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.”
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