Be bold, Bernie [still a ‘two-stater’]

Jennifer Bing

The Electronic Intifada  /  September 29, 2023

Let’s face it, doing legislative advocacy for Palestinian rights can be a drag. But we’re making progress.

Ten years ago, we didn’t have the small but dedicated group of elected officials in the US Congress that we do today. More legislators are signing onto bills like the Palestinian Children and Families Act (H.R. 3103) and sending occasional letters to the US State Department about increasing settler violence, discriminatory visa entry practices, refugee assistance cuts, and demolitions of Palestinian communities.

These officials are willing to stand up to a formidable opposition that demands complete allegiance to the Israeli government.

Polls show support for Palestinian rights is growing steadily in the United States, especially among youth and Democrats. More organizations are bringing constituents to Capitol Hill and training people in legislative advocacy for Palestinian rights.

But as the situation on the ground in Palestine and Israel continues to deteriorate, we need to find more champions in the House of Representatives and US Senate to take bold actions for Palestinian rights. A presidential election year looms, a time when we find even our loyal supporters in Congress recalculate the risks of speaking out. So now is the moment for us to strengthen our allies, build power with our grassroots activists, and push for our leaders to speak more forcefully for ending US support for Israeli occupation and apartheid.

Right now, a group of Vermonters is finding a creative way to do exactly that.

After meeting with Bernie Sanders’ staff earlier this summer, we were challenged to get more Vermont residents to write to the senator, explaining in personal terms why they feel he should be a leader in the Senate and introduce a long-desired Senate bill about supporting Palestinian rights and ending US complicity in Israel’s ongoing human rights violations.

Thus the “Be Bold Bernie” old school letter-writing effort was born.

Vermont Quakers working with the American Friends Service Committee on the “Apartheid-free Communities” initiative decided that they would dedicate time starting in August to getting Vermonters to write to Senator Sanders.

Back in the habit

They started their outreach by setting up letter-writing tables in community spaces, organizing a virtual letter-writing party, and posting in Vermont email list  servers and community newsletters.

“I think we have gotten out of the habit of hand-writing a letter to our elected officials. Sure, it takes more time to compose a personalized letter than to click and send a form letter, but we hope that the extra effort shows our dedication,” said Anita, an activist from Vermont. “I’ve seen some of the letters people have sent and they are really moving. I hope they are reaching Bernie directly.”

Organizers know that Bernie thinks of himself as a “bold” leader, and indeed he has taken some bold actions for many important social justice issues, including for Palestinian rights. In a guest essay for The New York Times in 2021, he wrote, “[I]f the United States is going to be a credible voice on human rights on the global stage, we must uphold international standards of human rights consistently, even when it’s politically difficult. We must recognize that Palestinian rights matter. Palestinian lives matter.”

The idea of asking Bernie to do something positive – to be bold – was motivating to the organizers, who are hoping to arrange a visit for Sanders to Gaza and the West Bank.

“We know the impact of witnessing apartheid directly, and we believe Bernie hasn’t been to the region since becoming our senator,” said Scott Rhodewalt, one of the Vermont organizers.

“We want him to see the impact of apartheid as it manifests in the West Bank including Jerusalem, inside Israel, and especially in Gaza. We’re asking him to be bold because Bernie’s voice is the only one that can break through the silence in the US Senate.”

In September the organizers placed an ad in the free Vermont weekly, Seven Days, asking Vermonters to join in sending letters to Senator Sanders.

“We feel Bernie is genuinely dedicated to [peace], which is why we hope he will be a leader on this issue so critical to world peace,” said Susan Jones, a Vermont activist.

In her own letter Jones wrote: “Senator Sanders, it is time that you returned to that beautiful, traumatized land to see it for yourself, and to see what our $3.8 billion/year in unconditional US ‘aid’ to Israel has done.”

The “Be Bold Bernie” initiative doesn’t have an end date.

“We plan to help generate more letters once we get campuses involved this fall and more people get back into the swing of things,” said Zoe Jannuzi, an organizer with the American Friends Service Committee.

“We will be closely following what Bernie does these next few months, and we hope he knows that when he does take bold action for Palestinian rights, he has a lot of support at home.”

Jennifer Bing is the National Director of the Palestine Activism Program at the American Friends Service Committee