Accusing Bernie Sanders of anti-Semitism is nothing but thinly veiled Islamophobia

Accusing Bernie Sanders of anti-Semitism is nothing but thinly veiled Islamophobia
Comment: Critics are accusing Jewish candidate Bernie Sanders of anti-Semitism, just to keep his progressive politics out of power, writes Sahar Aziz.
5 min read
23 Dec, 2019
Independent candidate Bernie Sanders speaks at a campaign rally in Michigan [Getty]
Bernie Sanders is the first Jewish American to have a real chance of becoming president of the United States. He is also the first mainstream candidate to challenge America's unconditional support for Israel. Together, this makes him a prime target of Islamophobes and anti-Semites alike.  

Sanders, the son of Holocaust survivors, is endorsed by the first two Muslim women elected to the US Congress - Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar. 

His campaign also works with Palestinian Muslim American activist, Linda Sarsour, to mobilise voters in states with large Arab and Muslim populations.  

All three Muslim women are vocal and progressive on immigrant rights, women's rights and anti-Black racism. All three also support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement opposing Israel's violations of Palestinian human rights.  

As a result, Omar, Tlaib and Sarsour have been subjected to vile and systematic attacks on social media, including numerous death threats. Mainstream conservative media peddle common Islamophobic tropes that they are terrorists, disloyal, and anti-Semitic.

Indeed, a 2018 empirical study of 113,000 Twitter messages directed at Muslim candidates found an organised smear campaign against Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib by bots and Islamophobic influencers.

Notably, the trope of the Muslim as an anti-Semite was most frequently invoked. Xenophobic demands for Tlaib and Omar to go back to their countries came in a close second. Some tweets, as well as Republican politicians, went as far as accusing Ilhan Omar of inspiring the shooter of the massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh that killed 11 and wounded seven Jewish worshippers.

When Sanders openly associates with these three American Muslim trailblazers, he puts himself directly in the crosshairs of American Islamophobia

So when Bernie Sanders openly associates with these three American Muslim trailblazers, he puts himself directly in the crosshairs of American Islamophobia.

Groups focused on combatting anti-Semitism criticise Sanders for campaigning with Ilhan Omar in New Hampshire and accepting Rashida Tlaib's endorsement. The American Jewish Congress and Anti-Defamation League want Sanders to stop using Linda Sarsour as a campaign surrogate.   

And what are the grounds for these Jewish American groups' critiques? To them, opposing Israeli state practices violating Palestinian human rights is anti-Semitic.

But what critics fail to understand is that Sanders' defense of Palestinian rights is not due to some secret plot by Tlaib, Omar, and Sarsour.  

Sanders, one of the most independent thinkers in Congress, genuinely believes America's failure to adopt an even-handed approach to the Israeli-Palestinian issue is antithetical to his progressive values. He opposes the US' carte blanche to Israel.

Although Sanders supports US military aid to Israel, which is the most a single nation receives annually at $3.8 billion, he treats Israel like any other foreign nation that should be held accountable for human rights violations. That includes leveraging aid on whether Israel agrees to end settlement expansions, Palestinian home demolitions and targeted killings.

Sanders' views reflect a recent shift among Democratic voters who are as likely to be sympathetic to Palestinians as they are to Israelis.

A 2019 Pew Research Center poll, for example, found that around 57 percent of Democrats have a favourable opinion of both Palestinian people and Israeli people. In contrast, Democratic voters have largely unfavourable views of the Israeli and Palestinian governments at around 65 percent. 

Read more: Rashida Tlaib's momentous 'separate and unequal speech' makes her an icon of our times

The public's opposition to the Israeli government is not due so much to anti-Semitism as it is to Netanyahu's far-right politics that mirror those of Donald Trump. 

Israel's Jewish Nation-State Basic Law passed in 2018, for example, declares "the right to exercise national self-determination" belongs only to the Jewish people and establishes "Jewish settlement as a national value" that the state will encourage and promote. Arab Israelis are legally second-class citizens and Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are doomed to indefinite statelessness.

Moreover, a new generation of progressive Jewish Americans is working with Arab and Muslim Americans to challenge the Israeli occupation and laws that further marginalise Palestinians.  

As a result, the plight of Palestinians is increasingly covered by progressive Western media outlets - to the dismay of pro-Israeli groups in both liberal and conservative circles. The result is increased dissatisfaction with US complicity in abusive Israeli state practices.

Sanders articulated this sentiment at a CNN townhall with Democratic voters in June when he stated "What I believe is not radical. I just believe that the United States should deal with the Middle East on a level playing field basis. In other words, the goal must be to try to bring people together and not just support one country, which is now run by a right wing - dare I say - racist government."

What Sanders fails to recognise, however, is that in the US' current political climate, an even-handed approach is a radical idea. So too, is allying with progressive Muslim Americans blazing new ground in progressive politics.

Sanders' views reflect a recent shift among Democratic voters

Tlaib and Omar are among the nearly 100 Muslim Americans who ran for office in 2016. This Muslim Blue Wave led to 30 Muslims elected in local and state office. Of these predominantly Democratic candidates, Tlaib and Omar made history by winning two seats in the US House of Representatives.

Not only are they the first Muslim women elected to Congress, but they support progressive policies on domestic and foreign policies. 

Tlaib's most recent speech on 6 December denouncing the House Resolution in support of a two-state solution likened Israel's Nation-State law to Jim Crow, as she declared that "separate but equal didn't work in our country, and I can't see that it is possible in other countries. Given our nation's history of segregation, we should recognise when such injustices are occurring."

Should Sanders win the election, he too will make history as the first Jewish American to hold the highest office. He would also be the first US president to, in his words, "treat the Palestinian people with respect and dignity."  

With so much at stake for people who want neither progressive Jews nor Muslims in power, they will go to extreme lengths - including making ludicrous claims that a son of Holocaust survivors is anti-Semitic.

Sahar Aziz, Professor of Law and Chancellor's Social Justice Scholar at Rutgers Law School.  She is the director of the Center for Security, Race and Rights and the author of "Whosoever Sees an Evil: Muslim Americans' Human Rights Advocacy"

Follow her on Twitter: @saharazizlaw

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.