Originally published in Huffpost.
Sen. Bernie Sanders said Sunday that his fellow progressives should “tone down the rhetoric” when it comes to language ― such as “apartheid” ― used to describe Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.
The Vermont left-leaning independent sat down with CBS’s John Dickerson on “Face the Nation.” Dickerson pointed out that a number of progressives, some in the House, have called Israel an apartheid state amid the violence between militant group Hamas ― which has power over Gaza ― and the Israeli government.
Dickerson pointed out the rising anti-Semitic attacks in the U.S., with the Anti-Defamation League reporting 193 incidents this week, an increase from 131 the previous week. The correspondent also said that American Jewish Congress Executive Director Joel Rubin ― who handled Jewish outreach for Sanders’ campaign ― has said that using the word “apartheid” is a contributing factor to the increased attacks.
“Do you think that those who share your view should not use that kind of language?” Dickerson asked.
“Well, I think we should tone down the rhetoric,” Sanders said. “I think our goal is very simple. It is to understand that what’s going on in Gaza today is unsustainable when you have 70% of the young people unemployed, when people cannot leave the community, when hospitals and wastewater plants have been destroyed.
“That is unsustainable,” he continued. “And the job of the United States is to bring people together. And that is what we have got to try to do.”
Sanders, like other progressives and advocates for Palestinian human rights, has said that it is possible to be a critic of Israeli policy without being anti-Semitic. The senator told Dickerson that it is extremely important to combat the rising anti-Semitic attacks both in the U.S. and around the world, just as it is extremely important to combat hate crimes directed at Asians, Latinos and Black people.
Dickerson’s question came after lawmakers like Democratic Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), Cori Bush (Mo.) and Rashida Tlaib (Mich.) ― the first female Palestinian American in Congress ― publicly called Israel’s treatment of Palestinians apartheid. An apartheid regime uses laws, practices and organized violence to cement the supremacy of one group over another.
It also came after recent reports of anti-Semitic attacks and a rise in Islamophobia in the U.S. The lawmakers who called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government an apartheid state just as vocally spoke out against the anti-Semitic attacks, condemning violence against Jewish people.
“We will never, ever tolerate antisemitism here in NY or anywhere in the world,” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted, attaching a link to New York City’s bystander intervention training. “The recent surge in attacks is horrifying. We stand with our Jewish communities in condemning this violence.”
Spokespersons for Ocasio-Cortez and Tlaib did not immediately respond to HuffPost’s request for comment on whether they would follow Sanders’s recommendation and stop calling Israel an apartheid government.
Ocasio-Cortez is correct in that she is not the only one describing Israeli’s treatment of Palestinians as apartheid. In addition to the lawmakers, the language has been used by organizations like Human Rights Watch and IfNotNow, the United Nations, B’Tselem (a Jerusalem-based nonprofit that documents human rights violations by Israel), and major media figures.
“Palestinians are at best third-class citizens in the nation of their birth,” MNSBC’s Ali Velshi said on May 15. “The idea that it’s even remotely controversial to call what Israel has imposed on Palestinians a form of apartheid is laughable. One look at a current map of Israel, Gaza and the occupied territories conjures up only one other example: apartheid-era South Africa.”
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa told France24 on May 19 that the violence in Gaza reminded him of the apartheid era in his own country, and that Israel’s attacks on Palestinian civilians were evocative of an apartheid state. Ramaphosa said that South Africa stands with Palestinians but urged both sides to negotiate with each other, as was done in his country in the early 1990s.
Both the Israeli government and Hamas have only recently come to a cease-fire after 11 days of escalated fighting. However, Hamas rockets killed 12 Israelis ― due to most of the rockets being intercepted by Israel’s missile defense system ― while Israel’s response of overwhelming bombing killed at least 248 Palestinians, 66 of which were children. Egypt brokered the cease-fire after the U.S., Israel’s closest ally, slowly but surely pressured Israel to halt the strikes.
Netanyahu announced on Thursday that Israel had accepted the cease-fire. But on Friday, Israeli forces stormed the holy site of Al-Aqsa compound in East Jerusalem ― where the escalated violence first began on May 10 ― and fired tear gas at Palestinians celebrating the cease-fire after their prayers.
“Well, what you have got to do is also understand that over the years, the Netanyahu government has become extremely right wing and that there are people in the Israeli government now who are overt racists,” Sanders said Sunday. “You have in [East] Jerusalem people being evicted from their homes. Tremendous pressure on people within Israel, the Arab community, as well as Gaza. So you have a very difficult situation.”
“You have Hamas, a terrorist group. You have a right-wing Israeli government, and the situation is getting worse,” he continued. “And all that I’m saying is that the United States of America has got to be leading the world in bringing people together, not simply supplying weapons to kill children in Gaza.”
Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez, Tlaib, Bush and at least four other lawmakers introduced legislation that would delay a $735 million sale of weapons to Israel that the White House tried to approve, in addition to the annual $3.8 billion in aid the U.S. provides. The president’s decision to approve the sale at a time of intense violence in the region raised concerns among many in Congress who weren’t even aware of it.
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