When I was a kid, every television station portrayed Native Americans as savages. Those who took their land using “guns, germs, and steel” were depicted as peace-loving bearers of civilization itself.
When I was a youth, I watched footage of General William Westmoreland, commander of the US military forces terrorizing Vietnam, saying with a straight face: “Orientals don’t place the same value on human life that we do.”
In the years since I’ve seen the same kind of dehumanization deployed against people resisting dispossession and structural violence from South Africa to South America and dozens of other places in between.
And always against Palestinians, when their existence was acknowledged at all.
Consolidated core and broader support
Amid the explosion of violence over the last week, a host of voices cut through the racist blather typified by the latest from Israel’s Defense Minister: “We are fighting against human animals.” These clear voices explained what is really going on: the root of violence is oppression. Among them were Arab Resource and Organizing Center (AROC), Jewish Voice for Peace, The U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights, left-wing Israeli lawmaker Ofer Cassif, and co-founder of the Progressive International Yanis Varoufakis.
These statements and the numerous demonstrations across the US bringing their message into the streets indicate the gains made by the Palestine solidarity movement over the past several decades. The ranks of those who have cut through all the attempts to obscure the real history of Palestine to target Israeli settler colonialism, the Israeli apartheid system, and the ideology of Zionism that supports it have grown substantially.
Yet pro-Palestine activists have built support beyond this political core. A far broader layer of the population has been won to sympathize with the Palestinians as the oppressed underdog in the Israel-Palestine relationship even if they are not yet fully convinced of anti-Zionist politics. Exposure of the ever-more-blatant racism of successive Israeli governments—the current one is particularly nightmarish—and the settlers (that is, ethnic cleansers) on the West Bank has led to a surge of identification with the Palestinians among US people of color, especially African Americans. Sentiment among young people of all backgrounds has shifted: a slight plurality of millennials (42%) sympathize with Palestinians more than Israelis (40%). Sentiment among Democrats shifted in 2021 – 23 for the first time to favor Palestinians over Israelis, 49% to 38%.
Champions of Palestinian rights like Rashida Tlaib and Cori Bush now sit in Congress. And a broader layer of congresspeople and other elected officials speak out to varying degrees against Israeli brutality and sponsor legislation on that issue in ways that were off the table even just a decade ago. .
9/11 moment: “With us or with the terrorists”
All of these gains have been made on the unfavorable terrain of US politics, where support for Israel has been promoted as a moral and political imperative by the guardians of imperial foreign policy, the powerful Israel lobby, and the fanatical, MAGA-linked Christian Zionist movement. But now the hard-won progress is being rolled back by attacks that will likely intensify in the coming weeks and months.
One establishment pundit after another has embraced the notion of “Israel’s 9/11.” So once again the “with us or with the terrorists” barrage is being deployed against anyone who criticizes US Middle East policy or supports Palestinian rights. Every public figure who does so—from media personalities to college professors, and from celebrities to elected officials—can expect to face charges of anti-Semitism and “siding with terrorism.” Attacks will intensify against frontline activist groups like AROC, the Palestinian Youth Movement, and Students for Justice In Palestine, who have long been targeted with smears, sting operations, and phony legal campaigns.
Elected officials who don’t toe the pro-Israel line are already being targeted. In the last election cycle the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) poured millions of dollars into efforts to defeat not just strong Palestine supporters but even those who seemed inclined to move in that direction. AIPAC recognizes that shifting sentiment around Israel-Palestine in the Democratic Party’s progressive wing poses the threat of support for Israel losing its current status as a “bipartisan” principle, which would be a huge blow to US complicity in Israeli apartheid.
The upwelling of support for Israel in this moment poses serious political challenges for building Palestine solidarity, for defeating an authoritarian right that wants to use support for Israel as one of its battering rams to gain total power, and for contending with Biden’s terrible foreign policy. Republicans are Iran-baiting Biden and the Democrats; centrist Democrats are seizing another means of marginalizing progressives and Leftists; the progressive movement has long split over support for Palestinian rights. The fever of war is fueling religious nationalism at home and abroad.
Palestinians will bear the brunt
Meanwhile the threat of even greater bloodletting looms, with more dead to mourn and wounded to care for on all sides, The Israeli government has already declared war, announced a total siege of Gaza, and is threatening massive military action. Palestinian civilians, who have borne the brunt of violence for more than 75 years, will once more be treated as either explicit targets or irrelevant collateral damage.
So this time for us in the US to stand firm and go broad. Sustain the momentum of street actions and full-spectrum media messaging that targets the underlying cause of the current crisis. Defend every group and individual that gets attacked for criticizing Israel’s brutality—continuing to remind people that outrage against that brutality is not the same as anti-Semitism. Stay in or get in every public space no matter how uncomfortable where a voice speaking against racist dehumanization can find even a toehold. Engage with those progressives who equivocate whether out of simple backwardness or fear of Zionist bullying while building on whatever positive impulses they display.
The immediate days ahead are likely to be very tough. The most strident Israel supporters claim to be moved by the death of civilians, but they reveal their true colors in declaring this a moment of “great opportunity“ to gain more power. But they have no program for the Israel-Palestine conflict except more killing and more subjugation.
The demands for an immediate ceasefire, for an end to US military aid and overall blank-check support for Israel, for equal rights for all to replace apartheid—these light the road to peace with justice. Many who are not ready to support those demands today can be convinced to change their minds tomorrow; just as many who support these views today did not do so five, ten or twenty years ago.
Featured image: Emergency protest in San Francisco, Oct. 8, 2023. Photo by AROC.