What Bernie Sanders’s choices for the DNC platform committee tell us about the Israel/Palestine debate in the US

According to the Washington Post:

Sen. Bernie Sanders was given unprecedented say over the Democratic Party platform Monday in a move party leaders hope will soothe a bitter split with backers of the longshot challenger to Hillary Clinton — and Sanders immediately used his new power to name a well-known advocate for Palestinian rights to help draft Democratic policy.

The senator from Vermont was allowed to choose nearly as many members of the Democratic Party platform-writing body as Clinton, who is expected to clinch the nomination next month. That influence resulted from an agreement worked out this month between the two candidates and party officials, the party announced Monday.

Clinton has picked six members of the 15-member committee that writes the platform, and Sanders has named five, the Democrats said Monday ahead of an expected announcement by the Democratic National Committee.

Even more amazing were Sanders’s choices for the committee: Cornel West; Keith Ellison, who is both the first Muslim elected to Congress and the first African American elected to Congress from Minnesota; Jim Zogby, a longtime voice on behalf of Palestinian rights; Native American activist Deborah Parker; and environmental writer and climate-change activist Bill McKibben.

However insignificant, power-wise, Sanders’s choices may be—his people will constitute about a 1/3 of the total committee—they are highly significant in terms of the discussion in this country around Israel/Palestine, as Haaretz rightly pointed out.

Because so much of Israel/Palestine politics in this country depends upon keeping certain voices and arguments out of the mainstream, the very fact that Sanders has chosen Cornel West—who in addition to self-identifying as a socialist, is also a long-standing critic of Israel and firm supporter of BDS—as well as Zogby and even Ellison, as his representative on the platform committee, is a big deal. West, Zogby, and Ellison are now the voices of not only Sanders but also of the not insignificant sector of Sanders voters within the Democratic Party.

Israel/Palestine has always been a curious issue in American politics: on the one hand, it’s one tiny piece of the world; on the other hand, it plays an outsized role in US foreign policy and political culture, for all sides of the debate. That Sanders has chosen to make that one issue a kind of line in the sand of his particular brand of politics—when so many of us had thought he’d simply the ignore the issue altogether—suggests to me that it will play a large role in the coming realignment of American politics.

Not only will this be a marker for a younger generation of Jews—of how they can be Jewish and left without supporting Israel (and that non-support can run the gamut of outright anti-Zionism, for someone like me, or simply being more critical of Israel than is the norm in the US or in the Democratic establishment)—but it will also be a marker for a new generation of socialist-inclined leftists and liberals.

As this other Washington Post article from 2012 suggests, platform committees and party platforms aren’t so important in terms of whether and how they constrain a president; they don’t. They are important in terms of laying down markers of where a party is or may be going. Let’s keep a close eye on this one.

On a related/unrelated note, I was reading this essay by Lionel Trilling over the weekend. And was struck by this throwaway line about the attitude of a subset of highly Jewish-identified intellectuals toward Zionism and the Arabs in the 1920s.

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  1. milx May 24, 2016 at 10:11 am | #

    Honestly it’s pretty bizarre considering the emphases of his platform that he is investing so heavily in this particular issue (to date tangential to his campaign). My own speculation is that he’s sore at the Jews for going overwhelmingly for Hillary over him, but it could very well be that he thinks Hillary already agrees on the economic stuff (min wage, universal healthcare, free college) and this is a legitimate point of departure between them. Or maybe after the campaign has run out of steam the people who are still left are those who really have no place in the Democratic party – ie mostly post-colonialists. Still, you’d think he’d focus more on anti-trade figures. This is a strange detour for Bernie.

  2. xenon2 May 24, 2016 at 10:19 am | #

    I don’t get it.

    How are these 5 people supposed to make any points on the platform
    of dedicated hawk?

  3. graccibros May 24, 2016 at 10:37 am | #

    Yes, it’s a fair question how much “our” appointments can shape the final platform, but I’m looking forward to some great “front-line” reporting from West and McKibben, as they are not likely to go quietly, win or lose their planks. And don’t sign any “non-disclosure” forms. We want to know how you were treated and who fought for what.

  4. Rosalind Petchesky May 24, 2016 at 11:03 am | #

    Yes, thèse are excellent picks – within the constraints of what a platform committee can never do. But still within those constraints, the absence of any anti-racist feminist or queer #BLM voices is glaring and, unfortunately, réflective of the limits of Sanders’ vision.

    • Peter Dorman May 24, 2016 at 12:32 pm | #

      Maybe I should let this pass, but this is truly a bizarre comment. Yes, the Sanders 5 aren’t gender balanced but (1) it’s a remarkable group, really and truly, (2) Parker isn’t a feminist? (3) West isn’t anti-racist? (4) depending on your racial classifications, McKibben is the only white guy. Incidentally, the Tulalip tribe, from which Deborah Parker hails, is well organized and dynamic, an important force in this region. (I live in WA state.)

  5. xenon2 May 24, 2016 at 12:35 pm | #

    I’m listening to ‘Confessions of an Economic Hit Man’, instead of new Perkins’s book, which the library has not recorded yet. Everything in this book, is American Hegemony writ large.It’s been going on forever, but especially since the end of WW2.

    I don’t see how anyone who supports Sanders, in any way, could vote for #nohillary.

  6. David Green May 24, 2016 at 6:41 pm | #

    I would suggest that Zogby is a somewhat compromised figure in relation to justice for Palestine.

    • David Green May 24, 2016 at 6:43 pm | #

      What the appointment of James Zogby will do is to ensure that the interests of the UAE ruling dynasty will be well-protected in the Platform. Jim may insist that the platform includes a statement to the effect that: And the Democratic Party hails the UAE polygamous ruling families for the moderate repression that they have imposed on their people and for the not-so-secret relationship that they have maintained over the years with the enemy state of Israel. Give me a break.

  7. wetcasements May 24, 2016 at 11:56 pm | #

    Don’t forget noted Donald Trump supporters Henry Louis Gates. . . .

  8. Nathanael June 8, 2016 at 4:03 am | #

    Honestly I suspect Sanders picked all four of these people for other reasons, other issues which they are strong on. It’s just a side-effect that these decent people take the moral position on Israel rather than the establishment pro-apartheid position.

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