Bernie, the Democrats and the Palestinians

Last Saturday, Steven Salaita published an article on Salon arguing that Bernie Sanders’ record of support and/or acquiescence to Israeli policy is a sufficient enough reason to not vote for Sanders. However, on social media, Salaita clarified that he isn’t aiming to change anyone’s decision about voting for Sanders.

But if his goal isn’t to convince people to change their minds, then what’s the point of writing? Particularly when it’s on, a bastion of Clintonite liberalism, and at a particular time when the Clinton campaign is ramping up efforts to criticise Sanders’ positions on Israel.

This is a really good time for the Sanders’ movement to be disoriented.

Salaita assures us that he is not a single-issue fundamentalist, but merely wishes to see Sanders’ position on Israel move towards a progressive, moral and critical discussion of Israel’s occupation.

No such conversation will happen.

Hypothetically, a critical discussion of Israel could very much happen if Sanders decides it should. However, Salaita doesn’t chart how that would come about. For starters, it fails to recognise that Sanders’ campaign has been vilified by every establishment institution to an extent with no precedent.

Try imagining for a second a new benchmark of cynicism the liberal journalism establishment will set the moment the slightest expression of anti-semitism from a Sanders supporter emerges. The “Berniebro” has been damaging enough as Sanders himself acknowledged, think of what the “Bernienazi” will do.

In this respect, Salaita’s piece comes off as an odd exercise in apolitical critique when you consider the fact that he presents no empirical and analytically sound argument indicating that if Sanders begins to be critical of Israel, his campaign will continue to enjoy its momentum.

Given what’s at stake, it’s not too much to ask of Salaita to acknowledge the political dynamics of the moment. And, if one insists it is “wrong” to place such a demand, perhaps one would be well-advised to join a church where moral absolutism reigns above all practical considerations.

Rania Khalek’s recent article attempts to fulfil such a pressing demand. In making the case that Sanders has been the most critical politician of Israeli crimes and U.S. complicity, Khalek argues that he’s the ideal candidate to bring up Palestinians’ rights on a national platform. As Khalek points out, Democrats have been growing critical of Israel and this could be Bernie’s shot. What’s not to disagree with, right?

Well, there is one analytical error with that ties such presumptions. The polls she cites do point out that Democrats have grown more critical of Israel. But of what aspects exactly of Israeli policy? Well, 75% of Democrats believe that Israel’s settlements in the West Bank are counterproductive and 76% of Democrats believe that Israel has “too much influence” on U.S. politics. These are increasingly standard Democratic Party positions, largely a result of Netanyahu’s well-known dirty tactics in Washington and the Democratic establishment’s cold response.

There’s a good case to be made that partisanship—American as apple pie—has played the leading role in forming those views when one considers that, in the same poll, 51% of Democrats said they’ll stand with Israel over Palestinians if they had to choose a side, 31% chose to be neutral, and a mere 18% said they’re supportive of Palestinians. A Gallup poll from the same year indicates Democrat support for Israel has fallen from 74% to 60% from 2014, 10 points lower than the national average of support for Israel.

Americans, especially Democrats, are nonetheless tired of having to defend and arm Israel with so many problems at home. But, the elective affinities of the two nations overwhelm those frustrations in any potential event where one has to choose a side.

Unless someone could suggest a way to get a firm majority of Democrats (and indeed Americans in the general election) to begin supporting Palestinians’ rights, there’s little apparent reason to think that if Sanders, and his movement, could pull it off and survive.

Anas El Hawat is a Montreal-based freelance writer and activist.