How Bernie Sanders Became a “Fighter” for Palestine

Photograph Source: Shelly Prevost – CC BY 2.0

With the Democratic primary in full swing, the outlines of public debate are pretty much entrenched. Common wisdom on the left says that all of the candidates are bad on Palestine except for Bernie Sanders.  Despite some problems, pundits declare, Sanders is still the best. Is the statement true, though, or is it a convenient truism?

It’s both, really.  Sanders appears to be better than his counterparts, but the advantage doesn’t exist in a vacuum. A lot of mythologizing has helped Sanders’ reputation.  He’s proved skillful at sounding the right notes without actually transcending a dull foreign policy consensus. For example, I don’t see how anybody can read Sanders’ responses here next to those of his opponents and objectively conclude that he’s superior (or even meaningfully different). In fact, billionaire Tom Steyer’s answers are arguably better, or at least equivalent.

Moreover, Sanders almost always introduces support for Palestinians by professing devotion to Israel’s security and right to exist.  He has a long history of funding Israeli war crimes.  (His claim that he’ll condition aid to Israel on a better human rights record is a sucker’s bet; Sanders has had three decades to apply that principle.)  All the candidates are Zionist.  I don’t care to parse the nuances of their Zionism.  Finding—or, worse, celebrating—a kinder colonizer is a waste of time.

In short, Sanders is similar to his opponents around Palestine, but his reputation around Palestine is far better.  That reputation doesn’t correspond to the substance of his legislative history or his public comments.  Supporters project onto him what they hope or assume he’ll do, but hasn’t done throughout his long career in office.  The myth of Sanders being “good” or “the best” has made it so that supporting him isn’t merely a pragmatic concession; it can now be passed off as devotion to Palestine.

In the past few weeks, I’ve seen an image circulating on social media that epitomizes both the process and outcome of Sanders’s mythologization.  It shows a man holding a handwritten sign that says, “I’m Palestinian, and I’m voting for the Jewish guy!”  To his right, a woman holds a companion sign:  “I’m Israeli, and I’m voting for the guy who will fight for Palestinians’ rights!”  It’s a cute idea, I guess.  The execution of that idea is troublesome, however.

Try to extricate yourself from the hullabaloo of electoralism and consider a straightforward question:  when have we ever witnessed Bernie Sanders fighting for Palestinians?  Many of his supporters have taken up the fight, but Sanders hasn’t joined them.  Instead, he gestures toward vague ideals of justice without committing to what Palestinians in struggle repeatedly profess to be their version of freedom (the right of return and equality in their ancestral homeland).  He’s happy to let supporters fill the vagueness with their own suppositions.

Was Sanders fighting for Palestinian rights when he fondly recalledliving on a kibbutz (in other words, a racialized settlement)?  When he voted in favor of a Senate resolution (introduced by Mitch McConnell) that recognizes Jerusalem as Israel’s undivided capital?  When he yelled at constituents protesting the war crimes Israel was committing with weapons he voted to provide?  When he fired a campaign staffer for criticizing Netanyahu?  When he went on a Zionist diatribe in an interview with a Palestinian journalist?  When he blamed an Israeli massacre of 50 civilians on “Hamas”? When he suggested that Palestinian parents train their children to become suicide bombers?

All of these things happened since Israel’s 2014 destruction of the Gaza Strip, one of the century’s most vicious events.

How about when he calls himself “100 percent pro-Israel”?  Or opposes BDS?  Or offers “both sides” pabulum in response to yet more Israeli war crimes?  Or declines to support the right of return (something Andrew Yang recently did without ambivalence)?

The best on Palestine

Sanders occasionally exhibits empathy for Palestinians and regularly highlights the difficulties of life under Israeli occupation (1967 only), but he doesn’t use a fighting vocabulary.  He never speaks of colonization, ethnic cleansing, war crimes, apartheid, or land theft.  “Occupation” is the strongest word he deploys.  He also has a habit of reserving sharp criticism for Netanyahu, usually positioned as a Trumpian aberration from a more benevolent norm.  In Sanders’s lexicon, the problem isn’t Zionism, but Netanyahu’s Israel.

