How the Israel-Hamas War Galvanized the American Left - The World News

How the Israel-Hamas War Galvanized the American Left

Support for Palestinians, a cause once largely championed on college campuses and in communities with ties to the region, has transformed into a defining issue of the Democratic left, galvanizing a broad swath of groups into the most significant protest movement of the Biden era.

Through daily organizing sessions on Zoom and grass-roots campaigning in battleground states, a sprawling new iteration of the pro-Palestinian movement is now propelled both by longtime — and sometimes hard-line — activists and by mainstream pillars of the Democratic coalition.

Organizations that are usually focused on climate, housing or immigration are regularly protesting Israel’s military campaign in Gaza, which followed the Hamas-led Oct. 7 attack and has killed more than 33,000 people, according to local officials.

Labor activists are calling for a cease-fire. Black clergy leaders have appealed directly to the White House. Young Americans are using online tools to mobilize voters and send millions of missives to Congress. And an emerging coalition of advocacy groups is discussing how to press its case at the Democratic National Convention this summer.

“Maybe there was an idea that over time, the movement would lose steam, or it was just like a campus thing or it was like a far-left sort of protest movement,” said Maurice Mitchell, the national director of the Working Families Party, a progressive group that has often been more focused on domestic issues. “The opposite is happening as the humanitarian toll becomes so clear.”

Interviews with more than three dozen activists and others involved in the cease-fire cause, as well as their critics, reveal an effort that is at once increasingly powerful and also disjointed and difficult to clearly define. There is no single leader or organization at the helm, nor even a single name for the effort.

It comprises hundreds of groups, from the national to the hyperlocal level, all loosely united behind a call for Israel to end its military campaign. But they are far from consensus on other core issues, such as how to achieve a cease-fire and what should come afterward.

They do not all work together, and their tactics also vary widely: While labor and faith leaders have issued calibrated statements, more strident groups and activists often stage demonstrations that snarl traffic or drown out politicians at events, and some have encouraged supporters to take their own “autonomous actions.”

On campuses especially, some protests have turned ugly or violent. Jewish students and leaders have described being harassed and threatened by people angered by the war in Gaza, in the face of a broader surge in antisemitic incidents, according to law enforcement officials and advocacy groups. They have also tracked a rise in anti-Muslim and anti-Arab acts, including the killing of a Palestinian American 6-year-old boy and the shooting of three students of Palestinian descent in Vermont.

In the aftermath of the Oct. 7 attack, which Israeli officials say killed about 1,200 people in Israel, demonstrations against Israel were initially often led by campus groups like Students for Justice in Palestine, which would later be banned or suspended from several universities; left-wing Jewish organizations including Jewish Voice for Peace chapters; and groups heavily involved in street protests that cheered or justified the attack as legitimate resistance, such as Palestinian Youth Movement and Within Our Lifetime.

But as Israel’s military response intensified and the humanitarian crisis in Gaza spiraled, a much broader constellation of more traditional Democratic-leaning organizations, leaders and voters began to engage. Activists are now wrestling with how best to push President Biden and his Democratic allies — or whether to break from them — in an election year.

Mr. Biden is under intense pressure to take a tougher stand against Israel, a longtime ally, from powerful parts of a divided party. In a Pew Research Center poll released last month, a slim majority of Democrats said the way Israel was conducting the war was unacceptable, even as the same share said its reasons for fighting were either completely or somewhat valid.

After seven aid workers were killed by Israeli strikes last week, Mr. Biden threatened to condition future support for Israel on how it addresses civilian casualties and the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

Other Democrats are going much further in their condemnations.

“There is now a real link between prominent elected officials and on-the-ground organizing,” said Abbas Alawieh, 32, a Democratic strategist who is helping to lead a national effort protesting Mr. Biden’s Israel policy. “That link is leading to what I’ve experienced as one of the largest antiwar organizing efforts this generation has seen.”

For decades, pro-Palestinian activists largely existed on the political fringe, drowned out by bipartisan support for Israel and by well-organized, well-funded pro-Israel organizations.

But after years of fraying ties between the Democratic Party and Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli leader, the outbreak of war abruptly exposed just how much the political landscape had shifted.

After Oct. 7, Mr. Biden traveled to Israel to offer support, and many around the world demanded that Hamas release the roughly 240 hostages taken captive.

