Bernie Sanders says “tone down the rhetoric” on Israel’s crimes

By Ali Abunimah
24 May 2021

Palestinians are still reeling from the horrific toll of death and destruction inflicted by Israel in the Gaza Strip this month.

Over 11 days, more than 240 Palestinians were killed in Gaza, including more than 60 children, and 2,000 others were injured.

In the occupied West Bank, almost 30 families are mourning loved ones killed by occupation forces just during the past two weeks. And within Israel, Palestinian citizens faced organized pogroms by Jewish Israeli mobs backed by authorities.

Meanwhile, Israel continues its assaults on Palestinians throughout historic Palestine, particularly in occupied Jerusalem.

Raw numbers cannot capture the scale of the terror and trauma Israel continues to inflict.

But Senator Bernie Sanders, the supposed standard bearer of US progressives, wants Palestinians and their supporters to make a little bit less of a fuss.

Decades after Palestinians first accurately described Israel as an apartheid state, such mainstream human rights organizations as Israel’s B’Tselem and New York-based Human Rights Watch have in recent months reached the same conclusion.

“Tone down the rhetoric”

On Sunday, Sanders was asked about the use of this term on CBS’ Face The Nation.

Host John Dickerson – who sounded like a defense attorney for Israel throughout the interview – told Sanders that “there are a number of liberals who use the word apartheid to describe Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.”

Citing an Israel lobby group, Dickerson claimed such criticism was fueling an upsurge in anti-Jewish bigotry.

He then put it to Sanders that using the word apartheid “has increased the level of vitriol that has contributed to this anti-Semitism.”

Rather than affirm that Israel indeed practices apartheid and reject the equation between criticism of Israel’s crimes and anti-Semitism, Sanders agreed with his host.

“Well, I think we should tone down the rhetoric,” Sanders said, before serving up a word salad that concluded, “the job of the United States is to bring people together.”

Mohammed El-Kurd, a Palestinian poet and activist against ethnic cleansing in occupied East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, called Sanders’ answer “a disgrace.”

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There was a torrent of similar criticism of Sanders from Palestinians and their supporters.

Sadly, it was not the only disgraceful thing Sanders said in the 8-minute segment on Palestine that you can watch at the top of this article.

As the world recoils at the brazenness of Israel’s colonial war crimes, Sanders still insisted that “We have to be pro-Israel, but we have to be pro-Palestinian” – adamantly sticking to a false balance that equates the perpetrator with the victim

And rather than challenge the language that has for decades been used to demonize and delegitimize any and all Palestinian resistance, Sanders called Hamas “a terrorist, corrupt, authoritarian group of people” and insisted “we have got to stand up to them.”

As significant as what Sanders said is what he failed to say.

Nowhere did he criticize Zionism, Israel’s racist state ideology.

Nor did he call for effective, popular solidarity with Palestinians by endorsing and promoting BDS – the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement modeled on the global campaign that helped end apartheid in South Africa.

Indeed, Sanders is on record opposing BDS.

Sanders failed to call for Israeli leaders to be held to account for war crimes.

He did not demand that the Biden administration drop its opposition to the International Criminal Court’s investigation of war crimes in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Instead, the senator sought to shield Israel from criticism by deflecting the blame on to its current government.

“Over the years, the Netanyahu government has become extremely right wing,” Sanders asserted, and “there are people in the Israeli government now who are overt racists.”

Every Israeli government of every political stripe from Zionist “left” to Zionist right has been racist since the state was founded by ethnic cleansing in 1948.

But just as many liberals think that America’s problems started with the election of Donald Trump in 2016, Sanders apparently believes that Benjamin Netanyahu invented racism in Israel.

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“White moderate”

None of this should be surprising.

It is all in keeping with Sanders’ long record of support for Zionism, not to mention his staunch record of support for US imperialism.

However his latest comments should put to rest any hope that Sanders can fundamentally change or be a real ally to Palestinians.

Sanders’ efforts to police and “tone down” the language that accurately describes Israel’s crimes brings to mind the archetypal “white moderate” so eloquently described by Martin Luther King, Jr. in his 1963 Letter from a Birmingham Jail:

“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

So it is with Sanders’ lukewarm support for Palestinians.

Just like the white moderate who condemned segregation, Sanders does acknowledge some of the wrongs perpetrated by Israel.

On Face the Nation, for example, he stated that in the recent attack on Gaza, Israel “killed 64 children and destroyed a large part of the infrastructure of Gaza in a community that has already been one of the most uninhabitable territories in the world.”

“The United States of America has got to be leading the world in bringing people together, not simply supplying weapons to kill children in Gaza,” he added.

Ineffective measures

Sanders has put forward a Senate resolution to block $735 million in further sales of precision-guided bombs from the US to Israel.

Given that as recently 2014, Sanders was angrily berating and silencing his constituents for objecting to Israel’s massacre of Palestinians in Gaza that year, this could be seen as “progress.”

But what it really is, is a distraction.

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If Sanders put forward the Senate resolution while supporting the Palestinian people’s struggle and legitimate resistance, particularly BDS, it might be seen as a building block.

But he is offering a resolution that has no chance of passage while opposing and condemning all forms of Palestinian resistance – even using the Israel lobby’s demonizing terminology of “terrorism.”

Even with all his criticism of Israeli leaders – the worst he will call Netanyahu is “right wing” and a “racist” – Sanders is still harsher in his denunciation of Palestinians.

At best Sanders provides rhetorical support to Palestinians, at worst he is undermining their struggle for liberation by defusing anger and demands for action by channeling them into a dead end.

Just as he twice sheepdogged left-wing voters into the corporate, warmongering Democratic Party, Sanders seeks to channel supporters of Palestinian rights away from clear diagnosis and effective solidarity, into his moribund liberal Zionism.

At a moment when support for Israel is collapsing within the base of the Democratic Party, here comes Bernie Sanders to the rescue, with soft criticism of Israel and ineffective measures.

Writing from his jail cell, King rejected the “moderate” criticism that nonviolent direct action was generating crisis and tension and that he needed, so to speak, to tone it down.

“We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with,” King countered.

“Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed.”

That is as true today of Israel’s regime of occupation, apartheid and settler-colonialism, as it was of the American apartheid King was fighting, and which sadly persists to this day.

No one should listen to Bernie Sanders’ advice. Do not tone it down. Tone it up.

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