May 11, 2020
While Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden are no longer competitors, their divergent platforms are still subject to much debate in the lead-up to the Democratic National Convention and Biden's choice of a running mate. Despite Bernie's endorsement of Biden, multiple progressive grassroots organizations are withholding support for the presumptive Democratic nominee. From the US Youth Climate Strike to Justice Democrats, the Working Families Party, and others, Biden faces significant opposition within his own party.
While there are a range of reforms these groups would like to see incorporated into Biden's platform, adopting Sanders' collective vision for systemic racial justice reform is key to unifying the party before November. During the primary, Biden did endorse a host of policies common to all candidates, such as ending mandatory minimums, closing private prisons, reforming the bail system, and decriminalizing marijuana. This was noteworthy given Biden's record on criminal justice: Biden played a key role in the "war on crime" as a senator in the mid-1990s; opposed expanding welfare legislation, often echoing problematic tropes about "welfare queens"; and worked with GOP legislators to cut Social Security.
While both Biden and Sanders have acknowledged the detrimental impact of domestic US policies on racial equality, their positions on Palestinian rights are starkly divergent.
However, Biden's proposed reforms still fall short of the more expansive vision of racial justice exemplified by the Sanders campaign. Racial justice for progressive Democrats increasingly includes a commitment not merely to criminal justice within the United States, but to a broader vision of racial justice as a component of US foreign policy. Accordingly, Palestinian rights have become central to the progressive Democratic agenda.
As many civil rights activists and scholars have argued, the struggle for racial equality in the US has significant parallels with the Palestinian struggle for basic rights and dignity. Israeli soldiers who brutalize Palestinians are rarely, if ever, held accountable; Palestinian children are arbitrarily detained and arrested in the West Bank; and unequal sentencing practices in Israeli courts ensure the mass detention of Palestinians without charge or trial. Palestinian citizens of Israel as well as those living under Israeli occupation, similar to Black Americans, face severe and systemic discrimination, oppression, and institutionalized economic disadvantage.
While both Biden and Sanders have acknowledged the detrimental impact of domestic US policies on racial equality, their positions on Palestinian rights are starkly divergent. Throughout his campaign, Sanders expressly called to hold Israel accountable for human rights violations. He was the first to say he would leverage aid to Israel to facilitate peace in the region and openly criticized Netanyahu's corruption and racism. Sanders was the only candidate in 2016 to miss the AIPAC annual conference, skipping it again this year based on his concern "about the platform AIPAC provides for leaders who express bigotry and oppose basic Palestinian rights." Sanders was also the only candidate to repeatedly invoke Palestinian rights, dignity, and justice as a logical extension of critiques of human rights abuses by other countries. While support for Palestinian self-determination represents a departure from the status quo in US politics, it actually mirrors a shift in opinion among the Democratic Party's electorate.
While Biden may be moving past his problematic legislative history on US criminal justice, his views on Palestine show no signs of equivalent growth. Biden is a self-described Zionist who has longtouted the need to protect "a Jewish Democratic state." As chair and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Biden maintained a steadfastly pro-Israel position. While condemning Israeli settlement expansion as vice president, he has repeatedly affirmed his support for a two-state solution without corollary promises to hold Israel accountable for undermining such a solution. Moreover, Biden has remained on good terms with Netanyahu, while other Democrats have decried his extreme politics, aggressive settlement expansion, and corruption scandals. And unlike Sanders, who has lamented the humanitarian crisis in Gaza and opposed bans on boycotts of Israel, Biden makes no mention of Palestinian rights. Instead, he consistently upholds a blanket notion of Israel's right to defend itself, and has never doubted the underlying racism of a "Jewish state" that undermines the rights of non-Jews.
This inconsistency on racial justice across borders may come at a steep political price as progressives withhold their support. The Biden campaign and the DNC must consider the voters they lose by not broadening their platforms on racial justice as conceived by progressives--voters who no longer make Palestine the exception to their progressive values. In order for Biden to capture not only Sanders supporters but a broader swath of progressive Democratic voters, his commitment to racial justice must prove expansive, with an equal commitment to Palestinian rights as both an ethical stance and a political strategy.
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