I remember the first time I ever heard a US politician publicly defend Palestinians.
It was April 14, 2016, and I was watching a Democratic presidential debate between the handpicked successor to Barack Obama and this grizzled, self-styled democratic socialist that seemed angry about everything. The latter, Bernie Sanders, decided to do something unprecedented that night when pressed by Wolf Blitzer about his views on the Israeli army’s conduct during the 2014 Gaza war.
Having previously described Israel’s actions, which killed over 1,500 innocent people and left more than ten thousand injured, as “disproportionate,” Bernie went further that night and declared that “in the long run if we are ever going to bring peace to that region which has seen so much hatred and so much war, we are going to have to treat the Palestinian people with respect and dignity.” I was stunned to hear those words, as a young Palestinian-American used to seeing US politicians ignore or denigrate the Palestinian cause.
In the years following Sanders’s debate-stage declaration, I was growing more politicized in response to another stunning development: the presidency of Donald Trump. Here was a billionaire who advocated barring hundreds of millions of Muslims from entering the country, led chants of “send her back” against a Somali-born congresswoman, and convinced Israel’s prime minister to ban the only Palestinian woman in Congress from seeing her grandmother in the occupied West Bank. Through it all, one of the most consistent defenders of Palestinian rights in US political life was the very same man who made those comments on the debate stage in April 2016. When Sanders announced a second run for president in 2020, I eagerly volunteered for him and eventually joined Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).
It is from this place of personal affection that I feel painfully disappointed that Sanders, unlike much of the US left, has not yet demanded a permanent cease-fire in a war that has killed more than ten times the number of people slain in 2014, instead calling for a “humanitarian pause.”
Two of the three DSA-endorsed members of the House of Representatives, Rashida Tlaib and Cori Bush, have put forward a resolution calling for a cease-fire, and the third endorsed member, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, has signed onto it. Other members of the broad left, including Jamaal Bowman, Greg Casar, and Summer Lee, among others, have joined them. As of writing, over forty members of Congress have called for a cease-fire, and eighteen have signed onto the Tlaib-Bush resolution. Last week, the United Auto Workers became the largest US labor union to endorse a cease-fire. Around the world, major left organizations and human rights groups have coalesced around the demand. And in the United States, where a cease-fire has majority support, the movement for Palestinian freedom has only grown over the weeks, with the demonstrations and organizing flowering into a burgeoning mass movement.
The Call for a Cease-Fire
To his credit, Sanders has repeatedly affirmed the need to send significant aid into Gaza and end Israel’s “indiscriminate warfare.” This week, he came out against dispatching an additional $10.1 billion in money and arms to Israel. In a November 22 opinion piece for the New York Times, Sanders insisted that Israel must guarantee displaced Gazans an absolute right of return and halt settler violence, and called for the dignity of Palestinians elsewhere in the land to be respected.
Still, Sanders’s “humanitarian pause” position has fallen short of what supporters like myself have grown to expect from him. During the last major explosion in violence in 2021, which saw over 270 civilians killed and thousands injured, Sanders called for an immediate cease-fire. In recent years, Sanders had begun developing a relationship with Palestinian organizations and civil rights activists such as Issa Amro, whom he met when Amro visited Washington, DC in 2017. (A few weeks ago, Amro was expelled from his home in occupied Hebron by the Israeli army.)
Writing in the Nation, David Klion notes that the horrific acts of October 7 likely, and understandably, shook Sanders deeply. But Sanders’s decision to sidestep what’s become the most salient question on the table — cease-fire: yes or no — has been a political error. It’s even allowed his political opponents to weaponize his stance: AIPAC recently praised Sanders for his opposition to a cease-fire. While Sanders quickly shot back at the lobbying firm, the episode illustrated that both Left and Right understand the distinction between what Sanders is calling for and what the bulk of the organized left has consolidated around.
The difference between a “humanitarian pause” and a permanent cease-fire is not theoretical. Putting aside the fact that the Biden administration views them as two distinct demands, with the White House press secretary going so far as to label progressive calls for a cease-fire “repugnant,” we know what a humanitarian pause looks like and why it is insufficient.
Israel and representatives of Hamas recently brokered a pause in the fighting that was contingent on hostage and prisoner exchanges and lasted for a week. In that time, we only got a clearer sense of the unfathomable horrors being inflicted on Palestinians in Gaza (to name just one: the bodies of several premature babies were found at an abandoned hospital where Israel had cut the power).
The resumption in fighting will produce more such atrocities. On Tuesday, the World Health Organization’s representative in Gaza warned that “the situation is getting worse by the hour” as Israel invades the southern portion of the sieged strip.
Sanders rightfully called for a cease-fire in the 2021 Israel-Palestine war because he believed that the only way to end the suffering was through a political settlement that relied on negotiations and diplomacy. The same is true today. With over 6,600 Palestinian children dead, now is the time for Sanders to join his fellow lovers of peace and justice in calling for a permanent cease-fire.
To be sure, it would be dishonest to say that Bernie Sanders and I ever saw completely eye to eye on Palestinian liberation. Sanders believes in Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. I find the notion untenable given the legal and political oppression that both preceded and followed the 1967 war and occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza. I think that a genuine democratic state of all its citizens would be more just for Palestinians and Israelis alike. Human rights organizations spanning the globe, from the Israeli-Jewish B’Tselem to Amnesty and Human Rights Watch, have labeled Israel an apartheid state according to international law. Sanders has said that progressives such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez should “tone down” criticism and avoid using that term when speaking of the Israeli state. Sanders is a two-stater, and I, like Rashida Tlaib, am a one-stater.
Despite these differences, or perhaps because of them, I have long thought of Sanders as a valuable voice for Palestinian rights in the United States, where any criticism of Israel is often viewed as suspect. Having grown up internalizing the message of Edward Said, who spoke of a land for two peoples, the image of a Jewish socialist like Bernie Sanders lovingly embracing a Palestinian socialist like Rashida Tlaib is in many ways the symbolic vindication of the Palestinian-Jewish partnership that I believe is needed to supplant the occupation and apartheid regime. In her endorsement of Bernie’s presidential campaign in 2020, Tlaib affectionately referred to the senator as “Amo Bernie” (amo means uncle in Arabic).
And Amo Bernie galvanized Arab and Muslim voters in states like Michigan and New York with his outreach and advocacy for Palestinians, things that no one else in the Democratic primary were doing.
Bernie Can Still Play a Leading Role
When Sanders penned an article in 2019 for Jewish Currents about combatting antisemitism, he wrote that “the struggle against antisemitism is also the struggle for Palestinian freedom” and acknowledged that, for Palestinians, the founding of Israel meant, the mass displacement of over seven hundred thousand people. When Tlaib’s attempt to hold a Nakba Day event on Capitol Hill was suppressed by the then speaker Kevin McCarthy earlier this year, Sanders bravely offered his HELP Committee chambers in the Senate to hold the event. In recent weeks, Sanders has again come to the defense of Tlaib, condemning the House of Representatives for censuring her while Gaza is being indiscriminately bombed.
For all my disagreements with him on the current war, I have never doubted that Bernie believes in the humanity of Palestinians. I also strenuously believe — as a young person who volunteered and voted for him, as a democratic socialist, and as a Palestinian-American — that he must go further and call for a cease-fire.
Bernie Sanders can still be a leader in fostering Jewish and Palestinian partnership here in the United States and in the peace movement around the world, if he is willing to be as brave today as he has been so often over the last fifty years. So, Bernie: join us in explicitly calling for an immediate and permanent cessation of hostilities in this horrific war, so we can finally push for a just and lasting peace for all.