At universities and in some activist circles, however, a powerful backlash against Israel was brewing within hours of the attack, transforming student groups with sleepy social media presences into powerful campus voices.

On Oct. 5, Columbia University’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine posted on Instagram about an upcoming meeting. The post drew 369 likes and 14 comments.

On Oct. 9, a post proclaiming “full solidarity with Palestinian resistance” received nearly 33,000 likes.

Such reactions drew widespread criticism. But as Israel bombarded Gaza and launched a ground invasion, scenes of death and devastation in Israel were increasingly supplanted on television and social media by images of death and devastation in Gaza.

Those scenes began to define views of the war for many within the broader Democratic Party who strongly condemned Hamas but grew increasingly alarmed by the civilian toll.

“We are seeing profound pain,” said William J. Barber II, an activist and professor at Yale Divinity School who has spoken with Vice President Kamala Harris about a cease-fire. “Nothing organizes people like that pain.”

On Nov. 8, a coalition of Black clergy members ran an advertisement in The New York Times calling for a bilateral cease-fire.

The ad, signed by more than 900 Christian faith leaders, was perhaps the clearest sign yet of the movement’s growth. It reflected longstanding relationships between Black and Palestinian activists dating to the demonstrations against police violence in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014.

The Rev. Michael McBride, a founder of Black Church PAC who helped organize the letter, recalled the online encouragement he received from Palestinian young people while in Ferguson. Nine years later, he was shaken by the scenes from Gaza on social media.

“I don’t think many of us had seen anything like that before,” he said.

Other core Democratic constituencies were mobilizing, too. In the labor movement, progressive and younger members as well as workers from heavily Arab American Dearborn, Mich., agitated for their unions to take a stand.

Brandon Mancilla, a regional director with the United Automobile Workers, said that by early November, as the death toll rose in Gaza, union members were regularly joining demonstrations in their U.A.W. gear.

“It wasn’t just protesting the bombing,” said Mr. Mancilla, who helped lead the cease-fire call efforts. “It was also trying to say that, like, ‘I belong to this organization, and I want that organization to reflect my principles.’”

In December, the U.A.W. International Union became the largest labor union at the time to back an “immediate” cease-fire.

While many activists have urged an “immediate, permanent” cease-fire, others have pressed for a negotiated, bilateral cease-fire with pressure on Israel and Hamas, illustrating both growing disillusionment with Israel’s war effort and stark differences about how to end it.

As unions intensified their efforts, Mr. Biden received a warning in a bastion of the American labor movement.

In February, more than 100,000 Michigan voters cast an “uncommitted” ballot in the state’s Democratic primary, after activists urged voters to send a message to Mr. Biden. There have been notable protest votes in subsequent primary states, and activists are now planning their presence at the Democratic National Convention.

Lauren Hitt, a spokeswoman for the Biden campaign, said in a statement that Mr. Biden “shares the goal for an end to the violence and a just, lasting peace in the Middle East. He’s working tirelessly to that end.”

From the outset, the Gaza war fueled heated debates over the differences between criticism of Israel and overt antisemitism, a clash shaped by generational divisions and disputes over where free speech ends and hate speech begins.

Leading Democrats including the Senate majority leader, Chuck Schumer of New York, and Ms. Harris have emphasized distinctions between the Israeli government, which they criticize, and the Israeli people. Some lawmakers have also voiced concerns about instances in which Jewish Americans have been targeted by people who appear to oppose Israeli policy.

“If you think that you are opposing actions of a country like Israel by attacking Jewish organizations, Jewish members of Congress, Jewish businesses, Jewish prayer-goers, you are veering into pure, unadulterated antisemitism,” said Representative Daniel S. Goldman, a New York Democrat who was in Israel for a family event on Oct. 7.

Some left-leaning Jews have found a home in the protest movement, embracing organizations including the anti-Zionist group Jewish Voice for Peace as well as IfNotNow, another Jewish group strongly critical of Israel. Both have helped organize antiwar demonstrations and say they have seen a surge in membership since the war broke out.

“They can hold the grief of Oct. 7 while also seeing clearly there is nothing that can justify what Israel has done to Palestinian civilians,” said Matan Arad-Neeman, a spokesman for IfNotNow.

Others described feeling a sense of betrayal by the progressive social justice movements they long supported.

