When Democratic presidential candidate Amy Klobuchar said that she would work on increasing American support for Israel, most progressives expressed a seemingly collective “No. Just no.” And yet these same politically engaged progressives, including many Palestinians, are stating they will be voting for a Zionist candidate, who has repeatedly affirmed that he “admires” Israel, and believes in its “right to exist.”
I am, of course, speaking of Bernie Sanders, the Democratic presidential candidate whose statements of love and support for Israel are sincere, rather than formulaic platitudes regurgitating AIPAC talking points, and meant to placate donors. In my analysis of his Op-Ed on “how to fight antisemitism,” I pointed out how he falls short of acknowledging that Zionism–meaning the ideological and political support for a modern Jewish state that could only have happened through the initial and ongoing violation of the human rights of the Palestinian people–is by definition a racist project. Israel was founded on the ruins of Palestinian homes, yet even as he acknowledges the magnitude of the Nakba, Sanders holds on to the two-state delusion. “My pride and admiration for Israel lives alongside my support for Palestinian freedom and independence,” Bernie wrote in his editorial, adding, “I reject the notion that there is any contradiction there.” He doesn’t, however, attempt to explain how inalienable human rights, such as the Right of Return for Palestinian refugees, are reconcilable with Israel as a Jewish state.
Nevertheless, many Palestinian-Americans are supporting Sanders, in full knowledge of his long-standing and seemingly unshakable Zionism. Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib officially endorsed him in October 2019, and popularized the expression “Amo Bernie”– “Amo” meaning “uncle” in Arabic. “I am endorsing Amo Bernie because he’s not going to sell us out. He understands that it’s not just about policies and about words, but it’s going to be also about completely transforming the structures in place,” Tlaib explained.
"I am endorsing Amo Bernie Sanders because he's not gonna sell us out. He understands that it's not just about policies and about words, but it's going to be also about completely transforming the structures in place." –@RashidaTlaib pic.twitter.com/3SaGZeOUT7
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) October 27, 2019
Another highly influential Palestinian American activist, Brooklyn-based Linda Sarsour, is an official surrogate of Sanders national presidential campaign, despite her own unflinching criticism of Zionism. (And Sanders has been unflinching in his refusal to “drop her” from his campaign, despite intense pressure from Zionist organizations).
In a forthcoming column in Palestine in America which she shared with me, scholar-activist Noura Erakat (who has tagged herself a #BernieSis on social media), wrote that she has supported Sanders since 2016, and was “extremely disappointed” when the Democratic Party torpedoed his campaign for what they viewed as a safer choice, namely Hillary Clinton. “Sanders represents a progressive movement committed to an explicitly socialist political agenda. That means a robust welfare state that will ensure, at minimum according to Sanders, health care and college tuition to be accomplished through redistributive measures,” Erakat writes. Sanders’ political agenda, according to Erakat, would address the nation’s significant social and economic problems.
Significantly, Erakat adds: “Note that my support for Sanders has nothing to do with his position on Palestine, which leaves much to be desired yet is nonetheless leaps and bounds ahead of other candidates. Even the most liberal presidents have sustained U.S. imperialism in the Middle East and it is incumbent upon us, activists and advocates, to bring the international question into domestic focus.”
In an email conversation she gave me permission to share, grassroots organizer and former US Campaign for Palestinian Rights co-chair Sandra Tamari wrote, “Voting is harm reduction. Under Trump, Palestinians are losing more land, more rights, more lives.”
Tamari went on to express some of the reservations many Palestinian Americans have: “Bernie is far from perfect. As you pointed out, he is a Zionist and pins all of Israel’s racism on its current government. We know this is wrong, and Bernie should know better. He doesn’t support BDS. There are so many issues with him.”
Tamari then adds: “But comparatively, he’s amazing. He talks about Palestinian rights, particularly emphasizing that the blockade of Gaza must end. What Palestinian would not want to see that happen? It’s urgent.”
Indeed, Sanders has shifted from initially describing Israel’s attacks on Gaza as merely “disproportionate,” to repeatedly suggesting the possibility of diverting some of the US financial aid to Israel towards Gaza. “What’s going on in Gaza right now… is absolutely inhumane; it is unacceptable; it is unsustainable,” Sanders said at the 2019 J Street conference. “So I would use the leverage – $3.8 billion is a lot of money, and we cannot give it, carte blanche, to the Israeli government or for that matter to any government at all. We have a right to demand respect for human rights and democracy.”
But Sanders does not mention the fact that refugees make up seventy percent of Gaza’s population. As Tamari put it: “We don’t have a candidate that will talk about right of return. We haven’t created that political opening yet. But we have a candidate who is advocating for conditioning military funding and opening up Gaza. That’s big.”
Another Palestinian-American activist, Haithem el-Zabri, director of the PalestineOnlineStore, also indicated he will be voting for Bernie, despite some reservations. “Bernie’s positions appear to still serve imperialism, capitalism, and Zionism,” el-Zabri wrote me. “However, he does seem reasonable and flexible and inclined towards justice, so I think it is possible for him to shift towards more progressive positions if the people demand that. I fear that a Trump second term would spell disaster for all life on this planet, so a lot is at stake here, maybe more than any election ever. And most of the other Democratic candidates are pretty much Trump Lite,” el-Zabri said, before explaining “I am supporting Bernie’s campaign because a lot is at stake and people all over the world are going to be impacted by the election results.”
Perhaps the strongest reservations were expressed by a Palestinian-American youth organizer who asked to remain anonymous. He wrote me that he fears Sanders’ election would be “dangerous” to Palestinian organizing. “Part of the problem for me lies in the fact that because Sanders has reached the status of ‘radical,’ this might dampen the radical imagination of the US public.”
US elections are so focused on domestic matters such as free healthcare and student loans that most people are less critical of “the ways the US empire has supported Israel,” this organizer wrote me. Sanders “gets applause just for saying Palestinians are human beings. I fear that grassroots organizing and mass mobilization for foreign policy will just not be the same” (if Sanders is elected), he said, and “a lot of white liberals will stop supporting us, because of how US politics have limited the imagination of the public.” Yet even this organizer stated that he would “probably be voting for Sanders because I don’t want Biden.”
Meanwhile, non-Palestinian advocates for Palestinian rights who disagree with Sanders on some of his views about Israel–giants like Cornel West, and emerging stars like Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortes, are also joining him at various stops on the campaign trail. Speaking at a Sanders campaign rally in Iowa, Dr. West said he supports “Brother Bernie” even if he disagrees with him on BDS, which West supports (at 58:00 in the video at the link). West speaks of his faith in Sanders’ deep humanism, expressed in such statements as “a Palestinian baby is as valuable as a Jewish baby in Tel Aviv.”
Tamari does indeed point to Sanders’s political entourage, many of whom are fully anti-Zionist, and committed to justice for Palestinians in ways Sanders does not necessarily envision: “When you look at his surrogates and confidantes, they are with us,” Tamari writes. “Omar, Tlaib, AOC, Linda Sarsour, Shaun King, Nina Turner, Cornell West. These are his people. That means these are the people who will be in his cabinet and on his advisory groups.”
Ultimately, as most Palestinians and their allies realize, in 2020, the US still does not yet have a viable anti-Zionist presidential candidate. We do know Bernie Sanders loves Israel. We do know he does not support BDS. But for the love of Palestine, and for “harm reduction,” Sanders is the candidate that most Palestinians that I know are hoping gets the Democratic nomination, and is elected US president in November 2020.