2023 closed in the United States with the emergence of the most significant antiwar campaigning in two decades. Joe Allen writes.
Israel’s genocidal assault on Gaza since Hamas’ October 7th attack has produced the most significant antiwar campaigning since the election of Barack Obama in 2008. For the first time in nearly two decades, we have the beginnings of an antiwar movement in the United States with thousands pro-Palestinian demonstrators regularly appearing on the streets of major U.S. cities. The largest Pro-Palestine demonstration in U.S. history took place on November 4, when nearly 300,000 marched against U.S. support for Israel’s war in Washington, D.C. Another national demonstration is planned for January 13, 2024 sponsored by the American Muslim Task Force for Palestine.
Clearly, a generational change has taken place on the question of Zionism and the relationship of the U.S. to Israel. Beginning with the first Intifada in 1987 and the Israeli government’s brutal crackdown on unarmed Palestinians, sympathy for Palestinians began to take hold, especially among American Jews. The 2003 death of Rachel Corrie, who was crushed to death by an Israeli militarized D9 bulldozer while attempting to stop the destruction of Palestinian homes in Rafah, was another example of this change. However, it was the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement during the last decade that changed the views of a younger generation on questions of racism, imperialism, settler colonialism, and indigenous struggles.
Major U.S. metropolitan areas have also seen a large growth of Arab, Palestinian, and Muslim populations during the past three decades ago. The Chicago region has over 100,000 Arabs with the largest number of Palestinians of any county in the United States with just over 23,000. The composition of Pro-Palestine demonstrations are still largely Palestinian, especially in Chicago. The demonstrations that I’ve attended witness thousands of Palestinian youth, as well as whole families march defiantly through the streets of Chicago wearing Kafiyas and proudly chanting, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” and demanding a ceasefire. This generation won’t be easily cowed.
On American college and university campuses the visibility of pro-Palestinian solidarity committees promoting the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) has had a big impact student politics, and has generated some of the worst backlash from the academic political establishment. The Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) has a presence on 200 college campuses across the United States and Canada. During the last decade they have done much of the heavy lifting organizing lectures, debates, film screenings, rallies, which is directed towards severing ties between U.S. campuses and Israel. There have been repeated attempts to ban SJPs and criminalize BDS activism across the country.
Meanwhile, the visible presence of anti-Zionist Jews against Israel’s war has been the big surprise for the mainstream media and political establishment. Jewish Voices for Peace (JVP) has emerged as a major center of activism. On the eighth day of Hanukkah alone, the JVP shut down eight bridges and highways across the United States. JVP’s actions at the Israeli consulate in Chicago and at the Grand Central Station, the major commuter rail station in Midtown Manhattan, where over a thousand protestors sat-in, garnered major media coverage. Even smaller protests, like the December 11th protest, when twenty Jewish elders chained themselves to the White House gate demanding a ceasefire, received widespread coverage. The Associated Press reported:
As they sat together in the cold, they sang songs and read out loud the names of Gazans over the age of 60 who have been killed by Israel since 7 October. The protesters wanted to pay tribute to the lives of elders lost in the conflict and to show that the ceasefire movement, which has largely been covered in the media as youth-driven, also includes seniors.
Labor for Palestine
One of the most significant developments of the new antiwar movement has been the emergence of pro-Palestine activism within the American labor movement. The major trade union federation, the AFL-CIO, was notorious during the Cold War and, especially the Vietnam War, for its support for U.S. foreign policy. It was during the run up to President George W. Bush’s war drive against Iraq, however, that antiwar activism gained some real traction in the labor movement. U.S. Labor Against the War (USLAW) was founded in Chicago on January 11, 2003 by one hundred trade union leaders and activists. Eventually, the AFL-CIO led by John Sweeney passed a resolution at its 2005 convention calling for the rapid withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.
However, that was nearly two decades ago with a Republican president, and like much of antiwar campaigning, labor antiwar activism has withered on the vine. But now there has been a call by the Palestinian trade union movement on October 16 to end all complicity with Israel’s war machine:
We are calling on trade unions in relevant industries:
To refuse to build weapons destined for Israel.
To refuse to transport weapons to Israel.
To pass motions in their trade union to this effect.
To take action against complicit companies involved in implementing Israel’s brutal and illegal siege, especially if they have contracts with your institution.
Pressure governments to stop all military trade with Israel, and in the case of the US, funding it.
The Palestinian call pushed American labor activists and supporters into motion. However, with the exception of Labor For Palestine, the longstanding campaigning group who have called for “respecting the BDS picket line,” U.S. unions have adopted, while not inconsequential, a weaker set of demands put forward by the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America (UE) and UFCW local 3000:
The basic rights of people must be restored. Water, fuel, food, and other humanitarian aid must be allowed into Gaza, power must be restored, and foreign nationals and Palestinians requiring medical care must be allowed out of Gaza.
The Israeli hostages taken by Hamas must be immediately released. Both Hamas and Israel must adhere to standards of international law and Geneva Convention rules of warfare concerning the welfare and security of civilians.
There must be a ceasefire in Gaza. The cycle of violence must stop so that negotiations for an enduring peace proceed.
The U.S. must act. We call on President Biden to immediately call for a ceasefire.
