Friday, 20 October 2023 11:39

What do leftist critics of Israel do now?

Demonstrators demanding a ceasefire in Gaza hold a rally in the rotunda of the Cannon Building on October 18, 2023, in Washington, DC.

They marched on the White House to make their demands clear: a Biden-brokered ceasefire — now; the release of hostages held by Hamas militants; more forceful American condemnation of Israel’s bombing of Gaza; and, eventually, major changes to the current Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinians.

The protestors, gathered Monday afternoon by progressive Jewish American activist organizations, represented various segments of the US political left: Palestinian and Israeli Americans, Jewish and Muslim people, longtime activists, and newer allies sympathetic to a more nuanced position of peace and reform for Israel and Palestine.

But they also represent a more mainstream progressive vision of Palestinian liberation and anti-Zionism than the one elevated in the days after the Hamas attack last week. Early news coverage, social media algorithms, and politicians and commentators from both major parties zeroed in on protests celebrating Hamas, social media posts by far-left groups, and open letters and rallies organized on college campuses as the true face of the American left. But many of these activists and organizers have spent the last week rebutting that image, refocusing the political and media narrative about the consequences of the Israel-Hamas war and American complicity, and building up support for American diplomacy from the grassroots and in Washington.

This wasn’t the first major demonstration in the capital — a weekend protest organized by the pro-Palestinian advocacy group American Muslims for Palestine also drew thousands — but these anti-war protestors marched to the White House as their calls picked up institutional recognition and support in the halls of Congress. On Monday, 13 progressive members of Congress — not just the Squad — signed on to a resolution calling on the Biden administration to broker an immediate ceasefire in Israel and Palestine and urge de-escalation in order to bring humanitarian aid into the Gaza Strip.

“That resolution represents what most of us actually want to see,” Beth Miller, the political director of Jewish Voice for Peace Action, one of the groups that organized the Monday protest, told Vox. “The most important thing for our members of Congress to understand and for the general American public to understand is that there is no military solution to what is happening right now. Israel is dropping bombs on entire families and neighborhoods of people, and it will not solve anything. It will only lead to more violence in the long run.”

Israel and Hamas are at war. How did we get here? Vox answers the biggest questions.

  1. Why did Hamas attack Israel?
  2. Where does the conflict currently stand and where does it go from here?
  3. How did Hamas come to power and what does it want?
  4. What does the US-Israel relationship mean for the war?
  5. What is the history of the Israel-Palestine conflict?

The protest, which continued into the evening as demonstrators blocked roads and entrances to the White House and adjoining government buildings, came on a day when activists said they felt winds changing. Yes, there was early splintering in the left’s response and domination by fringe and radical elements during the days following Hamas’s mass infiltration of southern Israel. But progressive groups are better organized now, feel more emboldened to make demands of American leaders, and feel like they’re gaining support in Congress. They say the images from Gaza, the rhetoric of politicians in Israel and the US, the devastation caused by the Israeli military, and the “blank check” issued by American leaders to Israel are all fueling their movement and reinforcing the message they want the public to hear. On Wednesday, these same organizers would take protestors directly to Congress, marching to the Capitol, sitting-in at a congressional office building, and, like at the White House, some would get arrested.

The hearts, minds, and policies they’re trying to change won’t be easily altered. Though most Americans were sympathetic to both Palestinians and Israelis and open to more nuanced solutions to the Israel-Palestine conflict, public polling from last week following Hamas’s attack shows Americans, including more Democrats and independents, warming to the Israeli military’s response. This shift is likely driven by a desire to support a nation that has just suffered a massive, graphic, and morally reprehensible attack.

“Over the last week, what we have seen come out of Washington, DC, is overwhelming vitriol — vitriolic hostility toward Palestinians. I worked in this movement for about 13 years, and I have been blown back by some of what I’ve seen and heard from our own elected officials,” Miller said. “Our own government is currently working to support mass atrocities being committed by the Israeli government. That’s essentially the state of affairs right now in DC.”

That perspective is what makes progressive activists feel like their efforts are all the more urgent: If more war crimes and atrocities are imminent, they need to act now.

