In an interview last year with the New Yorker, Palestinian author and activist Yousef Bashir recounted his 2017 visit to Bernie Sanders’s congressional office with a group of Israeli students. “I told Bernie he was the most popular Jew in Gaza since Moses,” Bashir recalled.
And for good reason.
Alone among the major presidential candidates, Sanders has repeatedly spoken out about Israel’s violence against Palestinians. During the last Gaza War, in 2014, he called Israel’s use of force “disproportionate” and “indiscriminate.” He publicly condemned Israel’s killing of peaceful Palestinian protesters during last year’s Great March of Return. “Innocent people are being killed,” Sanders told the Intercept. “Those are terrible actions. Instead of applauding Israel for its actions, Israel should be condemned.” In an additional tweet, Sanders called the deaths “tragic” and unequivocally defended Palestinians’ freedom of assembly, saying: “It is the right of all people to protest for a better future without a violent response.”
And while many US politicians have rushed to blame Gazans for their own dire circumstances, Sanders has instead pointed to the prolonged Israeli siege as the source of the humanitarian crisis. In a coauthored letter to secretary of state Mike Pompeo last year, Sanders decried the massive levels of unemployment and poverty in the blockaded Strip and reminded the Trump appointee that “while Israel withdrew its forces from within Gaza in 2005, its continuing control of Gaza’s air, sea, northern, southern, and eastern borders have made the humanitarian crisis there even worse.” He reiterated his call for rebuilding Gaza, easing the blockade, and restoring US funds to UNRWA (the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East).
Not surprisingly, Sanders’s outspoken support for Palestinians has put him in the crosshairs of hawkish pro-Israel groups like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). During the last presidential campaign, Sanders was the only major candidate to decline to appear in person at AIPAC’s annual conference. When AIPAC refused to allow him to address the conference by video link from the campaign trail, Sanders recorded a speech addressed to the AIPAC audience and posted it online. “We have also got to be a friend, not only to Israel, but to the Palestinian people,” Sanders said in his remarks. “When we talk about Israel and Palestinian areas, it is important to understand that today there is a whole lot of suffering among Palestinians and that cannot be ignored.” Sanders also skipped this year’s AIPAC conference. In response, AIPAC has targeted the Vermont senator in Facebook ads in key Democratic primary states, urging users to sign an online petition telling Sanders that “America stands with Israel.”
Compare that to Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer, who insisted before a large crowd of AIPAC donors last March that “too many Palestinians and too many Arabs do not want any Jewish state in the Middle East” because “they don’t believe in the Torah.” Or Democratic presidential candidates like Joe Biden, who gushed to a group of AIPAC-affiliated donors in 2014: “Send a message to Bibi: I love him, I love him.” Or Pete Buttigieg, who recently snagged an endorsement from former AIPAC president Steve Grossman. Or Kamala Harris, who turned her private meeting in March with California AIPAC into a very public one on Twitter. Or Cory Booker, who has met regularly with AIPAC representatives to coordinate a “unified voice from Congress” against the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. (While stridently pro-Israel in the past, Elizabeth Warren has taken a more balanced stance of late, including signing on to the Pompeo letter.)
Amid this sea of anti-Palestinian sentiment, Sanders has consistently expressed his support for Palestinians’ civil rights in the United States. He staunchly opposed the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, a bipartisan bill that criminalizes the boycotting of Israel. He was quick to condemn another bill, the Combating BDS Act, sponsored by Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), tweeting: “It’s absurd that the first bill during the shutdown is legislation which punishes Americans who exercise their constitutional right to engage in political activity.”
Sanders has equally defended Palestinians’ civil rights in Palestine, including for those living in Israel. In an interview with NBC News early this year, he denounced Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu for his racist electoral campaign, and has elsewhere condemned the Netanyahu-backed Nation-State Law, which explicitly states that “Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people only,” officially downgrading Arabs to second-class citizens. Going further than many other progressive critics, Sanders has castigated Netanyahu as part of an international “authoritarian axis” that encompasses everyone from Trump to Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro to Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman.