Nevertheless, the UE/UFCW demands have become the template for resolutions in local unions across the country. Unions as diverse as Starbucks Workers United to a variety of local Teachers’ unions have adopted it or a version of it. The Palestinian call to stop weapons production has been taken up by community activists, not by workers themselves. In West Hartford, Connecticut, pro-Palestine protesters temporarily blocked the entrance to the Colt manufacturing plant that was recently awarded a $9.3 million contract from the U.S. Army. A local news media outlet reported:
They had signs that said, “Stop Arming Genocide” and “Shut it Down for Palestine” and dozens blocked four entrances to the company while workers were arriving Thursday morning. Protesters across the country picketed at companies that they say profit from the war in the Middle East.
A revived version of USLAW, now known as U.S. Labor against War and Racism and Labor Notes have held several national calls involving hundreds of labor activists. Such prominent labor leaders as Shawn Fain, the president of the United Auto Workers UAW, which represents thousands of workers in the defense industry, have come out for a ceasefire, along Mark Dimondstein, the President of the American Postal Workers Union, which represents more than 200,000 employees of the U.S. Postal Service. Local 10 of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 10, the West Coast dockers union, famed for international solidarity actions in support of Palestine in the past, have pledged to not handle Israeli cargo at West Coast ports.
Unfortunately, at the same time, however, the top officials of the AFL-CIO have intervened on several occasions to demand that local union councils rescind ceasefire resolutions and remove them from their social media. In the Olympia, Washington-based Thurston-Lewis-Mason Central Labor Council (TLM CLC), activists responded to the Palestinian trade union call for solidarity by passing their own resolution that called for an “immediate ceasefire.” A member of the TLM CLC spoke anonymously to labor historian and writer Jeff Schuhrke:
“We need more labor councils, we need more locals passing resolutions like this, because they can’t stop us all. If it’s just us, they can sweep it under the rug like they’re trying to do right now. But if many, many of us across the country start doing it, then it becomes something much harder for them to sweep under the rug.”
Teamsters 705, one of the largest Teamster in Chicago failed to pass a ceasefire resolution at December local union, despite having pioneered labor opposition to Bush’s war drive against Iraq in 2002. While the Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), the famed reform group in the Teamsters and the only national network of Teamster activists outside the official leadership-dominated union structure, “tabled” a ceasefire resolution at its November convention in Chicago. Despite these setbacks and the resistance from top and local union officials, pro-Palestine activism won’t go away any time soon.
The New McCarthyism
While a new mood of resistance has gained traction, the political establishment has also struck back at it. Support for Israel is one of the few issues where there is a near consensus across the political class in Washington, D.C. and state capitals. Soon after Hamas’ attack on October 7th, President Joe Biden visited Israel twice and promised tens of billions of dollars and opened up the American military for Israel to get whatever weaponry and ammunition it needed for its war in Gaza. At the November 14th March for Israel demonstration on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. tens of thousands of pro-Israel demonstrators were joined by the entire leadership of Congress. According to Politico:
Overlooking a sea of Israeli and U.S. flags, the top Democrats in Congress — Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Democratic leader Hakeem Jefferies — came together on the stage with Republicans Mike Johnson, the House speaker, and Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa. They joined hands as Schumer chanted: “We stand with Israel.”
To squelch any potential dissent in Congress and to send a clear message to the U.S. public and the world, the U.S. House of Representative passed a resolution drafted by the Republicans equating “anti-Zionism is antisemitism.” The New York Times reported, that “it passed by a vote of 311 to 14, drawing the support of all but one Republican. 92 Democrats voted ‘present’ — not taking a position for or against the measure — while 95 supported it.” Here is a list of all of the Democrats who voted for it.
The preferred method of attacking pro-Palestine activists is to just smear them as “anti-Semites.” As The Nation magazine’s sports editor Dave Zirin put it recently,
What Netanyahu, Jonathan Greenblatt of the Anti-Defamation League, and Hollywood amplifiers like Juliana Margulies (three people who seem to be trying to “out-racist” one another) push is the idea that criticism and protests against Israel’s policies are inherently antisemitic and therefore need to be silenced by the state.
The disastrous performance of the three major college presidents before Congress has given confidence to opponents of Palestinian rights and dignity and their U.S. supporters across the country. There is a strong whiff of a new McCarthyism in the air, with people being silenced at work and losing their jobs.
Yet, Israel’s war has produced an unprecedented level of destruction on Gaza, including the horrific number of children and families killed, opposition continues to grow despite the establishment’s hostility. Over 70% of Democrats now favor a ceasefire in Gaza, while Biden’s support among young people has tanked, jeopardizing an already faltering reelection campaign. Dissent among Biden appointees and staffers has surfaced. CNN reported:
More than three dozen people, including political appointees, administration staffers and civil service career staff, attended the early evening vigil in front of the White House. The participants wore sunglasses and masks to conceal their identities.
Last month, more than 700 staffers and political appointees signed a letter calling on the president to support a ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas conflict. The letter was signed by staffers who work in more than 30 departments and agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency, FBI and NASA.
It took years of mass protests during the Vietnam War for such an unprecedented level of dissent to reach inside the White House. As long as Israel’s war on Gaza continues with the full support of the United States, dissent and antiwar activism will continue to build in the United States and around the globe.