In recent months, Bernie Sanders has become an enormously popular politician among Muslim Americans.
He was one of only two Democratic presidential candidates to address the Islamic Society of North America Convention in August, the largest annual gathering of Muslim Americans in the country. He is the first major presidential candidate to appoint a Muslim, Faiz Shakir, as his campaign manager. He was the first American politician to visit a mosque after the attacks on Muslims in New Zealand. Prominent Muslim Americans including Linda Sarsour, a leader of the Women’s March, and newly elected congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, have endorsed him and gone out to campaign for him.
So far, there is little to distinguish his success from that of left politicians in the UK and elsewhere who have also reached out with some success to Muslim communities. But as one journalist recently pointed out, “a 78-year-old Jewish socialist from Brooklyn isn’t an obvious favourite among Muslim Americans, whose relations with US Jews have often been complicated by differences over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
In a video released by Sanders last week, he addressed a progressive Jewish audience, drawing cheers when he said “I am very proud to be Jewish and look forward to being the first Jewish president in the history of this country.”
He then went on to explain what being Jewish means to him, and it is by understanding his message that we can grasp why Sanders’ campaign has been able to successfully bridge the divide between the two communities.
“As a people who have suffered for century after century, not to mention the horrors of the Holocaust in which my father’s family was wiped out, as were many of your families, if there is any people on Earth who understands the danger of racism and white nationalism, it is certainly the Jewish people,” he said.
He then applied his view to the most contentious of all issues – the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “As a kid I spent many months on a kibbutz in Israel,” he said. “I believe absolutely not only in the right of Israel to exist, but the right to exist in peace and security. That’s not a question.”
The crowd roared its approval. And then he continued, saying that he also believes that “the Palestinian people have a right to live in peace and security as well”, adding that it is not “antisemitism to say that the Netanyahu government has been racist.”
The Sanders campaign shared that video widely because it sums up so clearly his message of building alliances against the racists and antisemites, for Jewish-Arab reconciliation, and for a vision of better, fairer, more equal society for all.
There are lessons here, I think, for left politicians in Britain and elsewhere.
Most seem to think that the are obligated to choose sides in the decades-old conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. As Israel is currently the stronger side, and as the lives of Palestinians – especially in Gaza – have become unbearable, it is natural to take the Palestinian side. But as the Corbyn-led Labour Party has discovered in the last couple of years, this can open the door to a rise of antisemitism on the left, and a weakening of the party overall.
It didn’t have to be that way.
Sanders is both pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel. He understands the needs of both sides for peace and security. His is a vision that is rooted in the universalist tradition of the socialist movement. And it is not only doing the right thing morally but as his popularity among both Muslims and Jews shows, it is a winning message as well.