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Explained | How the war in the Gaza Strip mobilized the American Left

Labour 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.
Last Updated : 13 April 2024, 16:47 IST
Last Updated : 13 April 2024, 16:47 IST

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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 and grassroots campaigning, 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 the Gaza Strip, which followed the Hamas-led Oct. 7 attack and has killed more than 33,000 people, according to local officials.

Labour 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 organisation 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 Joe Biden and his Democratic allies — or whether to break from them — in an election year.

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 long-standing relationships between Black and Palestinian activists dating to the demonstrations against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, 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, Michigan, agitated for their unions to take a stand.

Brandon Mancilla, a regional director with the United Auto Workers, said that by early November, as the death toll rose in Gaza, union members were regularly joining demonstrations in their UAW gear. In December, the UAW International Union became the largest labor union at the time to back an “immediate” cease-fire.

As unions intensified their efforts, 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 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 spokesperson for the Biden campaign, said in a statement that Biden “shares the goal for an end to the violence and a just, lasting peace in the Middle East.”

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.

On the progressive front, a coalition of organizations said they were joining forces to support their congressional allies. The groups include Justice Democrats, the Working Families Party and the Democratic Socialists of America.

“It’s a powerful moment,” said Ahmad Abuznaid, the executive director of the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights.

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Published 13 April 2024, 16:47 IST

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