Washington, DC – In a stunning moment during the 2016 United States presidential race, Senator Bernie Sanders called out his then-rival Hillary Clinton for failing to mention Palestinian rights in a speech she delivered to a pro-Israel lobby group.
Standing on stage in a nationally televised primary debate, Sanders highlighted the dire humanitarian situation in Gaza and criticised the unconditional support that the Israeli government — under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — receives from Washington.
“There comes a time when, if we pursue justice and peace, we are going to have to say that Netanyahu is not right all of the time,” he said.
It was a rare statement to come from a Washington politician. Few, even among left-leaning Democrats, have questioned whether the United States should reconsider its “unwavering” support for Israel.
But flash forward seven years, and Sanders is now drawing ire from many of his supporters who feel let down by his current stance towards the Israel-Hamas war.
As the Israeli military offensive in Gaza intensifies, killing thousands of children and levelling entire neighbourhoods, Sanders has not called for a ceasefire. Because of his reputation as an anti-war voice, critics say he is uniquely positioned to amplify demands for ending the hostilities in Gaza.
“At a time when Washington is lining up behind those, including the president, who are beating the drums of war, we need leaders with the courage and the legacy of anti-war activism to break that consensus and say all human life is precious by demanding a ceasefire,” said Eva Borgwardt, political director at IfNotNow, a progressive Jewish group.
“If anyone can do that in the Senate, it is Senator Sanders.”
Last week, activists held a protest at Sanders’s Senate office to call on him to back a ceasefire.
“We went to his office to say we — and his colleagues in the House who are bravely speaking out, at great personal and political risk — need him now,” Borgwardt told Al Jazeera in a statement.
Democratic House members introduced a ceasefire resolution on October 16, but on the Senate side, there have been no calls for ending the war.
Earlier this month, almost 300 former staffers who worked on Sanders’s presidential campaigns signed a letter calling on him to introduce a similar resolution.
“President [Joe] Biden clearly values your counsel, as is shown by the ways you’ve managed to shape the outcomes of his presidency,” the letter, first reported by The Intercept, said. “We urge you to make it clear what is at stake in this crisis politically, morally, and strategically.”
Sanders called for a “humanitarian pause” to the fighting last week, but only after Secretary of State Antony Blinken made a similar demand.
The senator voiced his strongest criticism of the Israeli offensive on Monday, but he stopped short of calling for a ceasefire.
“The US provides $3.8 billion a year to Israel,” Sanders wrote in a social media post.
“The Biden administration and Congress must make it clear. Israel has the right to defend itself and destroy Hamas terrorism, but it does not have the right to use US dollars to kill thousands of innocent men, women, and children in Gaza.”
In 2016, Sanders — an independent senator from Vermont who caucuses with Democrats — defied the odds and mounted a competitive primary challenge against Clinton. Four years later, he led the race for the Democratic nomination until several candidates dropped out and threw their support behind Biden, who would go on to win the presidency.
Throughout his two presidential campaigns, Sanders led a surging progressive movement in US politics that adopted the Palestinian issue as a core tenet of its agenda.
Questioning US backing for Israel on the presidential campaign trail — where candidates often compete to show their pro-Israel bona fides — remains rare. It showed Sanders to be a candidate willing to defy the political consensus, a quality that appealed to many younger voters.
Domestically, Sanders centred his platform on combatting economic inequality. But his outsider approach to politics extended to foreign policy as well. He said he would impose human rights conditions on US aid to Israel, a proposal Biden dismissed as “bizarre” during the 2020 race.
Sanders, who is Jewish, has also long decried the humanitarian crisis in the besieged Gaza Strip, describing it as “unsustainable” and “unacceptable”. He has also referred to Netanyahu as a “reactionary racist”.
Sanders’s message at the time resonated deeply with Arab and Muslim American communities, who rallied around his campaign and helped him win the Michigan Democratic primary in 2016, in one of the race’s largest upsets.
But the senator’s current unwillingness to call for a ceasefire has left many of his Palestinian, Arab and Muslim supporters with a sense of disappointment if not betrayal.
Omar Baddar, a Palestinian American analyst who supported Sanders’s 2020 presidential campaign, said it is “hard to convey the depth of the disappointment” he feels over the senator’s failure to back a ceasefire.
“I know the political climate in the US at the moment is scary, anti-Palestinian and intolerant of dissent, but that’s precisely why Sanders’s voice would be so valuable,” Baddar told Al Jazeera. If Sanders speaks out, Baddar believes his actions will “create the political space” for others to do the same.
Baddar also played down Sanders’s call for a “pause” in the fighting. Pausing “the slaughter of civilians in Gaza is not a moral position”, he said, stressing that the fighting must end.
“Those who oppose a full ceasefire are under the delusional impression that Israel can achieve peace or stability through mass violence, ignoring the fact that Israeli brutality towards Palestinians is precisely why we’re in a situation where no one is safe,” Baddar told Al Jazeera.
“Even in the unlikely scenario that Israel is able to eliminate Hamas, the sheer horror it is inflicting on the people of Gaza will undoubtedly produce the next generation of militants who will want to seek vengeance against Israel.”
Amer Zahr, a Palestinian American comedian and activist who campaigned for Sanders in Arab communities across the country, also voiced dismay at the senator’s stance.
“After the massive support Bernie received from Arab, Muslim and Palestinian Americans in 2016 and 2020, we would have expected he would have been one of the first to urge an immediate ceasefire,” Zahr told Al Jazeera.
“His failure to do so is an affront. His voice could open the door for many others to say the same. To call his actions, or lack thereof, a massive disappointment would be understating the hurt.”
Sanders’s Senate office did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment by the time of publication.
Suehaila Amen, an Arab American advocate in Michigan, said she was “flabbergasted” by Sanders’s position, adding that the Arab community at large is “extremely disappointed” in the senator.
“The community is truly shaken to its core that no one has actually stood up from the administration — or those who we have supported in the past on their presidential runs — and said: This must come to an end. This must stop,” Amen told Al Jazeera.
“That you can’t even ask for a ceasefire is absolutely disgusting and beyond me – when you’re watching in real time children being pulled out of the rubble.”
Nour Ali, a Michigan activist, also recalled the excitement Sanders’s presidential campaigns sparked in the state’s Arab and Muslim communities, where many Arabic speakers called him “Ammo” or “Uncle” Bernie.
“This has left many of us to reckon with who we have decided to support politically in the past. While the Republican Party is outright in their Islamophobia, many Arab and Muslim Americans are realising that the Democratic Party — both moderates and progressives — have used us as a talking point,” Ali told Al Jazeera.