On December 13, Washington Examiner commentator Tiana Lowe published an opinion piece claiming that presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is running the most antisemitic campaign in decades. Outraged Sanders supporters, staffers and surrogates launched a hashtag campaign to remind voters that Sanders would be the #FirstJewishPresident of the United States of America. And although I am excited and proud to support the first serious Jewish contender for the American presidency, as an anti-Zionist Jewish supporter of Bernie Sanders I fear that this well-intentioned response to Lowe’s hit piece has the potential to backfire and damage not only our campaign’s momentum, but commitment to Palestinian freedom.
I wouldn’t be excited for just any Jewish candidate. We should reject the ideologically vacuous politics that purport the superiority of candidates on the bases of race, gender and other identities. For example, many Sanders supporters (myself included) lambast the liberal devotion to electing the first female president, even if she is a warhawk, cop or “capitalist to her bones.” Would, or should we, be equally as excited for Jewish presidential candidate and former New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg? Notorious for his stop-and-frisk policies and Occupy Wall Street crackdowns, Bloomberg is also a right-wing Zionist who considers Benjamin Netanyahu a friend and commended Israel for Operation Protective Edge, the 2014 assault on Gaza which killed over 2,000 Palestinians.
The Examiner published Lowe’s article one day after the Labour Party’s historic defeat in the United Kingdom’s General Elections. The inarguably defining election issue was Brexit, but another contributing (although not necessarily decisive) factor was the successful right-wing smear campaign against Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn is a veteran of the Palestine solidarity movement. He has condemned Israel’s illegal settlements, weekly killing of unarmed protesters in Gaza and the 2018 nation-state law which enshrines apartheid by asserting that only Jewish citizens possess the right to self-determination.
For the past four years, Corbyn and Labour have been slandered as antisemitic for insufficient deferrence to Israel. Labour’s defeat has emboldened right-wing Zionists to leverage the same accusations against Sanders because they worked against Corbyn. Even if it didn’t decide the election, the campaign succeeded in assassinating the character of a lifelong anti-racist activist and his working class party. Labour apologized for antisemitism where it didn’t exist and failed to confront it where it did. One notable study showed that Brits overestimated the number of Labour members faced with allegations of antisemitism by almost 300 times the published figures. (Only 0.1% of Labour members have been accused of antisemitism.)
Sanders’ Jewishness is significant insofar as it informs his commitments to social and economic justice. In a similar way that Sanders connects his personal background to the struggle for humane immigration policy, Sanders’ Jewishness is significant because he rejects the American Jewish establishment consensus on Israel. He unapologetically recognizes Netanyahu as a tyrant, declares himself an anti-Occupation Jew and uses the national debate stage to talk about Israel’s illegal blockade against Gaza.
Appealing to Sanders’ Jewish identity can be rhetorically effective. It’s important that we condemn ironically antisemitic attempts to deny his Jewishness, as Lowe does when she denigrates him as “ethnically” Jewish. One in five American Jews describe themselves as secular and are just as Jewish as those who are religious. It is certainly useful to highlight the cynicism of these smear merchants － we live in truly strange times when the granddaughter of a Chetnik Nazi-collaborator can weaponize allegations of antisemitism against the nephew of Jewish Holocaust victims.
Simply invoking Sanders’ Jewishness might help us win the short-term battle against this particular hit piece. However, it doesn’t get to the root of the problem in a much longer battle, one that has raged for decades: the fight for justice in Palestine. It leaves us vulnerable when these smears are leveraged against non-Jews, namely Palestinians. It’s easy to defend Sanders and his mild criticisms － he’s Jewish, has worked on a Kibbutz and proclaims to be “100% pro-Israel” － but what about Palestinian American Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib or Women’s March co-founder Linda Sarsour, who take even braver stances in defense of Palestinian self-determination? Although Sanders’ case exemplifies how even liberal criticisms can incur the wrath of right-wing Zionists, the accusations leveraged against him are primarily because of his proximity to Tlaib, Sarsour and Congresswoman Ilhan Omar. Tlaib and Sarsour endorse a one-state solution guaranteeing full rights and equality for all citizens, and all three women are supporters of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. Since gaining prominence, they have been subjected to vicious right-wing, Islamophobic attacks; their criticisms of the state of Israel and the US Israel lobby have been intentionally misconstrued and cited as evidence that they － and by extension, all Muslims and Palestinians － are virulent antisemites.
Even though Sanders is not an anti-Zionist, we must be prepared to push back against the conflation of anti-Zionism and antisemitism. Jews are not the only ones with the moral authority to criticize and boycott the state of Israel. Millions of Palestinian refugees and exiles are anti-Zionists because Israel denies them their internationally recognized right of return. Thousands of Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza and Israel are evicted, imprisoned and murdered on their ancestral lands. Do we really believe Palestinians hate Jews, or rather the state violence perpetrated by Israel, “the national state, not of all its citizens, but only of the Jewish people?” We must honor their struggle by defending their right to resist Israeli occupation and apartheid.
If we are too afraid to utter the word “Palestine” when countering unfounded allegations of antisemitism, then we squander an unprecedented opportunity to talk to voters about Sanders’ progressive foreign policy platform, which perhaps more than anything else distinguishes him from the other supposed progressives in the race, Elizabeth Warren and Julián Castro. Sanders is the first major presidential candidate to propose not only cutting US military aid to Israel, but also diverting that money as humanitarian aid for Gaza. Yet if Sanders clears the bar for progressive policy on Palestine, it is only because the bar is so low. We cannot afford cede an inch to the smear merchants because our goal ultimately should be to pressure Sanders to endorse BDS, which is considered the bare minimum in the Palestine solidarity movement. And because the Sanders campaign is uniquely responsive to the grassroots － and because many of his surrogates and endorsers support BDS － we have a shot at doing so, but only if we extend our solidarity to Palestinians.
We have to learn from Labour’s failure to categorically reject the conflation of antisemitism and anti-Zionism (or even mere criticism of Israel) or we are doomed to repeat their mistakes and succumb to the smear campaign. We cannot shy away from centering Palestinian freedom in our movement.
“Not me, us” means “not Bernie Sanders, the first Jewish president,” but “all of us, including Palestinians.”