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In the crackling first days after Hamas slaughtered 1,200 people in Israel and took more than 200 hostages, a fast consensus emerged on the American political scene: The pro-Palestinian left was going to suffer. Ritchie Torres, the Democratic congressman from the Bronx, declared that the Democratic Socialists of America had made themselves “radioactive” and that those associating with them would do so at “their own political peril.” AIPAC and various pro-Israel groups promised to pump enormous sums of money into Democratic primaries next year to unseat critics of the Jewish state, particularly Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib, a Palestinian American who called Israel’s war in Gaza a “genocide,” and Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar. Meanwhile, various think pieces in prestige publications ruminated on the potentially damaging fissures within the progressive left. Left-wing intellectual spaces have been riven, too.
DSA, in particular, initially drew furious condemnation from a wide range of powerful politicians, including Mayor Eric Adams, for promoting on social media an anti-Israel rally the day after the Hamas attack. At the rally, which was not organized by DSA, protesters were criticized for chanting, “Resistance is justified when people are occupied,” among other things. It was condemned by Democrats across the spectrum, from Kathy Hochul to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. (Denying or explaining away the atrocities of Hamas, an authoritarian religious movement bent on Israel’s destruction, is still a fast way to marginalization in the American political context.) Weeks later, Tlaib was censured in Congress for, in part, endorsing the “from the river to the sea” slogan, which is a call for either Palestinian liberation or the destruction of Israel, depending on who speaks it and who hears it.
Rather than slink away, the anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian left has only grown more emboldened. Israel’s retaliatory bombing campaign against Hamas has killed at least 15,000 Palestinians and transformed calls for a cease-fire, briefly fringe, into a cause that mainstream Democrats like Dick Durbin and Peter Welch now support. If DSA, Jewish Voice for Peace, IfNotNow, Palestinian Youth Movement, Within Our Lifetime, and affiliated activists are toxic in certain political circles, they’re also the only factions able to organize and command enormous street protests in the current moment. No issue polarizes along generational lines quite like Israel, and explicitly pro-Palestinian organizations exist to hoover up fresh energy from the under-35 cohort. These are not the sort of people who win and lose elections — the middle-aged and senior citizens vote in much higher numbers — but they may well determine the future: how Americans, especially Democrats, view the Jewish state.
DSA, which has bled members over the past few years, said it is enjoying a new surge in rank-and-file support. “We’ve recruited nearly 1,400 new members and reactivated hundreds more due in large part to our organizing across the country for a cease-fire and the liberation of Palestine,” Cara Tobe, a member of the group’s national committee, told me via email. “Our chapters have hosted actions, phonebanks, and letter campaigns that have made over 275,000 calls and sent over 17,000 emails to congressmembers demanding a ceasefire now and an end to military funding for Israel. This is just the beginning. We won’t stop until there’s a free Palestine.”
For the first time since the height of the defund-the-police movement, DSA is infusing its 80,000-odd membership with a single, unifying cause. The goal is to convert more casual members into “cadre” — those willing to show up regularly for candidates, protests, and other public actions. As the largest explicitly pro-Palestinian organization that is also focused on electoral politics, DSA has a fresh recruitment advantage. Fundraising is becoming easier too: Emails calling for a “permanent” cease-fire now hit inboxes, asking for monthly donations from $14 to $42 per month.
This is what AIPAC, Democratic Majority for Israel, and other Israel hawks don’t quite understand. While the pro-Palestinian left will probably never win a true majority of the American public, they can’t be stamped out of existence, and efforts to crush them could very well backfire. Progressives and socialists are more motivated than ever to rally around Tlaib, Omar, and even Jamaal Bowman, who left DSA but is still expected to face an aggressive primary challenge from George Latimer, a moderate, next year. The DSA candidates for local office in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, and other cities will have no shortage of phone-bankers and door-knockers. They won’t have super-PAC money, but they won’t be cash-strapped, either. It’s plausible that the erosion of small-dollar donations for progressives in the Biden era will not, for the time being, impact the organizations that are most unapologetically supportive of Palestinians.
The moment is reminiscent of 2020, when Black Lives Matter and the defund movement went from being the darlings of activists to garnering broad-based support following the murder of George Floyd and the largest-ever demonstrations in American history. The question now, as then, is how to harness the newfound energy. The BLM-defund movement would draw new attention to civil rights and police-reform legislation before proving alienating to the large swath of voters who still wanted police departments to stop criminals and solve crimes. Even as popular support for Israel steadily declines, a majority of American voters still sympathize more with Israelis than Palestinians. Jews remain overwhelmingly Democrats, even with the rise of right-wing Orthodox. Within DSA, there are calls to make leftists into single-issue voters that would prioritize Palestinian rights above all else, rejecting candidates who might still be Zionist, like Bernie Sanders, or even those who openly oppose the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, like AOC. If socialists ever follow through on this, their bench of future candidates would dramatically shrink. Certain progressive and leftist organizations are more strident than others: The Working Families Party, which is not explicitly socialist, has called for a cease-fire without questioning the broader Zionist project.
What comes next, after a possible cease-fire, is a far thornier question, and it’s one not easily reconciled within the matrix of domestic politics. The left is split over what it wants to see in the region: One or two states. What is clear, at the minimum, is that the leftists who advocate for a single, binational state that would draw Jews and Palestinians together — and effectively erase the Jewish majority established in 1948 — will struggle to build the broad voting coalitions required to win statewide and national campaigns.
For all of the Americans who are galvanized by the fate of Israel, many more are still going to care about domestic politics, such as inflation, crime, and reproductive rights. Leftists don’t run the same risks of condemning Israel as they did when they were inveighing against police departments three years ago. Since most voters are only going to care so much, Israel can, for the moment, be an issue that wins in one of the only ways that matter beyond the ballot box: recruiting volunteers and sustaining their zeal.
Since support for Israel, for so long, was nearly hegemonic in American politics — even now, critics like Tlaib are a strikingly small minority among elected officials — those who remain dissidents, like DSA and Jewish Voice for Peace, find themselves inadvertently exploiting a market inefficiency. J Street, the liberal Zionist organization, has not been at the vanguard of the new protests, and neither have other left-leaning groups that shied away from direct confrontation with Israel. This newfound vigor, in theory, can be harnessed into future activist and electoral campaigns, since the left-wing infrastructure won’t suddenly vanish. DSA chapters operate throughout America. Pro-Palestinian college groups are booming. Today’s movement has far more organizational muscle than the diffuse Occupy protests of a decade ago.
This is the new stasis. In one sense, it can be thought of as a stalemate. The inordinately wealthy pro-Israel political organizations cannot be displaced. AIPAC and DMFI will continue to bludgeon progressive candidates, while Democrats like Torres and Hakeem Jeffries, the House minority leader, remain unwavering Israel hawks. The Republican Party will be an Israel-first party. None of this will change.
But the anti-Israel left has no incentive to budge, either. Americans under 35 are on their side, and there’s little reason to believe they’ll suddenly, in the next few years, develop more sympathy for a highly militarized government helmed by Benjamin Netanyahu or another coalition that inevitably elevates the Israeli far right. As Israel slaughters more and more civilians, righteous fury builds on the American left. They will believe, wholeheartedly, history is on their side.