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The Movement for Palestine Needs Independent, Working-Class Politics

As the brutal genocide of Palestinians continues with the help of the Biden administration, there is maneuver underway to co-opt the movement for Palestine. We need to have a democratic and independent movement that relies on the power of the working class, the student movement, and mobilizations in the streets.

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Photo by Luigi Morris

It has been over six months since the Zionist military offensive on Gaza began, leaving a devastating toll on the Palestinian population. With over 32,000 Palestinians killed in this genocide, and more than 1.5 million displaced, the region faces a humanitarian crisis of unprecedented proportions.

In these last months, the movement for Palestine has shaken the country — indeed, it has shaken the whole world. Hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets in the U.S.; a new generation of young people is activated and radicalized, developing a new anti-war and elements of an anti-imperialist movement.

Despite all the rage by millions against Israel and the U.S. all over the world, the movement has so far been unable to stop the genocide. On March 25, the United Nations Security Council passed — with the U.S. abstaining — an immediate cease-fire resolution for the month of Ramadan. This has been rejected by Israeli prime minister Netanyahu, and Israel’s violence is continuing unabated as it massacres starving Palestinians at aid trucks and launches attacks on Rafah, Al-Shifa Hospital, and Khan Younis. The change in U.S. “diplomacy” has to do with Israel’s growing international isolation, which undermines U.S. interests in the region. While Biden is now saying that he supports a cease-fire, a shift out of fear of losing the presidential election, he is still sending weapons to Israel every 36 hours to continue the genocide.

The movement for Palestine has tremendous potential to end the siege, to end all U.S. aid to Israel, and to fight the Zionist Israeli state from the belly of the imperialist beast. But the leaderships of the labor movement and of the current movement for Palestine are curtailing the immense potential of this movement. They are instead limiting its power by acting as a subsidiary to the Democratic Party.

To stop the siege, end aid to Israel, and free Palestine, we must massify the movement, democratize the movement, and organize the working class to fight for Palestine. Palestinian unions have called on workers around the world to stop arms shipments, and workers in Italy and Belgium heeded that call. In the U.S., we need a labor movement that mobilizes with that perspective, defying union leaderships.

We must build a movement that does not foster illusions in the Democratic Party or any institution of the regime or any capitalist state, but organizes against them. This is a problem of political leadership and political ideology. To fight and win a free Palestine, we need a socialist organization, one that understands that capitalism and imperialism, capitalism and Zionism, are bound up together and that to end one, we must end the other.

A New Moment in the History of Struggle

The United States is the primary backer of Israel, both militarily and ideologically, using universities, unions, schools, and the media to promote and support Zionism. But a new generation is breaking with all that to create a movement against genocide, against Israel, and, for many, against U.S. imperialism. We have blocked roads, blocked weapons shipments, organized rallies on campuses, faced down the police, and marched with hundreds of thousands. Arab youth are on the front lines. Despite the extreme Islamophobia prevalent across the country, despite the hate crimes and profiling from the police, Arab and Muslim youth have bravely continued to mobilize.

Despite extreme levels of propaganda, a new generation of Jewish people are breaking with Zionism — and some are breaking with loved ones and family members to fight for Palestine. They have made great leaps in publicly challenging the notion that anti-Zionism is antisemitism.

Without a doubt, this is a new chapter in the history of class struggle. A generation that was politicized by Bernie Sanders, that fought Trump’s policies, protested for Black lives, and has fought to form a union is now helping build a new anti-imperialist movement. Activists are demanding that unions break with labor Zionism, resulting in dozens of cease-fire resolutions and some important resolutions calling for a free Palestine.

The movement has also revived a student movement on campuses like we have not seen in years. Students for Justice in Palestine chapters are multiplying all over the country. Several have organized campaigns to divest their universities from Israel, with success at the University of California.

This new movement is changing the consciousness of countless people: unmasking the farce of U.S. democracy, the farce of the progressive role of the Democratic Party, and the necessity for urgent action.

