Cornel West appointment shows Bernie Sanders is willing to take risks on Palestine
The Democratic candidates for president have each nominated a team of surrogates to represent their political priorities when the party hashes out its 2016 platform at the Democratic National Convention (DNC). Hillary Clinton, the presumptive nominee, was afforded six slots on the platform committee. Among her picks were former Clinton State Department official Wendy Sherman and Neera Tanden, the president of the Center for American Progress (CAP), a liberal thinktank that has censored criticism of Israel on its blog and came under firefrom Palestine advocates last year for hosting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his campaign against the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran.
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, meanwhile, was given five spots, in accordance with his plucky primary performance. He chose environmental activist Bill McKibben; Native activist Deborah Parker; Maryland Congressperson Keith Ellison, who is the first Muslim elected to Congress and was one of only eight members of Congress to vote against rearming Israel during its 2014 assault on Gaza; Arab American Institute (AAI) president James Zogby, a moderate pro-Palestine voice long active in establishment Democratic politics; and—most importantly for left-wingers following the presidential election—Cornel West, the prominent activist and scholar.. Considering how radical West’s politics are, and how deeply he’s alienated media liberals with his withering critiques of the Obama administration and the Democrats, he’s maintained a remarkably visible presence on mainstream platforms.
West is vocally anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist, and makes no exception for issues relating to Israel-Palestine. He’s been the target of all the usual smearsand attempts at suppression by Israel advocates for his support for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, as well as for his steadfast criticismnot just of the current government of Benjamin Netanyahu, but of the broad range of systemic injustices Israel inflicts and has inflicted on Palestinians in Israel, in the Occupied Territories and in exile around the world—all of which BDS addresses in its demands. West’s analysis and his unequivocal solidarity with Palestinians go far beyond the commonly recognized left margin of discourse on Israel-Palestine in the Democratic Party, a margin that even Sanders’ own tepid statements about neutrality in negotiations and recognizing Palestinians’ humanity have apparently pushed.
Sanders’ nominations of Zogby and especially West reinforce a narrative that’s been developing over the past few years, as the BDS movement has picked up steam and access to information through independent and social media has made it harder for Americans who identify as liberal or left-of-center to believe that Israel can do no wrong. After the platform committee was announced, the New York Times ran an article titled “A Split Over Israel Threatens the Democrats’ Hopes for Unity.” Authors Jason Horowitz and Maggie Haberman point out that West and Zogby both responded to the announcements by expressing their intention to bring the Democratic platform closer to the progressive, humanitarian positions the U.S. would need to take in order to achieve justice for Palestinians. As the authors noted, Sanders’ willingness to take this fight to the DNC stage is indicative of a larger trend, in which Democratic voters and elites alike have become more critical of Israel and more sympathetic to the plight of Palestinians.
A recent Pew poll, for example, found that self-identified liberal Democrats are more likely to say they support the Palestinians over Israel.40 percent claimed their sympathies lie with the Palestinians, as opposed to 33 percent who claim they side with Israel. The 40 percent statistic is up a whopping 19 points from just two years ago, when 21 percent of liberal Democrats said they sympathize more with Palestinians.
The split in the party becomes even more defined when you break down the results by presidential candidate preference. Pew found that Sanders’ supporters sided with Palestinians 39 percent to 33 percent, while Clinton supporters favored Israel 47 percent to 27 percent.
It’s not just average Democratic voters who are subject to this trend. A 2015 survey by Republican pollster Frank Luntz asked Democratic “opinion elites” if Israel is a “racist country,” a startling 47 percent responded in the affirmative. These numbers indicate that the Sanders campaign’s marginal but non-negligible deviation from bipartisan orthodoxy is a symptom of a broader ideological shift that even Sanders himself is struggling to catch up to.
It’s fair to say that a reasonable person would not consider Sanders “pro-Palestine.” Indeed, to a majority of pro-Palestinian observers, Sanders’ campaign and recent political history are checkered to say the least. The fact that complicity in Israeli violence is standard practice in Congress doesn’t absolve Sanders of responsibility for supporting it, both in word and in deed. Back in April, the Sanders camp seemed to have been caught off guard by backlash from conservative pro-Israel corners when it named Simone Zimmermann, an activist with liberal Zionist organization J Street, as its national Jewish outreach coordinator.
Zimmermann and J Street are not supporters of BDS, but are reviled by right-wing Zionist groups as “anti-Israel” for their criticisms of the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, a position roughly comparable in substance with Sanders’ own. However, it appeared as though the Sanders campaign hadn’t thought this appointment through, since it promptly suspended her from her position after two days of reporting by conservative outlets on her record of being mean to Netanyahu on the internet.
Sanders also risked alienating Palestine solidarity activists when he was asked about BDS in an MSNBC interview on the day all the other presidential candidates pandered to the conservative American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). At AIPAC’s policy conference, the candidates—at the time, Clinton, Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and John Kasich—all tried to outdo each other in pledging to use the power of the executive branch to suppress BDS activism and counter the delegitimization of Israel, characterizing the movement as motivated by anti-Semitism.
Chris Hayes asked Sanders, who had made history by being the first major presidential candidate to skip the AIPAC conference, if he agreed with this characterization. Sanders responded in the safest (from the perspective of his campaign) and most equivocal way he could have been expected to.
“I think there is some of that, absolutely. Look, Israel has done some bad things. So has every other country on Earth. I think if people want to attack Israel for their policies, I think that is fair game but not to appreciate that there is some level of anti-Semitism around the world involved in that I think would be a mistake,” Sanders answered.
Compared to Clinton’s repeated pledges to crack down on BDS, and her generally unapologetically aggressive brand of Israel advocacy, the Sanders campaign’s mixed messages are a testament to the palpable leftward movement in how Democratic voters (not to mention party elites) see the so-called conflict. It’s impossible for us as Palestine solidarity activists to get behind his lukewarm takes on the situation or its solution—nor should we. But we’d be foolish not to take note of where things will stand in the mainstream of U.S. politics at the end of a convention where Sanders has promised to make Palestinian rights an explicit commitment of the party that, for so long, refused to allow any daylight between it and the Republicans on Israel-Palestine.
Sanders’ idea of “Palestinian rights” isn’t the same as mine. Not by a long shot. But his equivocations are actually a good thing, because they show how far we’ve come. As I argued in an op-ed earlier this year, Palestine advocates should remain ruthless in their criticism of Sanders’ support for Israel while encouraging—and taking encouragement from—the steps he’s already taken to show that he’s willing to take some political risks for a more ethical policy discussion at the highest levels of decisionmaking.
The Democratic Party’s 2016 platform is non-binding, which means Clinton won’t have to run on it. The short-term result of Sanders’ platform committee selections is likely to be a discussion that reflects the shift in attitudes towards Israel-Palestine that is already happening among the Democratic base. It makes our work easier as solidarity activists when political leaders legitimize left-wing positions—like Cornel West’s—that are much closer to ours than anything that’s been said about Israel-Palestine at a DNC before.
How pro-Palestinian voices should proceed with Sanders as a general election candidate or even as president is, at this point in the primary, a theoretical question. But that doesn’t negate the importance of the debate within the Palestine solidarity movement about the merits of backing Bernie. The Bernie Sanders campaign is a sign of things to come—a sign that the change in discourse we’ve been working towards all these lonely, perilous years is finally starting to take shape.