The Vermont senator did not make any headline-grabbing statements to his audience on Wednesday – the annual conference of the Israel lobby group J Street – but his speech signals that contentious debates about US support for Israel are going to continue, especially inside the Democratic Party.
Sanders offered typical platitudes in praise of Israel. He recalled youthful days in a kibbutz – a type of Zionist colonial settlement that purported to have socialist values – and praised the “enormous achievement of establishing a democratic homeland for the Jewish people after centuries of displacement and persecution.” But he also spoke of “another side to the story of Israel’s creation.”
“Like our own country, the founding of Israel involved the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people already living there, the Palestinian people. Over 700,000 people were made refugees,” Sanders said. “To acknowledge this painful historical fact does not delegitimize Israel, any more than acknowledging the Trail of Tears delegitimizes the United States of America.”
Watch the video of Sanders’ speech above.
Sanders’ comparison of the Palestinian Nakba to the European genocide of Native Americans would have been unthinkable coming from the mouth of a mainstream politician until recently.
But it is also of questionable value unless it is the starting point for a decolonial political program. After all, acknowledgment of the crimes committed against indigenous peoples in North America might make liberals feel good, but on its own it seldom leads to effective support for the ongoing native struggles for protection and restitution of land, water and other rights.
Sanders challenged discourse within his own party in other ways: “Nobody gains when Gaza is obliterated and thousands are killed, wounded, or made homeless,” he said.
This is an acknowledgment even he infamously refused to make when challenged by constituents about the carnage Israel was committing in Gaza in the summer of 2014. Back then, he angrily defended Israel’s bloody assault.
But his words at J Street showed he has not backed down from his unprecedented sparring with Clinton during a prime-time debate in which he took his rival to task over her hardline, unconditional support for Israel.
Open to one state?
Sanders told his J Street audience he had not come to dwell on history, but rather to ask, “OK, what now?”
On the surface his answers did not break any new ground, but they also hinted at an openness that might continue to develop in interesting directions if Sanders is pushed.
He called for the end of the “50-year-long occupation” – a reference to the West Bank and Gaza Strip – and endorsed December’s UN Security Council resolution condemning settlements.
But unlike other Democratic politicians, including President Obama’s Secretary of State John Kerry, Sanders did not insist that a two-state solution is the only possible or desirable outcome.
“The real question is: peace on what terms, and under what arrangement?” Sanders asked. “Does ‘peace’ mean that Palestinians will be forced to live under perpetual Israeli rule, in a series of disconnected communities in the West Bank and Gaza? That’s not tolerable, and that’s not peace.”
Sanders posed the alternative without offering either condemnation or endorsement: “If Palestinians in the occupied territories are to be denied self-determination in a state of their own, will they receive full citizenship and equal rights in a single state, potentially meaning the end of a Jewish-majority state?”
The senator did not seem particularly troubled by this prospect – as long as the result embodies his progressive values: democracy, equality, opposition to xenophobia and respect for and protection of minorities at home and around the world.
Notably, Sanders also remained silent about the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. He didn’t take the courageous step of endorsing it, but neither did he follow other politicians, including many prominent Democrats, who have aggressively condemned it.
He did however hit back against one of the key accusations Israel and its surrogates make against all critics and supporters of Palestinian rights, including BDS activists.
“To oppose the policies of a right-wing government in Israel does not make one anti-Israel or an anti-Semite,” Sanders said.
Democratic Party battle
Formally an independent, Sanders’ views continue to matter since he is the de facto leader of the progressive – and more Israel skeptical – wing of the Democratic Party.
According to The Washington Post’s national political correspondent David Weigel, Ellison lost in part due to “a persistent smear campaign” by pro-Israel groups insinuating that Ellison is anti-Semitic because of “his criticism of Israel’s policy toward Palestinians” and his past associations with Nation of Islam founder Louis Farrakhan.
In a show of unity, Perez immediately appointed Ellison deputy DNC chair – a move that is unlikely to make the tensions over Israel go away.
Yahoo News’ Katie Couric revived the smears against Ellison after the vote as she interviewed Perez.
Invoking threats around the country against Jewish communities, including vandalism of Jewish cemeteries – acts which Ellison has forcefully condemned – Couric asked, “What do you say to Jews who are really disturbed by Ellison’s role in your party?”
“Keith Ellison is a friend of the Jewish community and I know that,” Perez replied. “He’s a civil rights leader.”
Perez insisted that he and Ellison would work together for a two-state solution. “A two-state solution has to occur and it has to be direct negotiations between the parties. That’s what our Democratic platform is,” Perez said. “It’s a very strong platform on Israel.”
“I know moving forward, Congressman Ellison and I will be united,” Perez insisted.
The supporters, including BDS advocate Cornel West, were named to the committee by Bernie Sanders.
Even the mildest proposals put forward by Sanders’ appointees recognizing Palestinian rights were voted down by the pro-Clinton majority.
Those battles were lost, but as its base continues to grow more supportive of Palestinian rights, the war over Israel in the Democratic Party is far from over.