Palestinian Rights or Presidential Presence? A Brooklyn Brawl Between Sanders, Clinton

It was almost like the upcoming Passover Seder, but not quite. Sanders supporters hail 'historic moment' of comments on Palestinian plight while Clinton's backers point to foreign policy finesse and expertise.

Democratic U.S. presidential candidates Hillary Clinton (L) and Senator Bernie Sanders applaud before the start of a debate at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in New York April 14, 2016.
Brian Snyder, Reuters

BROOKLYN - It felt a bit like rehearsal for next week’s Passover Seders, with the contentious uncle and strong-willed aunt who like to go at each other at family dinners arguing about their views. Including about Israel-Palestine, which figured as prominently as any foreign policy topic in Thursday’s Democratic debate.

Presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders was the Luddite uncle who keeps his tax returns in a filing cabinet rather than on his computer and would never pay an accountant to do what his wife can do just as well. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was the aunt who’s an expert on everything important, and doesn’t suffer foolishness gladly. 

In true Brooklyn brawl style, at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the gloves were off in what CNN dubbed a “raucous debate” as once-carefully polite presidential candidates went at each other with jibs, jabs and barely-concealed snark, as well as direct attacks. Their surrogates, in the “spin room” after the debate, took the same tack.

The reporters' hall at the Democratic Presidential debate on Thursday, April 14, 2016.
Debra Nussbaum Cohen

Reporters were lined up at long rows of bare wooden tables, in front of their laptops as large screens every few rows broadcast the debate taking place in the debate hall across a narrow street at the former manufacturing center here. The Brooklyn Navy Yard was for many decades, through World War II, the place where great warships were built. Today it is being revived as a center of small craftspeople and artisanal workshops, along with the large spaces occupied by a few major retailers.

At the front of the reporters’ hall after the intense debate Anderson Cooper interviewed DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Democratic analyst Donna Brazile and David Axelrod, who was chief strategist for both of Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns, among others. At the same time, surrogates for each of the candidates were mobbed by reporters.

Linda Sarsour, who is executive director of the Arab American Association of New York and of Palestinian descent, was there as a Sanders supporter, and very pleased with what he had said during the Israel-Palestine portion of the debate.

Linda Sarsour of the Arab America association of New York at the Democratic Debate on Thursday, April 14, 2016.
Debra Nussbaum Cohen

“It was a historic moment,” she said, “when Senator Sanders went further than any other presidential candidate in my lifetime in talking about the Palestinian people, the conditions of the Palestinian people and saying they deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. And the disproportionate response Israel had against the Palestinian people in Gaza.”

Clinton spoke far more sympathetically than did Sanders about Israelis as victims of terrorism, including the Hamas rockets sent from amid civilian areas, which prompted Israel’s forceful response in 2014. Sanders again tonight described it as “disproportionate.”

Asked what she thought of Clinton’s perspective, Sarsour said, “She could not bring herself to say that the Palestinian people deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, which any human being should be able to say Secretary Clinton conflates Hamas with the Palestinian people in Gaza. To blame the people who were killed, including U.N. workers on Hamas is a cop out.” 

“We are very proud to support a Jewish candidate who stands with the Palestinian people, who talks about income inequality, issues that we dearly care about, including health care reform,” Sarsour said. “There’s misconceptions about what our priority issues are. We’re Americans and we care about domestic issues and are very proud to support Bernie Sanders.”

Randi Weingarten, president of the 1.6 million-member American Federation of Teachers, was there to praise Clinton.

Randi Weingarten at the Democratic Debate on Thursday, April 14, 2016.
Debra Nussbaum Cohen

“I thought she showed the breadth of her experience and knowledge and wisdom on issues foreign and domestic,” said Weingarten. “On Israel, Secretary Clinton said several times tonight and maybe Bernie Sanders wasn’t listening or did it on purpose, I don’t know, but she talked very much about needing a two state solution, how when she was secretary of state, how she negotiated between Netanyahu and Abbas. You saw in their two presentations a big difference between someone who’s presidential and somebody who’s not.”

Referring to the way Sanders spoke of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Weingarten said, “You can’t, if you are the president of the United States, trash a leader. You can’t. It’s just not something you can do if you want to actually work with them again. She held that line in that conversation because it’s clear that if you’re going to get anywhere, you have to have relationships on both sides and understand where both sides are coming from. She made that pretty clear today in the way in which she spoke about Gaza and about terrorism and the way in which she made it clear that you have to make sure that you’re dealing with both Israeli issues and Palestinian issues.”

Weingarten, who spoke at last December’s Haaretz Q conference in New York, said that she’s a “proud member” of J Street. “I’ve been to both Israel and Palestine several times, and I am very concerned about how we create peace. The economic and education issues are very important. As a union we’ve been very involved in how to create coexistence in a place where there’s a lot of anger, a lot of pain, a lot of mistrust and a lot of anxiety.”

Amid the political analysts and community leaders representing each of the in the “spin room” was an unexpected sight: Jeff Ross (ne Jeffrey Ross Lifschultz), a standup comic best known for his blue insults on Comedy Central’s celebrity roasts.

Seeing the crass-tongued Ross presented a sharp contrast to the throngs of idealistic demonstrators who stood outside the castle-like gates of the Brooklyn Navy Yard before the debate. So many waved blue “I’m with Hillary” placards that it looked like a forest of leaves shaking in a breeze.

But at the end of the day, seeing the unexpected, as well as the passions of the faithful, is just part of a typical day in Brooklyn style.