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Why do Palestinians love Bernie Sanders? He reconciles our narrative with the Zionist one

The word Zionism is the subject of a lot of debate. For some, it refers to the survivalist belief in the state of Israel as a sanctuary from past horrors visited upon the Jewish people throughout history.

Muhammad Shehada | artist: Noah Lubin

Muhammad Shehada | artist: Noah Lubin

To others it represents the nostalgic belief that Jews should have a right to a nation state in the land they grew up reading stories about.

For others still, Zionism is a liberal belief that Israel can be both Jewish and democratic. And then there are those for whom Zionism is a territorialist insistence on Israel’s right to encroach on Palestinian lands and establish a “Greater Israel” without giving the Palestinians there equal rights. People who espouse all of these radically different views call themselves Zionists.

Then there’s what the word “Zionism” means for Palestinians. For us, the word refers to our national trauma: As the national movement that resulted in the Nakba — the loss of our land to the state of Israel, when 750,000 Palestinians were expelled or fled from their homes — we can’t help but see in Zionism the birth of our suffering as a people. The word itself has become something of a stand-in for the systematic worsening of Palestinian lives. As such, to many Palestinians, the word is synonymous with an assault on our very existence

Many Palestinians sympathize with what our Jewish sisters and brothers suffered in the Holocaust and its aftermath, and continue to suffer to this day with what have become daily encounters with anti-Semitism. Many Palestinians also sympathize with the Jewish nostalgia for Jerusalem and the Holy Land — a nostalgia we share. And yet, most Palestinians can’t help but see Zionism as negative, because we seldom get to see the positive versions of the Zionist project in which democracy and equality could theoretically be coextensive with a Jewish nation state.

Crucially, Zionism is not theoretical for Palestinians. We encounter the effects of Zionism on a daily basis. And more often than not, the reality birthed by Zionism comes to us in the form of our oppression. We encounter it as the perimeter fence separating Gaza from the world and suffocating the life out of it. We encounter it as a bulldozer with Israel’s flag emblazoned on it while it demolishes homes in the West Bank. We see it in the missiles bearing Hebrew letters pounding our besieged enclave, or in an insensitive IDF soldier shouting in Hebrew and pointing a big gun at us, ordering us to stand in line at border crossings or checkpoints. These are the manifestations of Israel in our lives, and thus, by extension, of Zionism, the movement that gave birth to Israel.

For many Palestinians living under these brutal daily realities, it feels insulting when we are commanded to see the positive connotation of a term that is associated in our collective memory and constant reality with suffering. When we are expected to acquiescence to Zionism in absolute terms, with all its forms lumped into one category, many of us feel we are being asked for surrender, an admission of defeat and the abandonment of our identities.

And yet, it’s clear that some form of coexistence between Palestinians and Israel is not only inevitable but desirable. Regardless of how long the anti-peace camp may procrastinate a solution, neither population can push the other into the sea. The question that remains is how we might bridge the gap between the Zionist and Palestinian narratives without either narrative canceling out or undermining the other.

Unfortunately, in today’s Israel, the mainstream attitude towards Palestinians is an exclusivist one, a zero-sum game of either us or them. Our narrative is constantly denied whether through ridiculing our pain as a theatrical performance in the “Pallywood” meme or dehumanizing our grievances as self-inflicted. This attitude refers to us only in terms of “deterrence,” where the only way to address our existence is to whip us back in line, or to insist that Israel’s violence is merely reactionary to our “terrorism.” This view is best exemplified by Netanyahu’s remarks that “Israel is not a state of all its citizens,” substantiated with the Nation State law which gives national rights to Jewish Israelis while giving only civil rights to its non-Jewish citizens.

But this zero-sum Zionism is fortunately not the only one on offer. In the past, liberal Zionists have shown unique and inspiring support for Palestinian human and civil rights, acknowledging that we deserve to be treated fairly and equally. This approach is noble, crucial and much valued. And yet, a truly conciliatory narrative cannot rely solely on civil rights for Palestinians, a discourse which casts Palestinians as a burden rather than citizens equally entitled to this land. It’s a worldview that limits what we deserve to that which won’t provoke Israel’s “security concerns,” for example, by becoming a “demographic threat” to Israel that undermines its Jewish character.

Instead, the advocacy for our rights should be complemented by a recognition of why we deserve those rights as co-inhabitants and co-owners of the land, rather than simply residents living on its soil. And such recognition can only emerge from acknowledging that Israel’s creation in 1948 came at the expense of Palestinians, resulting our internal displacement or expulsion.

Embracing this third view would mean moving from liberal Zionism to progressive Zionism. And the person who has most clearly shown how to make that move is Bernie Sanders. Senator Sanders perfectly embodies a progressive Zionist spirit, and his popularity amongst Palestinians, especially in Gaza, reveals how much power is embedded in recognizing the Palestinian narrative.

Last November, Sanders’ op-ed “How to Fight Anti-Semitism,” filled me with hope and great sympathy for the other side. In his moving piece, Sanders noted that “the founding of Israel is understood by another people in the land of Palestine as the cause of their painful displacement. And just as Palestinians should recognize the just claims of Israeli Jews, supporters of Israel must understand why Palestinians view Israel’s creation as they do.”

As someone who lived in an Israeli kibbutz, Sanders is a proud Zionist. Yet his courageous and principled acknowledgement of our trauma, and Israel’s responsibility for it, has made him exceptionally popular in Gaza; some Gazans call him “the most popular Jew after Moses.”

Sanders’ comments offer solid ground for the enormous potential of redefining Zionism as more inclusive of the Palestinian story. As he eloquently notes, “acknowledging these realities does not ‘delegitimize’ Israel any more than acknowledging the sober facts of America’s own founding delegitimizes the United States. It is a necessary step of truth and reconciliation in order to address the inequalities that continue to exist in our respective societies.”

Integrating the Palestinian narrative into the Zionist discourse will not only bring our peoples closer, but has the potential to generate a just and sustainable peace — as opposed to defining Israel’s victory in terms of Palestinian defeat or limiting Palestinian rights to Israel’s security concerns.

Common ground for Palestinian-Zionist reconciliation is possible if we are to feel each other’s pain, rather than compete over whose suffering matters more.

Muhammad Shehada is a contributing columnist at the Forward.

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