Congressional support is limited, but changing

Washington’s official consensus has long been strong support for Israel; that stretches across the overwhelming majority of both elected Republicans and Democrats. Criticism of Israel, its occupation of parts of the West Bank and Gaza, and its treatment of Palestinians in general, has long been taboo — and usually limited to the most progressive wing of the Democratic Party.

For progressive activists, the first congressional resolution circulated in the wake of the Hamas attack and Israel’s military response is evidence of this institutional bias. The four-page statement, introduced by the Republican and Democratic leaders of the House Foreign Affairs Committee three days after the attack, has massive bipartisan support — over 400 members of Congress have signed onto it. It condemns Hamas, is a statement of resolute support for and solidarity with the state of Israel, and mourns American and Israeli lives lost — all of which made sense in the immediate aftermath of the attack. Yet the statement makes no mention of Palestinian lives lost since Israel started its campaign of airstrikes in Gaza, and it hasn’t been updated to include the civilian deaths Israel’s military response has caused in the region.

“That resolution is going to go down as one of the most shameful resolutions in terms of its timing and its content,” said Miller. “That resolution essentially says that the United States will stand with Israel pretty much no matter what it does, and it only talks about or mourns the loss of Israeli life without even paying lip service to or even acknowledging the fact that the Israeli military has killed Palestinians.”

Uniformed police officers wearing all black stand above protestors, who are seated on the ground with their hands cuffed behind their backs, on October 16, 2023, in Washington, DC.
US Secret Service police arrested more than 30 demonstrators during a Jewish American-led demonstration near the White House, which called for a ceasefire between Israel and Palestinians.

The growing number of civilian deaths in Gaza, coupled with reports of worsening humanitarian conditions and the escalating tactics used by Israel — like cutting off electricity and water to the Gaza Strip and ordering the evacuation of 1 million people to southern Gaza in anticipation of a ground invasion — have all made it easier, and increasingly urgent, for more rank-and-file Democrats to step up their criticism of Israel in the past few days. Earlier this month, a contingent of 17 House Democrats urged the State Department to step up information and resources for Palestinian Americans and American citizens currently stuck in the Gaza Strip.

Congressional reactions to media reports of the northern Gaza evacuation order seemed to mark a turning point: Suddenly, more House Democrats felt more comfortable voicing concerns about Israel’s response. That shift contributed to a second House effort on October 13. Led by progressive Reps. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) and Mark Pocan (D-WI), 55 House Democrats signed a letter to President Joe Biden urging him to remind Israel and neighboring countries that its actions “must be carried out according to international law and take all due measures to limit harm to innocent civilians.” They called for the establishment of a humanitarian corridor to bring aid into Gaza and allow Palestinians and other civilians out of the Strip, and asked that humanitarian aid be ensured for “both Palestinians in Gaza and Israelis,” among other requests.

But that statement came short of calling for a ceasefire, which left-leaning activists are now demanding, in part over fears that such a call would drive down the number of Democrats who eventually signed on to the letter, according to a report from the Intercept. Ultimately, 13 of the most progressive Democrats would introduce their own resolution centered on a ceasefire and recognition of the civilian lives lost in both Gaza and Israel.

This marks a major change from the way Congress was operating in the days after the Hamas attack, when a Fox News reporter chased Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib — the only Palestinian American member of Congress — around the basement tunnels of the US Capitol asking her to condemn Hamas, and when other members of Congress were criticizing progressives for raising concerns about Israel’s response. Few Democrats chose to defend their colleagues; some angrily confronted them or criticized them in the press. Some took the time to cut ties with leftist organizations like the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), which had immediately expressed solidarity with Palestinians after the Hamas attack and whose New York City chapter had been linked to an at-times antisemitic protest in Times Square that weekend.

DSA-backed Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez condemned that protest, and allies of Rep. Jamaal Bowman told the New York Times that the congressman was no longer a DSA member. Rep. Shri Thanedar, another DSA-backed progressive, similarly condemned the demonstration and disassociated himself with the group.

