Millions are waking up to the ugly reality of Israeli apartheid
Protesters demand a ceasefire in Gaza at the Washington Monument in D.C. Millions are being forced to confront the reality of Israeli apartheid. | Andrew Harnik / AP

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 U.S. 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.

Support for Palestine broadening

Amid the explosion of violence in Gaza, 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 the Arab Resource and Organizing Center (AROC), Jewish Voice for PeaceThe 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 U.S. these last several weeks 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 U.S. people of color, especially African Americans.

Sentiment among young people of all backgrounds has shifted: A slight plurality of millennials (42%) sympathized with Palestinians more than Israelis (40%) even before Netanyahu unleashed this latest assault. Sentiment among Democrats shifted in 2021-23 for the first time to favor Palestinians over Israelis, 49% to 38%. Numbers from some of the latest polls suggest the scales are tipping even further, and faster.

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

All of these gains have been made on the unfavorable terrain of U.S. politics, where support for Israel has long 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.

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 U.S. 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—is being subjected to charges of anti-Semitism and “siding with terrorism.” People are losing their jobs; students are being expelled.

Attacks are intensifying 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 of course also 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 U.S. 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 labor movement has long split over support for Palestinian rights, and the White House seems unceasing in its unequivocal support for Netanyahu.

Meanwhile, the fever of war is fueling religious nationalism, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism at home and abroad.

Palestinians are bearing the brunt

In Gaza, though, the bloodletting continues, with more dead to mourn and wounded to care for on all sides. The Israeli government has already declared war, initiated a total siege of Gaza, and is carrying out massive acts of destruction. Palestinian civilians, who have borne the brunt of violence for more than 75 years, are once more being treated as either explicit targets or irrelevant collateral damage.

Those of us in the U.S. must continue to stand firm and go broad in terms of who we pull into the movement for peace. 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.

It’s been tough so far, and the immediate days ahead are likely to get worse. 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 U.S. 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.

A version of this article appeared earlier in Convergence magazine. It has been slightly adjusted in line with subsequent developments. As with all op-eds and news-analytical articles published by People’s World, it reflects the opinions of its author.

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Max Elbaum
Max Elbaum

Max Elbaum is a member of the Convergence Magazine editorial board, and the author of "Revolution in the Air," reissued by Verso Books. He is also a co-editor, with Linda Burnham and María Poblet, of "Power Concedes Nothing: How Grassroots Organizing Wins Elections" (OR Books, 2022).