“A multiethnic, multiracial, bottom-up national movement has emerged over the past month to both criticize the Israeli government’s weeks-long bombing of Gaza and urge the Biden administration to stop offering Israel’s leaders largely unqualified support. Some involved in this movement have made antisemitic comments that should be condemned. But overall, their activism has been laudable, and its forcefulness is one of the reasons that Democratic-leaning politicians and the news media are showing increased skepticism about Israel’s military offensive.
The horrific Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas, which killed more than 1,400 Israelis, require a strong response. Hamas must be weakened or disempowered so it can never do something like that again. Hamas should immediately release the Israeli hostages that it captured.
But as Israel’s response has now killed thousands of civilians in Gaza and forced an estimated 1.4 million people to leave their homes, Americans have rightly recognized that the average Palestinian didn’t participate in Hamas’s attacks and there should be great efforts to minimize their suffering in Israel’s anti-Hamas campaign. And that has led to pro-Palestinian, anti-bombing protests in cities across the country, including Boston, Dallas, St. Louis and New York. There have also been dozens of protests at college campuses, as well as an organized walkout from classes last week.
A mass protest is scheduled this Saturday in D.C. Groups participating in the march include the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights, National Students for Justice in Palestine and the Democratic Socialists of America.
The movement goes beyond marches and protests. With many Democratic elected officials reluctant to directly contradict the Israeli government or the Biden administration, those working at lower levels have courageously stepped forward. Hundreds of Jewish and Muslim Capitol Hill staffers have signed a letter calling for a cease-fire, withholding their names because they aren’t supposed to speak out on issues where they disagree with their bosses. Former staffers to Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) have put their names on letters urging the two most powerful left-wing figures in the country to call for an end to Israel’s bombing of Gaza. A group of prominent writers and artists, including Ta-Nehisi Coates, have written a joint letter calling for “a free Palestine.”
In another group letter, a group of Jewish writers, artists and activists this week not only called for a cease-fire but wrote that they “wish to disavow the widespread narrative that any criticism of Israel is inherently antisemitic.”
And there are some elected officials involved, particularly the 18 U.S. House Democrats who have written a resolution calling for a cease-fire. Those are mostly members from the Democratic Party’s left wing, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). Yet this, too, is bottom-up, as most of these members have served no more than a few terms and aren’t in the Democratic Party’s leadership.
Pro-Palestinian groups have been at the forefront of the protests. But it’s a diverse movement. Jewish activists and organizations such as Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow are deeply involved. Eleven of the 18 House members pushing for a cease-fire are Black, including Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.), who is leading the effort on Capitol Hill. All 18 members are people of color.
These protests in some ways echo those in 2002 and 2020. Like in 2002, when most leaders in both parties were backing the Iraq War, these protests and activism are providing an important counterbalance to a Washington consensus. It’s hard for the news media or left-leaning politicians to ignore the intense, organized opposition to Israel’s bombing. The large number of White Americans at the marches after the killing of George Floyd showed that it wasn’t just Black people who were concerned about racism and police brutality in America. The people who aren’t Palestinian Americans and have been involved in the activism over the past few weeks are playing a similar role now.
I don’t embrace everything these activists are saying. The students at Harvard University who wrote that they “hold the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence” are wrong. Hamas is, of course, responsible, too — and entirely so for Oct. 7. I wish Rep. Rashida Tlaib’s (D-Mich.) statement on Oct. 8, only a day after the attacks, had focused on the brutality of what Hamas had just done, instead of acknowledging the killings but then highlighting her long-standing frustrations with the Israeli government. Cornell history professor Russell Rickford’s remark at a pro-Palestinian demonstration at the school that he was “exhilarated” by Hamas’s attacks was horrible.
But overall, this movement is delivering some much-needed messages: The bombings in Gaza have killed far too many civilians; the U.S. government needs to value Palestinians’ lives as much as Israelis’; and future policies to reduce tensions in Israel and the Palestinian territories must consider events before Oct. 7, particularly the restrictions put on those living in Gaza by the Israeli government.
And while this is hard to prove definitively, this activism appears to be shifting policy. Activists started calling for a cease-fire, pushing the most progressive House members to adopt that stance. With progressive House members calling for a cease-fire, there was increased pressure on Sanders and Warren in particular to take a similar stand. They and other left-leaning Democratic members of Congress started calling for temporary “humanitarian pauses” in Israel’s bombing, a stance the Biden administration itself has now adopted.
All that said, there isn’t a cease-fire in Gaza. Biden is not calling for one, nor are the overwhelming majority of Democratic members of Congress. The pauses that the Biden administration supports haven’t happened either. All indications are that Israel is launching a ground campaign that will displace even more Palestinians. The activism isn’t accomplishing its main goal — stopping Israel’s bombing in Gaza.
But this mobilization is still important and valuable. Israel’s offensive in Gaza would probably be even more aggressive and destructive to Palestinian civilians if not for those protesting against it. And we need people standing for what’s right, even if they can’t make it happen. During the past few weeks, a dispersed group of activists and organizations have forced a much-needed national debate about the U.S. government’s Israeli-Palestinian policies. We should be grateful that these people, who are not America’s formal leaders, have led.“