Wednesday, October 7, 2015

October 7, 2015 - Bernie Sanders on Palestine and Dissent

Senator Bernie Sanders has surged to prominence in recent weeks as he has taken the lead over Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire in the race for the Democratic Presidential Nomination. Sanders still trails Clinton nationally, but he's doing far better than anyone expected at the outset. (If you're interested in the exact polling data, this is a good resource.)

Sanders has emerged as a legitimate contender using a message that concentrates almost exclusively on domestic issues. He openly claims the label of socialism, and speaks passionately on conventional progressive issues--unions, income inequality, college affordability, poverty, climate change, etc. But Sanders has stayed largely silent on the subject of foreign policy. And in some ways this is surprising. His primary opponent, Hillary Clinton, is very hawkish on foreign policy issues. She voted for the Iraq War in 2003 as a Senator, and as Secretary of State, she was a strong advocate of intervention in Libya in 2011 (which remains a disaster) and in Syria starting in 2012 (which also remains a disaster). This is just to name a few of highlights. Given that hardcore progressives tend to oppose armed conflict and he has a far more peaceful recordy comparison, one would imagine that this could be a real edge for him. And yet, it hasn't been a big focus.

The reason for this silence may be that his views aren't quite what his base is looking for. This question is now in the news after Bernie's campaign kicked out a group of activists from a major campaign rally in Boston. The activists, who were with the group Boston Students for Justice in Palestine, brought a sign that read "Will ya #FeelTheBern for Palestine?" and said afterwards that they genuinely wanted to know more about Bernie's stance on the Israel-Palestine issue. Unfortunately, they didn't get to ask. In fact, they were threatened with being arrested if they didn't leave. Murtaza Hussain has an excellent write-up on this story over at The Intercept:

We won't attempt to dissect the Israel-Palestine issue in this post, but it suffices to say that Bernie's stance is very much in line with the mainstream US position. And as such, it consists largely of platitudes and sound bytes that sound nice. So Bernie has supported a two-state solution for a long time, says that Israel has a right to self-defense, and thinks Israel "overreacted" in the most recent war on Gaza in 2014. These all sound like reasonable positions, but they convey little in the way of policy. After all, Israel itself has also ostensibly supported a two-state solution since the passage of the Oslo Accords in 1993, but it hasn't happened yet. And what exactly does overreacted mean? Does it mean Israel used excessive force and violated international law? It may imply this, but you still won't hear Sanders or anyone in the Obama Administration pushing for a war crimes investigation any time soon.

In reality, these positions are the same defense of the status quo that's offered by every other major US politician. And that's why you're not likely to hear Bernie talk about this issue. The status quo on Israel-Palestine isn't good enough for his supporters and he knows it.

*I should note that Bernie's campaign has since called the activists to apologize for how they were treated. They blamed the campaign staffer involved for being "over-eager." But is that really credible? A random staffer just decided on a whim to kick out a group of enthusiastic activists with a polite sign? No, it seems more likely that she was instructed to keep these ideas out, and now that it became a news story, the campaign is trying to distance itself from its mistake. Here's a quick story on the apology from the campaign so you can decide for yourself.


  1. To me, the most likely scenario is they've been instructed to keep protesters out in general, not just Palestinians. Sometimes protesters sit quietly, and sometimes they take the mic.

  2. It sounds like these folks may have been reasonable, but I agree with Meatier...after the blacklivesmatter folks ruined that one rally it's totally understandable to want to distractions to a minimum. Unfortunately these more reasonable protesters might get caught in net so to speak.

    The other item is the relative importance of the issue. I'm not saying it's why they were removed at all but Bernie has a lot of great ideas that could dramatically impact the day-to-day lives of many Americans much more so than wading into the Palestinian conflict for the 4,000th time and that's why folks came out to hear him speak.

  3. Perhaps, but where's the line between protester, activist, and supporter? I think it's safe to assume if someone was carrying signs about climate change or the minimum wage, they would have been fine with that. I could be wrong on that. But if that was really their policy, it doesn't make sense that they apologized for it in a mea culpa sort of way. It wasn't just, "I'm sorry you were disrespected," it was full-on that shouldn't have happened. If it was just a matter of consistent policy, it seems like they wouldn't have reacted the way they did when it became a news story.

    To Andy, I disagree on your assessment of relative importance, naturally, since foreign policy is sort of my focus. One of the best things Obama has done is to help erode slightly the special relationship with Israel, which is a subtle but significant driver of our foreign policy with respect to Iran and Iraq historically, as well as to Syria currently. The Palestine issue is therefore incredibly important in my view to America's national interest (though I hate that phrase). But setting that aside, I do agree with you that Bernie's proposed policies have the power to dramatically change the lives of many Americans. I'm quite confident you and I would disagree about the qualitative direction of such changes, however, as I think most would be a calamity. If he was a new Kucinich on foreign policy, his domestic proposals would be a tolerable trade. But he's not. We'll leave further discussion of Bernie's economic impact to future posts though.