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Bernie Sanders is pro-imperialist and pro-Zionist. Why do liberals fear him?

Between red-baiting and antisemitism accusations, the propaganda war against Sanders is both baffling and unrelenting
Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is pictured in Detroit, Michigan on 9 March (AFP)

One of the remarkable things about the 2020 presidential candidacy of Bernie Sanders is the kind of opposition he has garnered. 

White liberal imperialist Americans (and most American liberals, of all races, are and have always been imperialists) are horrified that a soft imperialist with a liberal version of what passes in the US for “socialism” might win the Democratic Party nomination, and - God forbid - win the election against conservative US President Donald Trump, whose many liberal and imperialist detractors, including former President Barack Obama, love calling a “fascist”.

Supporting US military interventionism 

But what is it about Sanders’ soft imperialism that scares the liberal imperialists, Obama included? Sanders has had an unblemished, pro-imperialist, pro-war record throughout his career.

In 1993, he supported US military intervention in Somalia, and later in the 1990s in Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo. He also supported the US war in Afghanistan. As for his opposition to the US invasions of Iraq in 1991 and 2003, it was not based on an anti-imperialist agenda or anything of the sort, but rather on a decidedly pro-imperialist one.

He was most concerned, among other things, that the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 would weaken US imperial power: “I agree with Brent Scowcroft, Republican former national security adviser for President George Bush Sr, who stated: ‘An attack on Iraq at this time would seriously jeopardise, if not destroy, the global counterterrorist campaign we have undertaken.’” 

Sanders has also been attacked for mustering some words of sympathy for Palestinian victims of Israel, a major sin that recently unleashed the pro-Israel lobby against him

He added that rather than invade Iraq, the US “must work with the United Nations to make certain within clearly defined timelines that the UN inspectors are allowed to do their jobs. These inspectors should undertake an unfettered search for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and destroy them when found, pursuant to past UN resolutions. If Iraq resists inspection and elimination of stockpiled weapons, we should stand ready to assist the UN in forcing compliance.” 

Indeed, despite his opposition to the invasion, Sanders voted in favour of four congressional bills to fund the war.

As for Sanders’ alleged socialism, it seems to manifest in his support for universal healthcare for all Americans, and his support for free public higher education - positions he shares with most of the capitalist Western European countries and Canada, which are US allies. This aside, he has not called during the current campaign for any broader socialist measures, such as nationalisation of electricity or phone companies, the oil industry, or major US banks or corporations. 

'100 percent pro-Israel'

In addition to these unfair accusations, Sanders has also been attacked for mustering some words of sympathy for Palestinian victims of Israeli invasions and occupations, a major sin that recently unleashed the pro-Israel lobby against him. The lobby seems to forget how strongly Sanders has always supported Israel, not least through his votes in favour of the annual US aid to the Zionist settler-colony. 

But as the Israel lobby suffers from selective amnesia, Sanders is committed to reminding them of his unflinching “love” for Israel by constantly declaring: “I am 100 percent pro-Israel.

His steadfast support of Israel’s killing machine in Gaza as recently as 2014 was such that he angrily attacked and shouted down people in his audience who defended innocent Palestinian victims of Israel’s carnage. When an audience member interrupted him and asked if Palestinians “have a right to resist,” Sanders, incensed by the interruption, yelled back, “Shut up! You don’t have the microphone!” and threatened to call the police. The following year, his campaign threw out several pro-Palestine activists from a Sanders rally.

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Indeed, he continues to speak fondly of his stay in 1963 at the Israeli kibbutz Shaar Haamakim, run by the small settler-colonial Zionist group Hashomer Hatzair on the lands of the Palestinian villages of Sheikh Bureik and al-Harthiya, whose inhabitants were forcefully evicted in the 1930s to make room for the Jewish settler-colonists.

While in the last few months, Sanders has spoken out about possibly conditioning US military aid to Israel on its willingness to “negotiate” with Palestinians, he has done so from a bona fide imperialist and pro-Israel position: “I would use the leverage - $3.8bn is a lot of money - and we cannot give it carte blanche to the Israeli government or to any government at all.” 

Indeed, he opposed Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital on the same imperialist grounds: “It would dramatically undermine the prospects for an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement and severely, perhaps irreparably, damage the United States’ ability to broker that peace. What the US should be doing now is bringing adversaries in the Middle East together to seek common solutions, not exacerbating tensions in this highly volatile region.” 

Anti-communist conspiracy theory

Sanders has declared openly that his criticisms of Israel do not delegitimise it: “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 … The founding of Israel is understood by another people in the land of Palestine as the cause of their painful displacement. And just as Palestinians should recognise the just claims of Israeli Jews, supporters of Israel must understand why Palestinians view Israel’s creation as they do. 

