Bernie Sanders and the eviscerated left

Dec 16, 2023
Bricked wall with stop terrorism sign.

The Left, and certainly a number of broadly defined progressives, have a strange affinity towards violence and conflict. When the absurdly labelled Global War Against Terror was declared by the semi-literate US President George W. Bush, the use of torture and resort to illegal invasions had the support of such noted liberal figures as Michael Ignatieff.

In his 2004 work The Lesser Evil, Ignatieff, who would go on to become a prominent Canadian opposition politician, declared that “defeating terror requires violence” alongside “coercion, deception, secrecy, and a violation of rights.” For him, it was better to adopt what he regarded as “a lesser evil morality” that would permit a violation of rights in order to protect security, conceding that it “would not prevent it from remaining wrong”.

It was such a nonsensical moral compass that drew the ire of the international law authority Conor Gearty, who suggested that Ignatieff and his ilk (the same logic applies in the Israeli-Hamas conflict) deployed a trick by which the “human” in “human rights” was removed, thereby enlarging the possibilities for violence to be justified. Human rights can then be seen as part of a “larger and grander” narrative which takes into account “a deadly combatant in the form of Islamic terrorism”. But by embracing such a calculus, there could be “no turning back”.

On the issue of Israel’s war on Hamas, however, some degree of mellowing may have taken place on Ignatieff’s part. In The Atlantic, he writes that the Geneva Conventions and broadly speaking, the laws of war, should be adhered to, and Israel has “more to gain from sticking to” them “than it does from seeking reckless vengeance against Hamas.”

Now, we see such prominent figures as Bernie Sanders in the United States, an independent senator who provided such a formidable primary challenge to Hillary Clinton in 2016, adopt his own calculus approach as the body count in Gaza grows. In both the challenges mounted in 2016 and again, in 2020, Sanders made the Palestinian cause a central feature of the movements. Not so in 2023.

On the issue of the Israel-Hamas war, Sanders has shown a degree of ambivalence. Through October, he remained generally stiff-lipped about the issue of a ceasefire, preferring the more anodyne “pause” in conflict. In early November, he told CNN’s Dana Bash that he was not sure “how you can have a ceasefire, [a] permanent ceasefire with an organisation like Hamas, which is dedicated to turmoil and chaos and destroying the state of Israel.” Implicit here is Sanders’ adoption of Israel’s political playbook: Hamas is to be destroyed; the Palestinians cannot be trusted as independent political agents; and brutality will have its day.

Omar Baddar, a Palestinian-American analyst who backed Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign could not hide his disappointment on such a position. “Those who oppose a full ceasefire under the delusional impression that Israel can achieve peace and 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.”

Broadly across the US centre-left spectrum, we are seeing efforts by Democrats to oust various members – known as the “Squad” – from office for their less than flattering views on Israel’s Gaza campaign. Representative Jamaal Bowman, a New York Democrat, along with Missouri’s Cori Bush, Pennsylvania’s Summer Lee, and Ilhan Omar from Minnesota, are bound to be facing “moderate” opponents for their positions.

Lee’s case exemplifies the problem. Her Democratic challenger is Bhavini Patel, who burnishes her Indian heritage while taking rhetorical potshots against Lee for not doing enough for Pittsburgh’s Jewish community. Indeed, the incumbent, according to Patel, was “amplifying terrorist propaganda, stoking hatred, stoking the worst of human nature. When we are dealing with the remarkable rise in antisemitism, we deserve better.”

Patel is particularly stern on Lee’s reposting on social media of an Al-Jazeera report attributing responsibility to Israel for the bombing of a hospital in the strip. US intelligence sources pointed the finger as an errant Hamas rocket. While Lee did acknowledge that the information was disputed, Patel fumed that the situation had been “mishandled”, showing her “a lack of leadership. It shows you are unfit to serve.”

As media entrepreneur Cenk Uygur puts it, “If the Justice Democrats start losing seats, that’s a disaster for progressives.” And the prospect is real enough, given that the challengers will be cashed up with funds from lobbyists.

One public interest group keen to throw money into the cause will be the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Spokesman for the body, Marshall Wittmann told The Hill that, “We are currently evaluating races concerning detractors of Israel, but we have not yet made decisions.”

The malady of not being a strident enough supporter of Israel, even as it butchers a Palestinian populace in real time, is not confined to centre-left groups in the US. In Australia, the Labor government has its own critic of humanitarian ceasefires. Despite Australia siding with 152 other countries in the UN General Assembly in a measure calling for a ceasefire alongside the immediate release of hostages, Josh Burns would have little truck with it. The Member for Macnamara regretted the failure of a proposed US amendment that would have mentioned Hamas as the progenitor of the violence, alongside Israel’s right to self-defence.

“As much as I think the UN resolution really would have been strengthened by the United States amendment, what’s really important here is that there are meaningful steps towards the end of this violence,” Burns told Radio National on December 14. “That can’t happen without Hamas releasing hostages and it won’t happen without Hamas being removed from power.” With such figures in elected office, Israel can be reassured that its campaign, despite growing opposition to the relentless butchery, will have its avid backers among the eviscerated left. The broader causes of violence can thereby be ignored.

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