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Israel-Palestine war: Bernie Sanders' refusal to call for a ceasefire in Gaza is alienating his base

The crisis in Gaza presents a political challenge for a senator who is not just a progressive leader but also a supporter of a 'socialist' Israel that no longer exists
US Senator Bernie Sanders speaks to the media outside of the White House after meeting with President Joe Biden on 17 July 2023 in Washington, DC (AFP)
US Senator Bernie Sanders speaks to the media outside of the White House after meeting with President Joe Biden on 17 July 2023 in Washington, DC (AFP)

On 2 November, as Israel continued to relentlessly bomb the Gaza Strip, a United States senator called for a ceasefire. He was the first senator to do so, and so far, none of his colleagues have joined him, despite the growing protests across the country against the US's callous support of Israel’s campaign of killing in Gaza.

“Let’s face it, this has gone on for decades,” said that senator. “Whatever the rationale for the beginning, it has now reached an intolerable level. We need to have a resolution in the Middle East that gives some promise for the future.”

Pressed about whether he thought it was time for a ceasefire, the senator responded, “I think it is.”

Given the makeup of the US Senate, one would assume that the senator who would go out on a limb and become the first, and still the only one, to call for a ceasefire would be progressive firebrand Bernie Sanders. But it wasn’t. Instead, it was Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois.

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Durbin is known as a relatively liberal senator, but he’s never been a leader on the issue of Palestine. Sanders, on the other hand, has been the most outspoken member of the Senate on Palestine, although that is a pretty low bar. Still, in the past, he has been willing to speak out.

During his 2016 presidential run, Sanders offered some mild criticism of Israeli policies, but did so in Brooklyn, New York, defying fears that this would cause his Jewish supporters to bolt. But nothing of the kind happened. Sanders has also spoken about enforcing US law on arms sales to Israel, a subject so controversial in Washington that it is seen as politically toxic. He has repeatedly criticised Israel’s policies; but on Gaza, he has absolutely refused to call for a ceasefire.

When asked, Sanders supported the Israeli view that military action must continue until Hamas is destroyed. “I don’t know how you can have a ceasefire, a permanent ceasefire, with an organisation like Hamas, which is dedicated to turmoil and chaos and destroying the State of Israel,” Sanders told CNN. “I think what the Arab countries in the region understand is that Hamas has got to go.”

Ignoring demands

Two weeks ago, more than 300 former Sanders staffers and campaign workers published an open letter calling on him to support a ceasefire, an end to the blockade of Gaza and “US military funding for war crimes against the Palestinian people, the expansion of settlements, and the occupation of Palestinian lands.”

Last week, protesters visited Sanders’s office, demanding that he call for a ceasefire. The senator's chief of staff reportedly refused to meet with the protesters. It was an unusual cold shoulder from Sanders who has earned a reputation as a man of the people who listens to his constituents.

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This past weekend, hundreds of thousands of people demonstrated in Washington, DC - the largest pro-Palestinian protest in US history - and across the country in support of a ceasefire and the protection of Palestinian lives.

When members of Congress seem to bend over backwards to accommodate Israel, their motives are often ascribed to the powerful pro-Israel lobbying forces, led by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac). But that explanation doesn’t work with Sanders, who has shown repeatedly that he is not concerned about alienating Aipac.

Indeed, he has explicitly called out the group for its disruptive effect on American politics and its support of any candidate, no matter how pernicious, as long as they follow the group’s pro-Israel line.

If more proof was needed, Aipac actually praised Sanders for his refusal to call for a ceasefire. Rather than try to pocket that as a small political win, Sanders blasted the group, while not mentioning Israel or Gaza.

“Aipac has supported dozens of GOP extremists who are undermining our democracy. They’re now working hard to defeat progressive members of Congress. We won’t let that happen. Let us stand together in the fight for a world of peace, economic and social justice and climate sanity,” the senator stated.

