How the war in the Gaza Strip mobilized the American left

Protesters block Pennsylvania Ave. during a pro-Palestinian demonstration near the U.S. Capitol in preparation for President Joe Biden's State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress, Thursday, March 7, 2024, in Washington (AP Photo/Luis M. Alvarez)

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 grassroots 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 the Gaza Strip, 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 Joe Biden and his Democratic allies — or whether to break from them — in an election year.



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, 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 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.

“It wasn’t just protesting the bombing,” said 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 UAW 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, 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. He’s working tirelessly to that end.”



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 IRS, and the cause is often fueled by grassroots 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 billionaire financier George Soros and run by his son, Alex Soros.

The anti-war 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 fundraiser at Radio City Music Hall in New York, said in 2021 that he was its funder, calling him a “Marxist comrade.”

On the electoral front, a coalition of progressive organizations that helped power the rise of the left-wing “Squad” — which includes some of Congress’ 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.”

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