“Acknowledging these realities does not ‘delegitimise’ Israel any more than acknowledging the sober facts of America’s own founding delegitimises the United States. It is a necessary step of truth and reconciliation in order to address the inequalities that continue to exist in our respective societies.”  

Sanders speaks at a rally in St Louis, Missouri on 9 March (AFP)
Sanders speaks at a rally in St Louis, Missouri on 9 March (AFP)

Despite this unsullied, pro-imperialist and pro-Zionist record, Sanders has been baited as anti-Israel and as a pinko communist - and, in the tradition of antisemitism, his Jewishness is indirectly coupled with some imagined pro-Soviet communism, rendering him a national threat to the imperialist and capitalist US, as implied recently by an article in the liberal New York Times. 

In 2016, as part of the red-baiting campaign, the kibbutz where Sanders stayed in 1963 was identified by US conservatives as a “Stalinist” one. Yet, it is the liberal red-baiting of Sanders - as a pro-Soviet socialist or at least a naive socialist who was used by the Soviets for their own nefarious agenda - that continues an antisemitic tradition of linking Jews to Soviet communism, a tradition started by the antisemitic Tsarist White Russian propagandists fighting the Russian Revolution in 1917.

Beginning with Marx’s Jewish origins, the antisemitic and anti-communist conspiracy theory would have it that communism across Europe, and Bolshevism specifically, were always part of a “Jewish conspiracy” to end “Western civilisation”. 

Tradition of antisemitism

Whereas the antisemitic claim that communism and Bolshevism were “Jewish conspiracies” are often attributed to the Nazis, who had actually imported them from the propaganda of the White Russians into Western Europe, it was none other than Winston Churchill who first articulated the stakes of communism as a “Jewish conspiracy” to take over the world. The former British prime minister heaped scorn on what he termed “international Jews” and identified communism as a Jewish “worldwide conspiracy for the overthrow of civilisation”.

Neither his support for universal healthcare nor his modest words of sympathy for Palestinians have ever tempered his pro-imperialist and pro-Zionist positions

This antisemitic tradition would be put to good use in the US with the official targeting of Jewish communists as Soviet spies. The trial and execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in 1953 was the major success of this campaign. When leftist Jews referred to the execution of the Rosenbergs as the US’s Dreyfus Affair, liberal American Jews and gentiles objected and joined their government’s condemnation of the couple. 

The association of Jews with communism led to pogroms in 1956 Hungary. When Hungarian fascists and Hitlerites were smuggled into Budapest from the Austrian border by the CIA during the regime of Imre Nagy, they began slaughtering Hungarian communist Jews and Hungarian Jews as “communists”. 

This was on account of the fact that the first two secretary-generals of the communist party of Hungary, which came to power after World War II, were Jewish. In the late 1970s, the same accusation would befall leftist Jews in Argentina who were disappeared by the military dictatorship - but Zionist Argentinian Jews and Israel disavowed them, and Israel maintained its close alliance with the military regime.

Two major sins

Yet, most of those were actually communist and anti-imperialist Jews, unlike Sanders. But because of Sanders’ words of sympathy for Palestinian victims of Israeli violence, the powerful pro-Israel US lobby AIPAC bought Facebook ads that blamed “radicals in the Democratic Party” for “pushing their anti-Semitic and anti-Israel policies down the throats of the American people”. 

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As the leading Israeli newspaper Haaretz noted, “it wasn’t difficult to figure out which candidate’s camp those ‘radicals’ were part of”. 

Between the red-baiting, antisemitic accusations of communist and Soviet sympathies by American liberals and conservatives, and AIPAC’s accusations that the possible first Jewish presidential nominee by a major political party in US history is an “antisemite”, the propaganda war against Sanders is unrelenting. 

In the interests of defending Sanders against these unfounded accusations, it must be clearly stated that neither his support for universal healthcare nor his modest words of sympathy for Palestinians have ever tempered his pro-imperialist and pro-Zionist positions.

Yet it seems that his long history of support for US imperialism and Israeli Zionism has not redeemed his two major sins: support for universal healthcare, and meagre words of sympathy for the Palestinian people - though, in all fairness, it must and should. 

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

Joseph Massad
Joseph Massad is Professor of Modern Arab Politics and Intellectual History at Columbia University in New York. He is the author of many books and academic and journalistic articles. His books include Colonial Effects: The Making of National Identity in Jordan, Desiring Arabs, The Persistence of the Palestinian Question: Essays on Zionism and the Palestinians, and most recently Islam in Liberalism. His books and articles have been translated to a dozen languages.