Thanedar, a self-described progressive, also told Vox last week that calls for de-escalation and a ceasefire were premature: “Now is not the time to talk about restraint; this is the time to go after the terrorists and Israel is justified in sending the message that such terroristic acts will not be tolerated.”

The same sentiment was echoed by the White House last Tuesday. When Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre was asked about congressional progressives’ statements calling for a ceasefire, she said the White House believed they are “wrong,” “repugnant,” and “disgraceful.”

“Our condemnation belongs squarely with terrorists who have brutally murdered, raped, kidnapped hundreds — hundreds of Israelis,” Jean-Pierre said. “There can be no equivocation about that. There are not two sides here. There are not two sides.”

What the left wants now

No progressive groups or activists who spoke with Vox were claiming there were two sides to the killing of civilians by Hamas in Israel — but they all agree that there should be no equivocation about the thousands of civilian deaths and injuries in Gaza since Israel launched its air campaign in response.

They all condemned Hamas’s atrocities against civilians. They say that at this point in the conflict their fears of a potential “genocide” in the Gaza Strip should be the most immediate concern. They point to the hawkish and violent rhetoric coming from political leaders in both Israel and the US as signs that military restraint is off the table, that concern for civilian lives is not a factor, and that few Democratic and essentially no Republican leaders care about the rising civilian death toll in Gaza since Israel began its military operations.

“Most mainstream, responsible, progressive, humane voices are doing everything they can to raise the alarm about the possibility of mass, indiscriminate violence in Gaza,” Simone Zimmerman, a co-founder of the progressive American Jewish organization IfNotNow and an organizer with the Diaspora Alliance, an organization working to fight antisemitism, told Vox. “Most of us are just really trying to call on anyone who will listen to try to help move the situation towards de-escalation and to stop the Israeli government from perpetuating mass atrocities on 2 million people who do not deserve to die.”

In the immediate term, Zimmerman and other organizers said that they want more American leaders to forcefully condemn the killing of civilians, emergency response workers, journalists, and United Nations personnel by Israeli strikes in Gaza. They are shocked that more Democrats have not spoken out about Israel cutting off water and power to the Strip, about the fate of American citizens in Gaza, or the long-expected Israeli military ground incursion. They’d like some acknowledgement of Palestinian lives lost in addition to Israeli lives. They demand an end to “collective punishment.” And they urge Western leaders to be careful with just how much of a blank check they are willing to give the Israeli government.

In the long run, progressive activists and organizers say they still stand by a more nuanced position for the US to be critical of Israel’s unequal treatment of Palestinian people, of the occupation of Palestinian territory in Gaza and the West Bank, and of American military support that ignores human rights violations. And they hope more progressive lawmakers amplify that message in Washington.

“This situation is also clear evidence of why the US needs to do more to prioritize and address resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and that means securing self-determination and safety and freedom for both the Israeli and Palestinian people,” said Logan Bayroff, the communications director for the liberal Israeli American group J Street. “Those sentiments can coexist with full-throated, unequivocal condemnation of Hamas slaughtering civilians and support for Israel trying to counter Hamas.”

How the left’s message got muddled

These activist groups are now working to make their section of the American left the one best heard in DC and around the country; the Monday protest at the White House and Wednesday’s protest on Capitol Hill were a way of doing this. But they weren’t the voices picked up by news outlets, politicians, commentators, and social media in the immediate aftermath of the attack. In the days after October 7, a combination of right-wing broadsides and the radical responses from a swath of self-described leftists made it harder for them to get their message to the public and to government leaders. It’s hard to quantify just how big the contingent of war-crime apologists in the American left is, but the fact that it was even a topic of conversation is evidence of the problem other left-leaning activists have to overcome.

Those extreme reactions — the ones that called the massacre of civilians a legitimate and “desperate” form of resistance, the ones that appeared to stand with Hamas, the ones that celebrated the deaths of concertgoers — have already gotten plenty of coverage.

A crowd of people waving Israeli flags face another crowd waving Palestinian flags, separated by New York City police officers.
Supporters of Israel face people rallying in support of Palestinians in Times Square on October 8, 2023, after the Palestinian militant group Hamas launched an attack on Israel.

