Democratic pro-Israel group attacks Bernie Sanders

Man raises fist

Senator Bernie Sanders addresses the annual conference of the Israel lobby group J Street in Washington, DC, 28 October.

Michael Brochstein SIPA USA

Democratic Majority for Israel is angry at Senator Bernie Sanders because two Muslim congresswomen of color supportive of Palestinian rights and freedom have endorsed him for president.

The group, which bills itself as the “voice of pro-Israel Democrats,” was formed earlier this year to prevent the rapid hemorrhaging of support for Israel among progressives in the party.

Mark Mellman, the organization’s leader, said last week, “It’s deeply disturbing to find a candidate who claims to be ‘100 percent pro-Israel,’ opposed to BDS and a fighter against anti-Semitism surrounding himself with a number of surrogates and endorsers who hate Israel, support BDS and have repeatedly made anti-Semitic statements.”

BDS stands for boycott, divestment and sanctions, the Palestinian-led movement to pressure Israel to respect human rights, modeled on the global campaign that helped end apartheid in South Africa.

Mellman did not name the endorsers, but the timing indicates he was referring to representatives Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib.

Less clear is whether he’s also upset at Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose endorsement of Sanders made national headlines.

Mellman also slammed Sanders for choosing Linda Sarsour as an official campaign surrogate.

He smeared the activist as a “noted anti-Semite.”

According to Mellman, the only response from Sanders to protests about Sarsour’s role has been “more hostile choices on his part.”

Mellman is unprepared to grapple with Sarsour’s fundraising for Jewish cemeteries desecrated by bigots or her close alliance with social justice activists in Jewish Voice for Peace.

It’s probable she’s stuck with the label because she believes in equal rights for Palestinians and Jews between the Jordan River and Mediterranean Sea.

The fact that Sanders is developing a broad coalition seems to alarm Mellman and others determined to speak negatively of emerging Muslim support for potentially the first Jewish president in US history.

The congresswomen clearly represent the progressive energy in the Democratic Party.

As such, Mellman and his astroturf – or fake grassroots – organization are making every effort to stop them as political leaders like Sanders catch up to where the Democratic grassroots is on Palestinian rights.

Mellman is not alone, particularly in going after Omar and Tlaib.

A campaign to discredit the lawmakers has for months been championed by conservatives and pro-Israel journalists such as Bari Weiss of The New York Times and Batya Ungar-Sargon of The Forward.

Republicans have enthusiastically joined in.

Parts of the political right are now distraught over the endorsement announcements, as usual resorting to making things up while claiming such things cannot be made up.

Not Sanders’ first rodeo

Sanders has previously shown himself to be unintimidated by Democratic Majority for Israel.

When the presidential candidates were asked earlier this year to share their views on Israel with the organization, Sanders referred them to a speech he delivered to the liberal Israel lobby group J Street two years ago.

In that speech, Sanders repeatedly referred to the “Israeli occupation” and the need to end it.

At this week’s J Street conference, Sanders reiterated his pledge to use US military aid as leverage to force Israel to change policy.

Unsurprisingly, Democratic Majority for Israel took exception:

Only one other presidential aspirant, Elizabeth Warren, referenced the occupation in responding to Democratic Majority for Israel.

She mentioned it once.

Astonishingly, with grassroots Democrats voicing increasing concern about Israel’s policies, not one of the other presidential respondents bothered to mention the occupation – the bare minimum human rights concern to be expected of a serious Democrat.

The disconnect between the grassroots and leadership is striking. But it is also notable that two of the three candidates to have highlighted the occupation to Democratic Majority for Israel are polling in the top three.

Sanders, for his part, spoke forthrightly in the February 2017 speech he shared of ending “this 50-year-long occupation.”

Yet in addressing the reality of “the territories occupied in 1967,” Sanders continues to promote the antiquated two-state solution which Israel’s theft and settlement of Palestinian land has seemingly killed.

That said, Sanders also asked, “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?”

Sanders doesn’t directly answer his own question, but went on to note that “Israel’s continued occupation of Palestinian territories and its daily restrictions on the political and civil liberties of the Palestinian people runs contrary to fundamental American values.”

Which way Warren?

Elizabeth Warren has been repeatedly criticized here and elsewhere for literally running from a question about Israel’s invasion of Gaza in 2014.

Yet in the past few days she indicated that US military aid would have to be put on the table if Israel continues with settlement construction.

This constitutes a small measure of progress even as her vision continues to be clouded by adherence to a two-state framework that no longer seems possible.

Warren also recently raised alarm bells among progressives when she reportedly had campaign manager Roger Lau tell Mellman that Max Berger, a co-founder of IfNotNow currently working for Warren, has nothing to do with her campaign’s Israel policy or with outreach to Jewish constituents.

Strange politics

Mellman’s organization may still be succeeding with centrist politicians, but the group’s leadership, judgment and progressive credentials are clearly in question.

The board co-chair of Democratic Majority for Israel is Ann Lewis.

She worked in the Bill Clinton White House and has brought “progressive” women to Israel on behalf of the American Israel Education Foundation – a cutout of the powerful Israel lobby group AIPAC.

Lewis is also on the board of Zioness, another fake grassroots Israel lobby group that poses as feminist – but tramples on the rights of Palestinian women and girls living with dispossession and occupation.

Zioness emerged from and received funding from the right-wing Lawfare Project organization. Lawfare executive director and founder Brooke Goldstein is perhaps best known for her anti-Palestinian racism and her claim that “There’s no such thing as a Palestinian person.”

What is clear is that Democratic Majority for Israel represents an outdated, top-down form of politics. It opposes the universalist and egalitarian values that are motivating the Democratic Party’s base.

As such, it may be a nuisance to politicians but it has little chance of stopping the grassroots momentum towards viewing support for Palestinian rights as a sensible and essential part of a real progressive agenda.

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There is absolutely no defense of Israeli occupation of what should be Palestine - no excuse, no rationale, no "timetable". America needs to quit defending Israel's illegal occupation. America needs to with-hold all aid to Israel and needs to declare all charitable donations made by American citizens as subject to US taxes unless such donations are made to all inhabitants of occupied Palestine as well as official Israel.
A Palestinian state should be established immediately along the lines of pre 1967 war - as called for by UN Resolution.
As for the "Jewish settlers: in occupied Palestine, they should be given a choice - either become Palestinian citizens , paying taxes to Palestine and be subject to Palestinian laws or leave Palestine.

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Bernie Sanders is a fine man, noble and principled and I just can't shake the conviction he's too good for US.

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Michael F. Brown

Michael F. Brown is an independent journalist. His work and views have appeared in The International Herald Tribune, TheNation.com, The San Diego Union-Tribune, The News & Observer, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Washington Post and elsewhere.