As College Campuses Erupt in Protest, Some See a Political Transformation

The pro-Palestine movement is growing and drawing on precedents from Vietnam to Black Lives Matter, suggesting that unequivocal US support for Israel may be on borrowed time.

In the summer of 2020, millions of teenagers, outraged by the police killing of George Floyd, took to the streets of American towns and cities as part of the largest protests against police brutality in U.S. history. Though years have passed, that energy has not entirely dissipated. Many of the young people who protested in 2020 are now college students campaigning for the U.S. to withdraw its support for Israel’s war in Gaza. They constitute the cutting edge of a pro-Palestine movement that has seen over 1.2 million people participate in about 6,000 protests in the U.S. since Oct. 7.

Just as the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement demanded a broad cultural reckoning with racism, pro-Palestine activists in colleges are leading a rapid shift in U.S. public opinion on Israel and Palestine. Thanks in large part to their efforts, Israel appears to be losing the battle for public opinion in the U.S., particularly among the younger generation. Attempts to present Palestinian resistance as “just like ISIS and al Qaeda,” as Israeli President Isaac Herzog put it in The New York Times last November, have failed to persuade a majority of Americans. Around two-thirds of voters now support the U.S. government calling for a permanent cease-fire and a de-escalation of Israel’s violence in Gaza.

This protest movement has manifested most recently in a wave of sit-ins and encampments at dozens of universities across the country. While school officials have tried to crack down on these demonstrations, leading in some cases to levels of police violence reminiscent of that used against BLM protesters four years ago, the suppression has only galvanized opposition from a movement committed to challenging support for Israel in the U.S. establishment.

In many ways, the journey of this generation of young protesters resembles the path trodden by their grandparents, who began the 1960s marching for civil rights and ended the decade with opposition to the Vietnam War. “Our consciousness had grown from thinking of the sheriff in Alabama to thinking of a worldwide system,” a veteran of that movement, Willie Ricks of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), told me in 2021. “Wherever people were raising their head against imperialism, we were with them.” One of those anti-imperialist struggles was the Palestine liberation movement, which the SNCC supported from the summer of 1967.

The following April, SNCC leaders H. Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael turned up at Hamilton Hall at Columbia University, which students had occupied to protest against the Vietnam War and gentrification in nearby Harlem. At a press conference in front of the building, Brown angrily denounced Columbia’s racism. Eventually, police officers violently removed the student occupiers. The organizers of today’s Columbia University encampments have carefully studied their 1968 predecessors. “We were only able to do this because the student organizers went into the archives of ‘68 and learned from what the older generation wrote about their experiences,” a Columbia student told the British newspaper The Independent.

Of course, there are huge differences between today and the 1960s. Nevertheless, a similar process is currently taking place, as young people expand the mental map of their politics from the anti-racism of BLM to the implicitly anti-imperialist movement to end U.S. backing for Israel. That trajectory was set in train in 2014 during the uprising by Black Americans in Ferguson, Missouri, following the police killing of Michael Brown. Palestinians in the West Bank watching the protesters suffer tear gas attacks by military-style police saw a resemblance to their own situation and began sending messages of support and advice. Over the following years, young Black activists visited Palestine and a more organic relationship between the two movements formed.

In 2016, a Movement for Black Lives policy document described the U.S. as “complicit in the genocide taking place against the Palestinian people” and declared its support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) against Israel. The anti-racist movement, the document argued, had to “overturn U.S. imperialism, capitalism and white supremacy.” In adding anti-imperialism to anti-racism, these young Black activists opened a political space that has been crucial to the pro-Palestinian movement, just as the SNCC’s opposition to the Vietnam War starting in 1966 opened the space for white activists to form other groups to build a mass movement opposing it.

Naturally, conservatives are alarmed by today’s protesting college students. They denounce this generation as “woke” and lay the blame on TikTok, Marxist professors and diversity, equity and inclusion policies in schools and colleges. Equally anxious are liberal Zionists, who fear that Israel is to this generation what South Africa was to young people in the 1980s — the epitome of political immorality. They are uniting with conservatives to implement a litany of measures to restrict pro-Palestinian activism in colleges. University leaders deemed insufficiently repressive have lost their jobs, professors have been fired for expressing pro-Palestinian views, over 900 students have been arrested, and many more face disciplinary measures. The Department of Homeland Security has confirmed that foreign students involved in the protests could be deported. There have even been demands that the civil activism group Students for Justice for Palestine face prosecution on criminal charges of material support for terrorism.

