Can Sanders’ Humanism be Completed?
Op-ed by Rima Kapitan and Burkay Ozturk, Originally published on March 26, 2016
You know something unusual is happening when a Green Party presidential candidate issues a near-endorsement of a Democratic Party opponent. On March 2, Jill Stein praised the Sanders Campaign and emphasized that she shares his vision of economic justice and systemic reform.
This near-endorsement makes it especially curious that some left-of-Sanders critics like David Masciotra and Steven Salaita argue that supporting Bernie Sanders amounts to a betrayal of Palestinians. These critics (and others) argue that Sanders’ occasional lukewarm opposition to the Israeli agenda is insufficient to warrant the support of true progressives given Sanders’ failings, such as his approval of economic and military aid to Israel, even during its siege on Gaza.
We disagree. The thousands of Arabs who voted for Sanders in the primaries and caucuses so far did not betray Palestinians, nor are they being “dumb,” as Masciotra contends. On the contrary, to support Sanders is to adopt a principled strategic approach to achieving a just foreign policy through humanistic ideals and democratic reform. First, the humanistic underpinnings of Sanders’ campaign are incompatible with a U.S. foreign policy that provides one ethnic group basic rights that it denies to another. Second, as President, Sanders would be in a position to make structural changes that are prerequisites to making U.S. foreign policy more humane. In other words, getting Sanders in office should be seen not merely as an end in itself but as a means to an end.
Sanders’ Humanism and the Palestine Question
Movements evolve. Movements seeking justice and equal treatment for a certain marginalized group typically start out as a struggle for only that marginal group. They tend to ignore and even intentionally exclude from their platforms the pleas of other similarly treated groups. But over time, the egalitarian underpinnings of the core ideology of the movement often pushes its members to embrace those other marginalized groups who share their core ideology.
By way of illustration, let’s look at the evolution of the gay rights movement, and how it started out as an exclusive club for cis gendered gay and lesbians, yet eventually grew to include and embrace the trans rights cause.
Gay rights activism in the U.S. first caught mainstream traction in the 1970s and 80s. But some of the leading figures in the gay and lesbian rights movement were opposed to including trans people under what might now be called the “queer” umbrella. This was true even though trans women were instrumental in the watershed Stonewall Uprising of 1969, for example, and have always been celebrated members of the gay community. Today the historic exclusion of trans people is criticized within the queer community and beyond, and trans people have finally begun to experience genuine acceptance and support.
Despite this historical exclusion of trans people by some elements of the gay and lesbian rights movement, the movement’s core ideology entailed recognition of the human dignity of those whose sexual identity lies outside the mainstream. Because of that egalitarian core, outright rejection in some quarters evolved into cooperation (although some tensions still exist). It is partly because many early trans rights activists worked so hard to create and maintain alliances with the sometimes exclusionist gay and lesbian rights movement that they have been able to help that movement live up to its ideals and build on its successes.
Human rights activists who oppose Israeli land expropriation, occupation, illegal settlement building and war crimes can see Sanders’ imperfect and incomplete humanism through a similar lens.
Sanders’ platform is more than a collection of random progressive stances brought on by political expediency—it is inspired by humanism. The core ideology of Sanders’ humanism is that the poor and the marginalized of the country and the world must be permitted to thrive and participate in a meaningful way in the global economy and political system. Just like the imperfectly egalitarian core of the early gay rights movement, Sanders’ humanism is also incomplete. Whereas Sanders recognizes and fights for the rights of many oppressed groups, his humanism often ends at the borders of Israel/Palestine.
Sanders has shown himself to be someone who is not deaf to progressive pleas from his left. Black Lives Matter activists proved that they could push Sanders to be more vocal about issues such as the discriminatory nature of criminal prosecutions and police brutality. His responsiveness was not mere rhetoric, but consistent with his history of civil rights activism and the humanistic core of his ideology, which opposes repressive conditions that prevent marginalized segments of the society from full participation in society. Sanders realized that the economic equality he advocates and the grievances of marginalized black people are part of the same struggle.
Moreover, in his recent somewhat defiant speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), Sanders condemned Israel’s bombing and blockade of Gaza. He not only called for an end to the occupation and land expropriation in the West Bank, but proposed a complete dismantling of the existing settlements. Sure, there is a lot to dislike about the letter, for example the fact that it absurdly equates the “security” concerns of Israel with the widespread state-sponsored dispossession, exploitation, infrastructure destruction and extrajudicial killing of Palestinians. But the humanistic core of Sanders’ ideology overcomes his subtle racism and audaciously breaks through the surface: “[P]eace also means security for every Palestinian. It means achieving self-determination, civil rights, and economic well-being for the Palestinian people.”
So, although Sanders might not be always willing to admit it, the struggle for human rights in Israel/Palestine is part of his humanistic struggle too. If Sanders’ humanistic ideology were followed to its logical conclusion (as it was in several places in his letter to AIPAC), Sanders would oppose legislative efforts to stamp out boycott and divestment, and would oppose Congress’ financial and political backing of Israel. Humanism, imperfect and incomplete as it may be, is there right at the core of Sanders’ campaign. With encouragement, it can fully extend to Israel/Palestine.
Sanders and the Necessity of Reforming U.S. Politics
There is a second and more practical reason that foreign policy progressives support the Sanders campaign. Changing the structure of U.S. politics will allow human rights activists access to the political process and will break down some of the barriers to a humanistic foreign policy. Sanders is the only contemporary candidate who can enact such reforms.
Salaita correctly argues that Israel is not an isolated issue, but “implicitly and explicitly informs such matters of grave concern as neoliberalism, the arms industry, nuclear proliferation, dictatorial regimes and the influence of donor money on elections.” The reverse is also true, however; neoliberalism, the arms industry and the influence of donor money on elections are integral to the power structure that enables the Israeli violations of international law. If Sanders can make a serious dent in that structure, we have a chance at ending the U.S. government’s complicity in Israel’s crimes. As the Dearborn, Michigan newspaper The Arab Daily News pointed out in its endorsement of Sanders, “This country’s unjust foreign policy in the Middle East has been driven by special interest groups that exploit the influence of money on Washington. A fair economic system will bring more balance to all aspects of American politics, including foreign policy.”
Masciotra oversimplifies the case for Sanders when he haughtily condemns what he characterizes as Sanders supporters’ flippant embrace of the Doctrine of the Lesser of Two Evils. Masciotra fails to consider that many progressives support Sanders because his broad humanistic values are in alignment with theirs. In contrast, as Clinton’s entanglement with the corporate elite increases, she abandons most of the humanistic values she may have once possessed. One of the fundamental pillars of Sanders’ campaign is to reject this type of entanglement.
To be clear, our argument here is not that embrace of the Sanders campaign is the only viable means of engagement for human rights activists. There should indeed be political and even electoral pressure on Sanders from the left. But instead of building walls between the human rights movement and the electoral campaigns of genuinely progressive Democrats, we should use all means at our disposal to bring about justice.
We should follow the example of other successful activist movements and Jill Stein, and help Sanders find the courage to complete his humanism. He needs us, just as we need him.
Rima Kapitan is a civil rights and employment attorney in Chicago. Her latest publication is an acclaimed chapter about academic freedom in Haymarket Books’ Against Apartheid: The Case for Boycotting Israeli Universities.
Burkay Ozturk received his BA at Bilkent University and his PhD at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is a lecturer of philosophy at Texas State University and specializes in philosophy of science and mathematical philosophy. He has also published in ethics and philosophy of religion.