(Please note:  I’m not arguing that Sanders ought to speak like a Palestinian nationalist; I’m objecting to narratives that make it sound as if he’s a faithful proponent of Palestinian nationalism.)

If the Palestinian in the photo wants to vote for “the Jewish guy,” I won’t argue with him, although I wish he wouldn’t volunteer himself as one of the good Arabs, the sort who isn’t innately hostile to Jews, as evidenced by—what else?—his eagerness to vote.  Trading decolonization for electoralism is one of the cheapest ways to accumulate respectability in the United States.  Voting for “the Jewish guy” isn’t objectionable in itself.  One might make a strong case for doing it.  But implicating national identity in the decision elides longstanding forms of resistance less agreeable to centers of power.

It’s more bothersome seeing the Israeli uphold Sanders as a champion of Palestinian rights.  It’s discomfiting that a settler so breezily appoints herself arbiter of the native’s struggle, and does so by promoting visions of relief that don’t threaten her own standing.  By tethering activism to a presidential campaign, she can claim space unavailable to recalcitrant natives.  She needn’t adhere to their sensibilities because she inhabits a political culture that treats the colonized as raw material.  Her language tells the story.  She deploys a nebulous framework of “rights,” the classic idiom of state-sanctioned activism.  Liberation is off the table.  Resistance is sanitized.  Armed struggle is unthinkable. The photograph is the spirit of Oslo repurposed for the social media age.

Sanders has made his platform clear.  By this point it’s not changing.  He’s a two-stater who dislikes conservative Israeli politicians and frets about the government’s excesses.  He won’t affirm the right of return.  He won’t consider a one-state solution.  He opposes BDS, but also opposes its criminalization.  For all his talk of conditioning aid to Israel on its behavior (something George H.W. Bush also proposed), it will require more political capital then he’s willing to use.  (An overlooked feature of this pledge is that Sanders also threatens to withhold aid from Palestinians.) Palestine will fall by the wayside.  Sanders’ most vocal supporters will accept that result as the cost of doing business.

Israelis come first

They’ll talk about holding him accountable, of course, but nobody should take it seriously.  Accountable to whom?  Actual Palestinians or the mass of dim brown trinkets manufactured on an electoral assembly line?  Electoralism doesn’t allow for the kind of responsiveness its advocates imagine.  Anybody who tries to hold Sanders to account will be shouted down.  To lift Palestine from its subordinate position will be seen as an invitation to social death, a puritanical effort to unleash rightwing barbarism on an intrinsically virtuous polity.  (Electoral common sense always leads to liberal orthodoxy.)  Accountability to the people is the most anti-human myth of this entire spectacle.

Attempts to prioritize the Global South simply can’t compete with fetishes of enfranchisement in the imperial core.  (The Global South, uncoincidentally, manifests the world’s greatest revolutionary potential.)  Like other colonized nations (inside and beyond North America), Palestine exists in electoral discourses as an abstract geography, something to be extracted for capital among the politically ambitious, or a delicate inconvenience to overcome. What the system lacks in substance it replaces with myth.  Electoralism is a heatsink of revolutionary politics.  We select representatives actually seated by the elite.  There’s no real system of accountability to the disempowered.  Everything that sounds nice about electoralism in fact reinforces the false promises of settler colonization.

Aren’t Sanders’ boosters setting themselves up for disappointment?  Not really, because the logic of electoralism provides for delirious hope in the incredible.  It also renders Palestine’s freedom (at best) a secondary concern.  The nation, obscure and abstracted, expedites presidential electioneering.  Sanders isn’t serving Palestine; Palestine is his surrogate.

Sanders says “respect and dignity.”  His fans hear “liberation.”  They’re not listening closely enough.  (We’re incentivized to mishear by so many promises of minor celebrity.)  Nothing in Sanders’ record as a politician suggests that he’ll fight for anything but the tired “international consensus.”  And nothing in decades of US brokerage indicates that the “peace process” will result in anything but continued suffering for Palestinians.

This article first appeared on Steven Salaita’s blog.