in the same group as Polish born David Ben-Gurion (real name, David Gruen):

    “…[W]e old Jewish settlers in Palestine who witnessed the flight [know] how and in what manner we, Jews, forced the Arabs to leave cities and villages…some of them were driven out by force of arms; others were made to leave by deceit, lying and false promises. It is enough to cite the cities of Jaffa, Lydda, Ramle, Beersheba, Acre from among numberless others.” (Jewish Newsletter, February 9, 1959).

    Chofshi was deeply ashamed of what his fellow Jews did to the Palestinians: “We came and turned the native Arabs into tragic refugees. And still we dare to slander and malign them, to besmirch their name. Instead of being deeply ashamed of what we did and of trying to undo some of the evil we committed…we justify our terrible acts and even attempt to glorify them.” (ibid)
    “On Israel’s little-known concentration and labor camps in 1948-1955”

  6. James Canning on November 12, 2019, 10:49 am

    I agree with Bernie Sanders that Israel needs to end the occupation of the West Bank.

  7. Elizabeth Block on November 12, 2019, 4:15 pm

    Ideal candidate? Maybe not, but he’s far and away the best we’ve got. And he’s using his Jewish privilege – yup, Jews can get away with criticizing Israel when non-Jews can’t – to push the Democrats in the right direction. Maybe he’ll go further, with more time and more knowledge. I hope so. And of course I’d vote for him in a millisecond.

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