“In our time of need, those groups who we have always stood by have abandoned us,” Mr. Goldman said. “It feels very lonely right now to be a Jew in America.”

Social media has played a critical role in powering the cease-fire cause and shaping perceptions of the conflict, especially among young people.

Since October, more than 500 Instagram accounts and Facebook groups have been created in solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza. Some of the largest accounts have millions of followers and promote fund-raising drives and letter-writing campaigns.

Longstanding accounts run by Palestinians in Gaza have also grown as they document life during the war. A Palestinian journalist and Gaza resident, Plestia Alaqad, had about 3,700 followers on Instagram before Oct. 7. Today, she has more than 4.7 million, whom she regularly calls upon to attend events in support of Palestinians.

“We’re seeing it on our phones every time we open social media,” said Elise Joshi, executive director of a progressive group, Gen-Z for Change.

While the accounts on Instagram, Facebook, TikTok and X appear to operate independently, they often share the same memes and videos. When a demonstration blocked the president’s traditional motorcade route ahead of the State of the Union, it took less than 10 minutes for Instagram and TikTok accounts to begin declaring the protest a success.

Within an hour, more than 200 Instagram accounts shared the news.

Activists use Instagram and Facebook to organize protests and sometimes send play-by-play logistical instructions on Telegram. Every weekday afternoon, Jewish Voice for Peace hosts a “power half-hour” online, where participants organize, take political actions and find solidarity, accompanied by a dedicated Spotify playlist. The gathering regularly draws around 500 people, said Beth Miller, the group’s political director.

Some Israel advocates cautioned against conflating online energy with public opinion, and alluded to concerns about misinformation.

Researchers have discovered that tens of thousands of bots are involved in the campaigns. But while those accounts have found an audience in Russia, Iran and other countries, in the United States they have garnered little support, according to a Times review.

It is difficult to trace the money that supports Palestinian advocacy groups. Many entities are new, local or not required to disclose their funding to the I.R.S., and the cause is often fueled by grass-roots efforts.

Some supporters that have disclosed donations include the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, a left-leaning foundation, and the social justice-focused Tides Foundation. Both have backed major advocacy groups including IfNotNow, Adalah Justice Project and the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights, according to tax filings and donors.

Jewish Voice for Peace has received funding from Open Society Foundations, the network founded by the billionaire financier George Soros and run by his son, Alex Soros.

The antiwar movement also appears to have drawn support from Neville Roy Singham, a longtime benefactor of far-left causes. The People’s Forum, a group that helped organize protests of a recent Biden fund-raiser at Radio City Music Hall, said in 2021 that he was their funder, calling him a “Marxist comrade.”

The Times also reported that Mr. Singham finances pro-China propaganda, and was shown attending a Chinese Communist Party propaganda forum last year.

Asked whether Mr. Singham’s work on China shaped how the People’s Forum approached the Palestinian cause, Manolo De Los Santos, the group’s executive director, said that the leaders of the People’s Forum had “been rallying for Palestine for nearly 20 years, long before we met Roy.”

“He doesn’t guide or dictate the direction of our work,” he added.

Mr. Singham did not reply to emails seeking comment.

For years, Israel and allies in the U.S. have accused some pro-Palestinian organizations of having ties to terrorist groups. No charitable groups have been convicted of funding Hamas since 2008, according to a Justice Department spokeswoman.

That scrutiny is one reason giving to pro-Palestinian organizations has been relatively muted, especially compared with pro-Israel organizations. But many groups that support Palestinian causes have seen funding increase since last October.

“People donate based on emotions,” said Steve Sosebee, the founder of HEAL Palestine, an N.G.O. “Nothing is more emotional than seeing children starving, injured and orphaned.”

On the electoral front, a coalition of progressive organizations that helped power the rise of the left-wing “Squad” — which includes some of Congress’s sharpest critics of Israel — said they were joining forces to support their congressional allies and counter anticipated heavy spending by AIPAC, the major pro-Israel group.

The groups include Justice Democrats, the Working Families Party, the Democratic Socialists of America and several Palestinian rights’ groups.

“It’s a powerful moment,” said Ahmad Abuznaid, the executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights and its action arm, which is part of that coalition. But, noting the war and continued American military support, he added, “We have a long way to go.”

Ruth Igielnik, David A. Fahrenthold and Sean Piccoli contributed reporting. Kitty Bennett contributed research.

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