Sanders’s vision for peace in Palestine, while still in line with two-state orthodoxy, breaks from the bipartisan consensus in paying more than lip service to Palestinian self-determination. And he hasn’t been afraid to take that message into hostile territory. In 2016, he appointed Cornel West and Palestinian activist James Zogby to the Democratic platform committee, where West argued strenuously for Palestinian rights (“a precious Palestinian baby in the West Bank has exactly the same value as a precious Jewish baby in Tel Aviv”) and Zogby attempted to introduce an amendment that would explicitly mention Israel’s occupation and settlement activity, and strip out the platform’s condemnation of BDS. Earlier in the campaign — in a meeting with the right-wing New York Daily News editorial board no less — Sanders himself described Israel’s settlements in the West Bank as a violation of international law and their razing as a prerequisite for peace: “I think if the expansion was illegal, moving into territory that was not their territory, I think withdrawal from those territories is appropriate.”
Recently, Sanders has hinted that if elected he would impose real penalties on Israel if it continued its occupation, including cuts in US financial aid and arms sales (which total $3.8 billion annually). He has already shown signs in this direction. For example, in 2016, he broke with the Democratic Party’s pro-Israel dogma by refusing to sign a bipartisan letter calling for an increase in US aid to Israel, citing Israel’s atrocities in Gaza and its oppression of the Palestinians.
Sanders’s support for Palestinian rights is deeply personal. In a video speech last month at the American Jewish Committee (AJC) Global Forum, he linked the Nazis’ murder of his family to his fight against Israel’s occupation of Palestinians. But he also views securing justice in Palestine as part of his broader progressive economic agenda. As he told the AJC forum:
I see a Palestinian people crushed under a military occupation now over a half century old, creating a daily reality of pain, humiliation, and resentment. Let me be clear: I do not know how peace can be achieved in that region when in the Gaza Strip poverty is rampant, 53 percent of the people are unemployed, the number of unemployed is even higher for young people, and 99 percent of the residents cannot leave that area. That is not a sustainable situation. Ending that occupation and enabling the Palestinians to have independence and self-determination in a sovereign, independent, economically viable state of their own is in the best interest of the United States, Israel, the Palestinians and the entire region.
Sanders’s stance on Israel-Palestine could undoubtedly be more progressive. He has consistently voted in favor of US military aid to Israel, which subsidizes occupation, settlement expansion, and systematic violence against Palestinians. He still opposes the BDS campaign, signing onto an anti-BDS letter to the UN secretary-general in 2017 and reiterating his opposition to BDS earlier this year (while denouncing laws to criminalize the movement). He stubbornly backs a two-state solution rather than a unified, democratic state that would provide equal rights to Jewish people and Palestinians alike.
Yet Sanders’s pro-Palestinian record remains heretical in a political system that habitually excuses the slaughter of Palestinians and laughs at their aspirations for independence and statehood. This is a country where top politicians like Mike Huckabee deny the very existence of the Palestinian people and where Democrats and Republicans truly are interchangeable in their unwavering devotion to Israel.
More than any Democratic presidential candidate, Sanders is well positioned to break that bipartisan pro-Israel consensus — not simply because of his Jewish origin, but, even more importantly, because of shifting political dynamics. The Democratic Party now includes prominent members like Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar who are openly pro-Palestinian and support BDS. (Sanders has defended both congresswomen against unfounded antisemitic charges.) Recent surveys show that Democrats, particularly young voters, are increasingly sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinians. Netanyahu’s increasingly nationalistic government is alienating many liberal Jews in the United States and stoking militant actions against the occupation. BDS shows no signs of withering away.
Whatever his shortcomings on the issue, a Sanders presidency could give fresh momentum to movement building in the United States, Israel, and the Occupied Territories. No longer would Israel be given cover from the White House to crack down on Palestinian (and Israeli) peace and civil rights activists. No longer would AIPAC have a friend in the Oval Office who would give Israel carte blanche. Pro-Palestinian groups would have someone who spoke out against South African apartheid before it was popular, and who is not shy about speaking out against “apartheid-like” conditions in Palestine today.
So is Bernie good for Palestinians?
By the standards of US politics, undoubtedly; right now, he is the only candidate who could bring about meaningful change in US policy. Palestinians may have long ceased to seek their political savior among US presidential candidates, but Sanders might be their best bet yet — especially if he can supply them the breathing room to build their own nonviolent resistance.