While that criticism did not relate to the current mass killings in Gaza, Sanders clearly is not intimidated by Aipac's considerable clout in Washington. So why is he taking this stance, one which does not sit well with so much of the movement he has spent the better part of the last decade trying to build?

Bernie’s roots

Writer David Klion believes Sanders’s motives stem from his background. As a Jew whose father lost his entire family in the Holocaust, the mass murder of fellow Jews has long been a key motivating factor in his social justice activism. Sanders also has a personal connection to Israel, having lived on a kibbutz near Haifa in 1963.

Sanders must look at how his experience with a very different Israel six decades ago and his visceral reaction to Hamas’s attack may be affecting his judgement

Sanders wrote about that experience in 2019: "It was there that I saw and experienced for myself many of the progressive values upon which Israel was founded. I think it is very important for everyone, but particularly for progressives, to acknowledge the enormous achievement of establishing a democratic homeland for the Jewish people after centuries of displacement and persecution."

Sanders remembers a very different Israel from the one that exists today. In 1963, the fanatical religious Zionists that are the backbone of the current government were virtually non-existent, as the number of Orthodox Jews who supported Zionism was still negligible. Israel’s socialist system still existed, as did the ideals, even if those same idealists could not see that their colonial ambitions had dispossessed another people.

Those failures of Israeli consciousness are not lost on Sanders, who, in the same article, acknowledged that the founding of Israel was seen by Palestinians "as the cause of their painful displacement". And all of this explains Sanders’ history of being both well out in front of most of his colleagues on Palestine, but far behind the movement for Palestinian rights.

ceasefire protesters
Protesters from the Franciscan Action Network call on US President Joe Biden to support a ceasefire in Gaza outside the White House in Washington, DC on 2 November 2023 (Reuters)

But this moment presents more than just a political challenge for a senator who fancies himself as not just a progressive leader, but as someone on the vanguard, pushing the boundaries of humanistic and compassionate politics.

It demands that Sanders look at how his experience with a very different Israel six decades ago and his visceral reaction to the Palestinian fighters’ attack against Israel.

On the political level, Sanders must ask himself if he is going to stand on principle, which means going against President Joe Biden, a man with whom Sanders has a four-decade relationship. Perhaps more importantly, Biden is a president Sanders is able to influence. Most other Democrats, and all Republicans, would not be swayed by Sanders’s pressure, as the voters he mobilises are the progressive wing of the American public.

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But that wing is growing and active, and Biden is aware that they played a big role in getting him elected. As a result, Sanders has been able to make progress on parts of his agenda, particularly in the realm of organised labour.

Sanders may not have wanted to risk that influence by angering Biden, who seems pompously unaware that he is suffering huge damage to his 2024 candidacy with his support of Israel’s massacres in Gaza.

In an interview on Democracy Now, Democratic activist and Arab-American leader Jim Zogby spoke about the plummeting support among Arab and Muslim Americans for Biden's re-election campaign. He shared that White House staff dismissed these concerns, saying those communities "are not going to vote for Donald Trump, because they don’t want [to return to] what he was doing during his four years, and so they’ll come around in a year."

Zogby noted, however, that the disappointment in Biden goes beyond Arab and Muslim Americans. "It’s young people. It’s progressive Jews. It’s Black, Latino, and Asian voters. There’s a significant decline that this president is encountering across the board. And, you know, Gaza is playing into it."

The true test of one’s principles is whether you stick to them when it affects you personally. Sanders, whether due to his concern about Biden losing in 2024 or because his outrage at Hamas’s 7 October attack is eclipsing his compassion for the people of Gaza, is failing that test.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Mitchell Plitnick, a political analyst and writer, is the president of ReThinking Foreign Policy. He is the author, with Marc Lamont Hill, of Except for Palestine: The Limits of Progressive Politics. Mitchell’s previous positions include vice president at the Foundation for Middle East Peace, Director of the US Office of B’Tselem: The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, and Co-Director of Jewish Voice for Peace.
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