Many right-wing media commentators, conservative politicians, and pro-Israel hardliners seized on the more provocative left-wing reactions to conflate apologists for Hamas’s war crimes with critics of the Israeli status quo more broadly. In attacking the White House response, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), for example, has spent much of the last week promoting statements from these leftist groups and referencing “Israel-hating leftist activists” and “rampant, unchecked antisemitism” when criticizing the White House’s response, highlighting a since-deleted State Department statement urging “restraint” and attacking progressive Congress members’ calls for a ceasefire. Fox News host Sean Hannity spent the top of his Wednesday night show using those radical reactions to attack the Democratic Party as a whole. And thought piece after thought piece has meditated on what the future of the activist left could be after the flawed and splintered response.

“There is a desire from some to use these moments of tragedy as an excuse to try to cut off any serious policy debate or discussion … to try to use this as an excuse to label anybody who expresses any support whatsoever for Palestinian rights, for Palestinian statehood, any opposition to ongoing occupation, as somehow you being a hater of Israel, a supporter of Hamas, an antisemite,” said Bayroff.

Meanwhile, the nuanced, unequivocal statements by progressive groups like Win Without War, Indivisible, J Street, IfNotNow, the Adalah Justice Project, and the Center for International Policy did not get picked up in the same way as those more radical voices promoted on social media — something progressive leaders wanted to contrast with the statements by more fringe groups.

A massive imbalance in influence and reach

As Israel’s response continues, as horrific stories of death and destruction trickle out, and as the pro-Israel majority in Washington carries on, progressive politicians and activists face an asymetric challenge: holding their left-wing coalitions together, winning over more on the center-left of elected power, beating back attacks from the political right, and doing it all with a political and media environment that is stacked against them.

Republicans are united in support of whatever Israel does. Amid the fixation on leftist campus activists and social media posts, lawmakers are openly calling for war crimes: Republican senators like Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Marco Rubio of Florida have used extreme rhetoric. Graham urged Israel to “level” Gaza while Rubio said Israel should destroy Hamas by whatever means necessary (“This tragically necessary effort will come at a horrifying price,” he said on X, formerly known as Twitter). Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) has said Israel shouldn’t be held responsible for civilian deaths: “As far as I’m concerned, Israel can bounce the rubble in Gaza. Anything that happens in Gaza is the responsibility of Hamas,” he said on Sunday. So far, they seem to have escaped official opprobrium.

Though more House Democrats have spoken up, few in the Senate, with notable exceptions like Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Ed Markey (D-MA), have spoken up to urge restraint.

That status quo “is a much bigger problem because, while there may be some fringe elements on campuses or at rallies who are saying horrific things about Hamas, we have people saying horrific things about Palestinians at the highest levels of our government in both parties, or they’re turning a blind eye toward it,” Waleed Shahid, the former spokesperson for the progressive political organization Justice Democrats, told Vox. “Jamaal Bowman, AOC, other progressive leaders, have condemned what happened at this rally in New York and what happened with this group in Chicago, [but] I haven’t heard Joe Biden or Hakeem Jeffries, or anyone condemn what Lindsey Graham said or what Netanyahu has said repeatedly about the Palestinian people.”

And that asymmetry, some activists said, extends to whose stories get told in national news coverage. “There’s this obsessive one-sided fixation on Israeli victimhood and lengthy interviews with Israeli parents, while Palestinian families are entirely ignored, even though they’re being decimated,” said Omar Baddar, the former communications director for the Institute for Middle East Understanding. “To ignore that, I think ... is a travesty. And right-wing media should be called out for their absolutely racist coverage and their selective outrage for some victims and not others.”

These calls for restraint, for de-escalation, for humanitarian aid and forceful condemnation of the killing of civilians “aren’t a very radical position,” said Sandra Tamari, a Palestinian American organizer in St. Louis, Missouri, who leads the Adalah Justice Project. “Right now, the demands are very simple: stop the bombs and allow humanitarian aid into Gaza so that more people don’t die.”