In spite of these attempts at censorship, the U.S. pro-Palestine movement has successfully forced its moral outrage over Israel’s onslaught on Gaza onto the agenda. As has long been understood, because Israel is dependent on the U.S. for financial, diplomatic and military support, U.S. opinion is a crucial front in the battle for Palestinian liberation.

The Pakistani writer Eqbal Ahmad, a key figure in pro-Palestinian advocacy in the U.S. until his death in 1999, argued in 1983 that the goal of the movement should be the “mobilization of international support and moral isolation of the enemy … addressing not so much the governments but the civil societies in the adversary’s strongholds, in this case the Israeli and American publics.” He had in mind something like the anti-Vietnam War movement, in which he had been a pioneering figure.

Even 10 years ago, anyone in the pro-Palestinian movement predicting the “moral isolation” of Zionism in U.S. public opinion or civil society institutions would have been considered wildly optimistic. But that is now a foreseeable scenario. It is also true that this advance comes at a terrible cost, resulting not only from over a decade of pro-Palestinian organizing but also from the flow of images of the devastating consequences of Israel’s high-tech war of mass elimination.

Take, for example, Human Rights Watch, which published a major study in 2021 finding that Israel is practicing apartheid against the Palestinians. Scholars working in the Palestinian liberation movement, such as Fayez Sayegh, have been comparing Zionism to apartheid South Africa since 1965, arguing that the origins of Israeli racism lie in the broader context of a settler colonial project. Human Rights Watch’s analysis was more legalistic. Nevertheless, for the leading human rights organization in the U.S. to apply the term “apartheid” and call for targeted sanctions and boycotts implied that Israel was not the liberal democratic society it claims to be. That was of tremendous significance.

Over the past few months, trade unions have been declaring their support for a cease-fire, teachers have been informing students about Israel’s “illegal military occupation of Palestine,” and major churches have been calling for the government to halt all its funding of Israel. Over 100 cities, towns and villages have passed resolutions calling for an Israeli cease-fire, including Chicago, Atlanta and San Francisco.

Even in the federal government, staff at various agencies, from the State Department to NASA, have circulated open letters calling for a cease-fire. Congressional staffers have protested outside the Capitol to condemn lawmakers for their complicity in Israel’s war. Unlike before, the U.S. media now describes Israeli leaders, not Palestinians, as rejecters of peace plans. And despite the universally pro-Israeli appearance cultivated by the major Jewish organizations in the U.S., American Jews are sharply divided in their views.

Having successfully challenged Israel’s dominance of public opinion, the pro-Palestine movement in the U.S. is now facing a more daunting task: breaking the Democratic Party leadership’s support for Israel. For now — despite the massive number of protests, the threat of the “uncommitted” protest vote and the increasingly obvious contradiction between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s offensive in Gaza and the U.S. desire for stability in the region — the Biden administration continues to be solid in its financial and military backing for Israel.

The annual commitment of $3.3 billion for Israel continues, even as threats of famine and ethnic cleansing loom in Gaza. The most recent batch of arms shipments included more than 1,800 MK84 2,000-pound bombs, 500 MK82 500-pound bombs and 25 F-35A fighter jets and engines. In attacking the Ansar Allah group, or Houthi movement, which has attempted to enforce a sea blockade of Israel from Yemen, the U.S. is also providing direct military cover for Israel’s war in Gaza. That 80 Democratic members of the House of Representatives have called for a cease-fire is significant. But it is a fraction of what the number would be if public opinion were properly represented.

It is true that Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken called for a cease-fire to allow for the release of hostages and to deliver humanitarian aid. And the U.S. abstained on, rather than vetoed, the most recent cease-fire resolution at the U.N. Security Council. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer also delivered a speech stating that if Netanyahu remains in power, “then the United States will have no choice but to play a more active role in shaping Israeli policy by using our leverage to change the present course.”

But it would be a mistake to put too much weight on these developments. Biden, Blinken and Schumer — and their counterparts in Israel — know that rhetorical shifts are unimportant so long as U.S. financial and military support for Israel continues.

Moreover, in the same week that it declined to veto the resolution, the U.S. withdrew for a year the entirety of its funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), fully endorsing Israel’s delegitimization of the agency and directly worsening the hunger and despair of Gazans, even as the Biden administration’s rhetoric deplores the humanitarian situation. The grim reality is that the movements opposing Israel’s war have not been able to push Democratic leaders to change course in any substantial way.