Attempts to Co-opt the Movement Are Underway

When the movement began, hundreds of thousands of people were taking the streets, questioning “Genocide Joe.” Yet, already early in the movement, groups like Jewish Voice for Peace and the Party of Socialism and Liberation, as well as nonprofit leaders, positioned the movement as a pressure campaign, as opposed to a movement meant to build the independent power of the working class and oppressed people.

At the massive Washington, DC, march for Palestine on November 4, many speakers said they wouldn’t vote blue unless a cease-fire were called — seeing the protests within the confines of the electoral system. For example, Nihad Awad, the national director at the Council on American–Islamic Relations, said, “The language that President Biden and his party understands is the language of votes in the 2023 elections, and our message is no cease-fire, no votes.” The problem here is that the Democratic Party is a party of capitalism, imperialism, and Zionism, with or without a cease-fire resolution. It is a party of coups, of drone strikes, of children in cages, and border walls and racist police. We must say clearly: no votes for Democrats ever. We must build our own political force to fight for Palestine and full liberation.

The liberals’ approach does not understand our strength as our ability fight all capitalist parties; it doesn’t see that our strength comes from a mass movement in the streets, universities, and workplaces. Rather, it sees our strength as our ability to vote under the umbrella of the Democratic Party, and our actions as pressure campaigns on Genocide Joe and his fellow Democrats for the most minimal demand — a cease-fire. Pressure campaigns imply the possibility that the Democratic Party can play a progressive role.

Any engagement with the electoral arena has to be done with a perspective that strengthens the class line, making clear that workers and capitalists do not have common interests. We must make clear that imperialism benefits the capitalist class and that workers of the world must unite against imperialism and Zionism, and we have to understand that workers can use their strategic and political power to confront the regime.

The Trouble with Cease-Fire

While many organized under the slogan “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” the movement’s minimum demand became a cease-fire. The cease-fire demands were taken up early in the movement by hundreds of thousands of people who were horrified at the genocide and wanted it to end. Most did not see it within a legal framework that condemns “both sides” and demands that they stop fighting, although that is precisely what a cease-fire entails. Despite the intentions of many activists, a “cease-fire” exists in a legal framework of bourgeois institutions like the United Nations, whose role is clear in the current intervention in Haiti: that are complicit in the ongoing genocide and will do nothing to end to the brutality against Palestinians.

That is precisely why Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are now promoting a limited cease-fire, which maintains the structural and political framework of support for Israel and the brutal occupation of Palestine. Their proposal does not even include urgent demands like an immediate and permanent withdrawal of all Israeli troops and an end to the siege on Gaza.

And even this limited rhetorical turn is a result of Biden’s fear that he will lose the election as a result of the movement, as well as the increasing international condemnation, the looming risk of regional escalation, the possibility of having to get the U.S. more involved in the Middle East. In this context, the “uncommitted” campaign is bringing people into the fold of Democratic Party electoralism.

The approach of pressure campaigns for a cease-fire goes hand in hand with coexisting peacefully with union leaderships that are subservient to the Democratic Party and refuse to mobilize the working class for Palestine.

The Complicity of the New Union Leadership

Labor Zionism, or ties between union leaders and U.S. imperialism, has existed as long as Zionism itself, propping up the state of Israel, investing union dues in Israel, and refusing to support workers’ actions for Palestine. In that context, large unions, including the American Federation of Teachers, under the leadership of Zionist Randi Weingarten, and the pro-imperialist AFL-CIO, have issued cease-fire statements; this is a testament to the upsurge of rank-and-file sentiment for Palestine. Moreover, it’s a testament to a rank and file that wants its union to stand with Palestine. In the context of this rank-and-file upsurge, the leadership is still acting as a “brake” on the movement, and a mechanism to tie the movement to the Democratic Party.

