As Israel continues its ongoing siege and bombing of Palestinians in Gaza, and the death toll passes a grim 10,000, Vermont U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders continues to refuse to call for a ceasefire. To many inspired by Sanders’ 2016 and 2020 presidential bids, it has been a legacy-tarnishing moment for someone who stood as the key figurehead of a growing left movement in the United States. Polling late last month showed a full two thirds of likely voters supporting a ceasefire, including a majority of Republicans and 80% of Democrats.
When it comes to war and imperialism abroad, Sanders’ record, like that of his former colleague Patrick Leahy, is filled with instances supporting military intervention and actions, leaving a path of destruction across the globe.
Sanders the Zionist
After college, Sanders volunteered at an Israeli kibbutz (communal settlement) near Haifa in 1963. The culture and values of each kibbutz varied, and Sanders’ was one of many that were secular and socialist in outlook. As author Saraj Assi writes, the contradiction between secular socialism and the actual project his Israeli comrades had embarked on — the seizure, holding, and defense of land taken from Palestinians — ultimately could not hold. One side clearly won out:
Fancying themselves revolutionaries, they were eager to realize the kibbutz founders’ vision of integrating socialism and Jewish nationalism. What they built, however, was a negation of socialism. Just as with Labor Zionism (the driving force behind the kibbutz movement in pre-state Israel), the experiment’s nationalism quickly won out over its egalitarian ideals. What began as an attempt to build a socialist utopia ended up yielding an oppressive form of ethnic nationalism.
Once Sanders returned to the U.S., the tension inherent between socialism and Zionism could be more easily maintained for him, now safely thousands of miles away from its sharpest point.
While Sanders has spoken out for the Palestinian people in the past, denouncing the IDF’s most egregious actions toward Palestinians, including calling for a ceasefire and “hard look at nearly $4 billion a year in military aid to Israel” in 2021, he historically stands behind Israel as well, stating he has a “balanced position.” As Burlington mayor in 1988, during the First Intifada, he commented on the situation during his local access TV show. While referring to Israel as “an occupying power,” he stated the need to protect the state of Israel, which he called “absolutely right.”
A Mismatch Between Rhetoric and Record
After heading to Washington as a U.S. Congressman, Sanders voted to approve military aid to Israel in 1997, 1999, and 2004. As a U.S. Senator, he voted for resolutions in favor of Israeli military action and its right to defend itself against Lebanon in 2006, as well as in Gaza in 2014. In 2014, during a town hall event on Gaza, Sanders told a constituent who called out his defense of Israeli actions to “shut up.” Sanders does not support the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions (BDS) movement.
Though Sanders has not centered his Jewish identity in his politics, one person within his inner circle may provide insight into his political record on Israel. UVM Professor Emeritus Richard Sugarman, who taught Jewish philosophy and existentialism, is a former roommate of his and one of Sanders’ closest friends and longtime political advisors dating back to the 1970s. Sugarman described himself as an “unapologetic Zionist” who is left of center on every issue “except Israel” in a 2012 profile in Seven Days. Sugarman encouraged Sanders to run for mayor of Burlington in 1981 and advised him throughout his time in the U.S. House and Senate and during his 2016 presidential campaign.
Of Sanders’ 2014 town hall incident, Sugarman told Jewish Telegraphic Agency, “Many of us were gratified, not amazed, that Bernard had the ‘beitsim’ [a Hebrew expression for ‘balls’] to stand up against these nihilists.”
During his presidential runs, Sanders and his supporters burnished his antiwar credentials by pointing to his votes against defense budget bills (a claim easily disputed by his own voting record). Still, throughout his career in Washington, he’s proven himself far from a dove. The first major proof comes from 1999 when Sanders was in lockstep with Bill Clinton, voting in favor of the NATO bombing campaign in Kosovo.
