Bernie Sanders’ Constituents Demand He Take Action Against Israel’s War and Occupation

On Friday, roughly thirty people gathered outside Senator Bernie Sanders’ house in Burlington’s New North End, demanding that he call for an immediate and lasting ceasefire of Israel’s military bombardment and invasion of Gaza. The Jewish-led action, organized by a Vermont Palestine affinity group, also commemorated the second day of Hanukkah. Participants brought a large cardboard menorah to the sidewalk out front, with each candle representing a separate demand.

One of the participants read out a statement calling on Sanders to do more in the face of what has been identified by legal and human rights observers as an ongoing genocide:

“We are here to demand a permanent and lasting ceasefire, an end to Israel’s genocide and ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, unrestricted humanitarian aid to all Palestinians, the release of all Palestinian prisoners and hostages, defense of the civil rights of Palestinians and Palestine solidarity activists, an end all US aid to Israel, enforcement of boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel and end to Israel’s siege occupation, and apartheid system and support for Palestinian rights to self-determination, the right to return, and equal rights under the law.

Earlier this week, Bernie released a statement saying that ‘ceasefire is not a magical word.’ To that, we say we are not asking for magic. We are asking for action. We are not asking for a miracle. We are asking for steps that are within his power as a US Senator. We are calling on Bernie because he holds one lever of power to make change in this moment, but we know that we hold the power to move him and to move all of the cogs of this capitalist world that turn against us. With these demands, we also recognize that tonight is the second night of Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights. But we are not here to celebrate. We are here to mourn, to resist, and to make our voices heard.”

As each candle was symbolically lit, another participant read out the group’s demands.

Sen. Sanders is the only remaining member of Vermont’s Congressional delegation to refrain from calling for an immediate ceasefire. The closest he’s come is in a New York Times op-ed he wrote on November 22, in which he described Israel’s bombardment and invasion of Gaza as “causing an enormous number of civilian casualties and is in violation of international law,” and that the number of civilian deaths was “not acceptable.” Short of a ceasefire, Sanders called for a “humanitarian pause,” a term that many liberal politicians and commentators have seized on as the death toll rises, but has no fixed definition nor is a term used in international and humanitarian law.

Earlier this week, Sanders voted against a supplemental military appropriations bill that would send billions to Israel, Ukraine, and Taiwan. The vote, which needed 60 votes to pass, lost 51-49, and Sanders was the only non-Republican to vote against it. In a “dear colleague” letter to fellow senators, Sanders did not express opposition to the $10.1 billion allocated to the Israeli government per se — he reiterated his prior statements that “Israel has an absolute right to defend itself” — but he wants conditions attached. “Israel must dramatically change its approach to minimize civilian harm and lay out a wider political process that can secure lasting peace,” he wrote.

Despite calling for a ceasefire and expressing reservations, Senator Peter Welch voted in favor of the aid package. The next day, 13 senators, including Sanders and Welch, introduced an amendment to the bill that would stipulate that aid recipients must adhere to US and international law. The Biden administration has expressed opposition to any aid conditions, and as the administration would be in the position of enforcing them, activists have warned that even if conditions were attached, they would be as toothless as the 1997 Leahy Law

The Leahy Law, named after former Vermont US Senator Pat Leahy, officially prohibits the State and Defense departments from providing military assistance to foreign entities or individual military units that have “committed a gross violation of human rights.” Some members of Congress have cited the Leahy Law in their opposition to funding the Israel Defense Forces, but the application and enforcement of the law ultimately rests with the State Department.

Should Congress not find a way to pass the appropriations bill, such funding may be inserted into the mammoth $900+ billion defense bill expected in the coming weeks. It remains to be seen if Sanders will vote against that bill if conditions are not attached.

While more aid to the Israeli government slowly wends its way through the maze of Congressional appropriations, the situation among the US and global public is shifting. On the streets, the world has seen the largest antiwar demonstrations since the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. In opinion polls, the initial burst of support for Israel’s military offensive has dropped dramatically. A November 15 Ipsos/Reuters poll shows 68% of US respondents agreeing with the statement “Israel should call a ceasefire and try to negotiate.” Only 31% agreed that “The United States should provide weapons to Israel.”

“We are not stopping, we are only growing,” said a participant in front of Sanders’ house. “So this Hanukkah, we are not waiting for a miracle from God. Our movement is the miracle that will make this oil last, that will stop this genocide in its tracks.”

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