In the mid-1970s, when the anti-war movement of that generation peaked, Democratic politicians responded quite differently. It was mainly the military victories won by the Vietnamese communists, rather than protests at home, which forced the U.S. to withdraw its combat troops in 1973. But the anti-war movement generated other significant changes in U.S. foreign policy. The Democratic-controlled 93rd Congress, from 1973 to 1975, gave itself the power to review and reverse White House decisions to fight wars; made intelligence agencies more accountable; abolished two national security entities, the Un-American Activities Committee and the Office of Public Safety; and banned or reduced U.S. military support to authoritarian groups and governments in Angola, Chile, Indonesia, South Korea and Turkey. Congress also passed legislation to give itself the power to reject proposed major arms sales.

But this was also the period in which Israel sealed a tighter bond with U.S. power. By supplying weapons and counterinsurgency training to U.S.-allied right-wing authoritarian regimes in South Africa, Argentina, Chile, Guatemala and Honduras, when the U.S. was unable to act itself because of domestic or diplomatic concerns, Israel created deep links with ruling elites in the U.S., especially its foreign policy establishment. It was during this period, for example, that a young Joe Biden became an ardent Zionist, making his first visit to Israel in 1973. “Were there not an Israel, the United States of America would have to invent an Israel to protect her interests in the region,” he told the Senate in 1986.

Compared with the mid-1970s, today’s Democratic politicians are far less willing to engage with popular sentiment in support of a different foreign policy. This is true despite the looming possibility that their support for Israel could mean Democrats lose the White House to a candidate Biden describes as “the most antidemocratic” in American history.

Part of this is attributable to structural changes in American politics that have made the Democratic Party more dependent on wealthy donors. But there is a deeper reason. In the mid-1970s, the U.S. was still expanding its global hegemony and, Vietnam notwithstanding, wanted to make a compelling case for its leadership of the capitalist system. That implied a deference to movements at home and a foreign policy that could be presented as meeting international norms of legitimacy. By contrast, today the U.S. is in relative decline. Rather than making new friends in the world, it is fighting hard to hold on to old allies. An expansive progressive vision has given way to maintaining a brittle status quo.

This means that rather than being a sign of strength, the pro-Israel reflexes of the Democratic Party’s leadership may be a sign of potential weakness. It turned out, in the mid-1970s, that making some concessions to anti-imperialist sentiments was an effective way for U.S. elites to demobilize the domestic anti-war movement. With U.S. troops no longer deployed in Vietnam from 1973, and Democratic lawmakers passing some foreign policy reforms, the energy of the anti-war movement dissipated. In the absence of anti-imperialist protests on the streets, the progressive foreign policy initiatives in Congress were overturned within a few years, setting the stage for the more aggressive Cold War foreign policy under Reagan.

That kind of demobilization through partial absorption is less feasible today. A pro-Israel policy that survives only through wealthy donor support and the inertia of a foreign policy establishment fading in its power will be increasingly hard to uphold. To achieve stability, political power has to rely on more than coercion and censorship carried out on behalf of a narrow elite.

It is hard to say how the current crisis will be resolved. Perhaps the U.S. will manage Netanyahu’s transition out of office, negotiate an exchange of hostages for Palestinian prisoners and bring about a permanent cease-fire. But the destruction of Gaza is so extensive that there will be no return to the situation before Oct. 7.

The current level of mobilization of the U.S. pro-Palestinian movement is in part a response to the emergency in Gaza. If a permanent cease-fire were achieved, the movement might fade into the background. But it is now a deep enough current in U.S. society and has developed enough of a political consciousness, centered on opposition to Zionism, that it is likely to continue to grow in strength. As views on the Israel-Palestine conflict in the U.S. experience generational turnover, this movement is likely to gain more institutional power, in universities, news organizations, cultural organizations, trade unions and so on.

The story of a sclerotic political establishment paralyzed by the radical demands of a young generation has played out before in U.S. history. The protest movement against support for Israel now shaking institutions across the country is revealing daily the serious contradictions in U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. A change in U.S. policy in the region seems inevitable, though the timeframe is unclear. A failure to address demands today, however, is only setting the stage for a harder landing in the future. When that comes, it will likely take both Israel’s supporters and opponents by surprise.

This article first appeared at New Lines magazine.

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