Why So Many Palestinians in New York Support Bernie Sanders

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Bernie Sanders supporters gather during a rally in New York's Washington Square Park, April 13, 2016.
Bernie Sanders supporters gather during a rally in New York's Washington Square Park, April 13, 2016.Credit: Andres Kudacki, AP

In the short breaks between one musical piece and the next, the young pianist turned to the audience and said: “The important thing is, on Tuesday, vote for Bernie.” This was not in a concert hall; it was in New York City’s Washington Square Park.

The pianist is Colin Huggins, who every weekend trundles his piano out to the park and performs there for 12 hours a day. The last of his listeners, a native Jewish Brooklynite, tried to cool the performer’s enthusiasm for the Jewish candidate, to no avail.

On Wednesday we’ll know the results of the primaries in New York. But the Sanders challenge now is “to build after the elections a democratic movement for social justice from the momentum of support for him,” said another supporter, Karim, a Palestinian citizen of Israel (a Balad supporter,) who moved to the United States.

A few days before the concert, a rasta-coiffed man and his young son stood on a stone pillar in the park and waved the Palestinian flag. “Bernie, Bernie,” these two African-Americans called out loudly, together with thousands more who came to the rally to hear the candidate. On a bench sat a Latino-American actress for whom “Palestine is the South Africa or Ireland of today.”

She had not come to hear Tim Robbins or Spike Lee (the poor sound system made it impossible to tell who was speaking,) but rather to express support. Not far from there, the rich aroma of pot made its way to Nariman, who, like everyone else, had stood for two hours to get into the park. She is a Palestinian-American, a BDS activist, and she’s going to vote for Sanders. She tells about a sticker and a T-shirt with the slogan “This Muslim is voting for the Jewish guy.”

Karim talks about how, back in 1988, Sanders criticized Yitzhak Rabin’s “breaking arms and legs” policy in the first intifada. But it turns out that the criticism was not as sharp as it should be; the word “occupation” is missing from it. According to the Electronic Intifada website, in 2014 and 2015, Sanders silenced activists who asked about the Palestinian right to resist, and even had people ejected from his rally who were carrying a big pro-Palestinian flag, and spoke only about the Hamas rockets.

In the 1970s, Sanders called for a ban on the sale of guns to Israel; today he does not oppose American military aid to Israel, according to the Mondoweiss website. He also tends to place responsibility on “both sides.” In the debate with Hillary Clinton, his statements about Israel were quite anemic. And so why is Karim so excited?

Karim says he prefers Sanders’ inconsistency over what he calls Clinton’s outright hypocrisy and pandering. He says Sanders is the first candidate who knows he needs the Jewish vote to win, but still criticizes Israel. Especially in presidential races, politicians tend to be blindly pro-Israel, he added.

Karim is sure that considering Sanders’ stand against the domination of big corporations over society, as well as his opposition to the unequal distribution of national wealth, a progressive stand against the Israeli occupation is a given.

“He’s still trying to learn, still trying to listen, true, his position isn’t perfect,” Karim said. “But it’s courageous and nuanced”.

In other words, Sanders’ general positions will oblige him to understand that the pressure brought to bear by a small group of wealthy Jews to silence criticism of Israel and the support of billionaires and corporations for Israel’s policies only proves the danger of those policies.

And one could be less ambitious and make do with this: Here is someone who breaks the stereotype of the Gordian knot between Jews and Money.