Sanders voted in favor of the infamous Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) passed in the wake of the September 11th attacks, which was used, as many observers at the time predicted, as carte blanche for the Bush Administration’s military aims across the globe. The AUMF was used to justify military actions in the Obama and Trump administrations, including the 2014 intervention in the civil war in Syria and the 2020 assassination of Iranian major general Qasem Soleimani.
Though he did vote against the Iraq War in 2003, he voted in favor of war budgets and military appropriations for the entirety of the Bush Administration.
Of course, Vermonters are reminded daily of Sanders’ support for the military-industrial complex. The F-35 fighter jet program has long been championed by Sanders, who approved it because it keeps jobs in Vermont at the Air National Guard base. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) is a major purchaser of F-35s, asking to purchase 25 more earlier this summer, and the U.S. Department of Defense ordered more of its own F-35s to the region shortly after October’s Hamas attack.
Bernie vs. The Protestor
When confronting the public regarding his decisions to support the war machine and imperial foreign policy, Sanders is quick to shut down their demands and often involves law enforcement. The most recent example is October 25th, when his D.C. office had Capitol Police arrest protesters at his office calling for a ceasefire as Israel continues to bomb Gaza and increase violence in the West Bank against Palestinians. This legacy of arresting those who dissent goes back to the beginnings of Sanders’ political career:
- As Burlington mayor, Sanders had protestors outside the gate of the General Electric factory arrested in 1983, where Gatling guns were being produced and being sent to far-right death squads in Central America.
- In 1999, as a U.S. Congressman, Sanders had 15 protesters arrested at his Church Street offices during a sit-in demonstration against the U.S. bombing campaign in Kosovo.
- Eight anti-Iraq war protesters were arrested at Sanders’ Burlington office in 2007 demanding the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the region and voicing opposition to a $124 billion bill for war operations.
- On October 4th of this year, 11 from the anti-war group CodePink were arrested at Sanders’ Capitol Hill office for demanding the Senator support negotiations to end the Russian war in Ukraine.
Bernie vs. Bernie Supporters
The decision by Sanders to not call for a ceasefire in the present Israeli military campaign has sparked hundreds of former campaign staffers to sign an open letter asking that he support the Senate companion to a ceasefire resolution circulating in the U.S. House, as well as an end to U.S. funding for war crimes against the Palestinian people, expansion of settlements, occupation of Palestinian land, and the blockade in Gaza.
In the letter, it notes that many former staff are Arab or Muslim, who “were inspired to support your campaign because of your calls to end the ‘Forever Wars’ waged against people who look like us and worship like us. We felt proud to serve a candidate who acknowledged the plight and humanity of Palestinians and who spoke out against the Israeli occupation.” Additionally, former Jewish staffers stated that it is their collective duty as Jews “to stand up and say that our pain and sorrow at the losses on October 7 will not be weaponized to justify the ethnic cleansing or genocide of Palestinian civilians.”
Off-the-record conversations with current Sanders staffers suggest significant consternation within his team over the senator’s position on Israel and Gaza.
After the weekend’s 1,000-strong rally for Palestine in Burlington and sit-in at Sanders’ D.C. office, Champlain Valley DSA released a statement late Monday calling out his refusal to back a ceasefire. “While we are dissatisfied with Senator Sanders’ refusal to call for a ceasefire, we are grateful for our members in office who are standing up for what’s right,” they wrote. “The least our elected representatives on the federal level can do is demand an immediate ceasefire.”
Sanders’ refusal to do “the least” in this context has been a revelatory moment for progressives, amid a war, supported by U.S. funds and hardware, that continues to disillusion and radicalize many of his erstwhile supporters. As is ever the case, the political actors who most reliably end wars appear to be not those sitting in office, but those applying pressure from outside.
Several more rallies for Gaza are planned this week, including one at City Hall on Thursday, November 9th at 5:30pm.
Matt Moore is a writer from Vermont. He is on the editorial collective of The Rake Vermont.