Most union statements of solidarity are in the “cease-fire” framework, repeating the “both sides” rhetoric that does not recognize the settler-colonial relationship between Israel to Palestine. Most resolutions do not go further to the point of questioning the Zionist occupation, or unions’ own investments in the state of Israel.

All the unions’ cease-fire resolutions have not entailed mobilizing actions, much less organizing labor actions for Palestine. And further, the union bureaucracy has played a central role in blocking the working class as unionized workers from getting involved in the movement. In countries like Italy and Belgium, workers have stopped arms shipments, and in the U.S., the sectors of labor for Palestine have been marginalized, maligned, and stopped by union leaders.

But perhaps most importantly, the union leadership is attempting to lead workers back to Genocide Joe. This is embodied by the endorsement of Biden by Shawn Fain, showing that the union leaderships, even the most progressive one, are leading the labor movement to strengthen its ties to the Democratic Party.

Let’s think for a moment of what could be: the AFL-CIO endorsed a cease-fire resolution. What if that meant calling the over 12 million workers to mobilize in the streets? What if it meant unions divesting from Israel? What if it meant workers refusing to ship arms to Israel? Refusing to produce weapons? What if workers refused to work until the siege ended? At a moment when most workers support an end to the siege, this is not a pipe dream. It is actively being blocked by the union leadership with ties to the Democratic Party and, in some cases, to the DSA.

In the epoch of imperialism, as Gramsci explains, unions have become part of the “integral state” — an apparatus to create and maintain the capitalist state’s hegemony. We are witnessing union leaders play precisely that role for the Biden administration as we speak — on one hand adapting enough to rank-and-file pressure to say “cease-fire,” but at the same time, keeping the rank and file tethered to the party that is committing a genocide. This is directly linked to the lack of union democracy and spaces of democratic discussion and decision-making in unions.

But it doesn’t need to be this way. The movement for Palestine must make demands on union leaderships, calling them into action and calling them out if they do not. We must organize democratic spaces of discussion and decision-making in our unions. And the role of socialists in our unions is to break those unions from illusions in the Democratic Party and to promote a perspective of working-class internationalism.

The Uncommitted Campaign

The mass rejection of Biden’s genocidal policies have led hundreds of thousands of people to vote “uncommitted” in the primaries. While in many places the effort is led by the Democratic Party and pro-Democratic organizations, it also expresses a massive rejection of Biden. There can be no doubt that this is creating a crisis for the Biden administration and pressuring him to rhetorically shift his position by saying “cease-fire.”

Many who are voting “uncommitted” intend to create a crisis for the Democratic Party. Some have no intention of voting Democratic in the future. But the truth is that this movement has a leadership — with funds, media presence, and insertion in the movement for Palestine. And that leadership wants to make Biden better. It is undeniable that the goal of the Democratic Party campaign organizers is to pressure Biden to call for a cease-fire, not only because the genocide must stop, but because this will make Biden more electable in November. As The Nation writes, “Michigan’s ‘Uncommitted’ Campaign Is Challenging Biden. It Could Also Save Him.”

In New York, Leave It Blank NYC and the DSA say explicitly “For President Biden to win in November, he will need a multifaith, multi-ethnic, multi-generational coalition like ours. He won’t be able to build one unless he stops arming Israel and fights for a ceasefire now. We hope he listens.” Many prominent figures and media are explicitly calling Vote Uncommitted and Leave It Blank pressure campaigns on Biden, as Medhi Hasan laid out on Pod Save America — a podcast of former Obama administration officials. Their goal is to show that, despite his active role in the ongoing genocide, Biden can be “pushed” to more humane positions than Trump. This strengthens the Democratic Party and the lesser-evil campaign, preventing the emergence of independent organizing.

The cease-fire campaign supported by the DSA and, to some degree, by the PSL and Socialist Alternative, builds a bridge between a mobilized vanguard to the masses. “We have to meet people where they are at,” they will say. This bridge from the vanguard to the masses is indeed critical; it is precisely what the movement has failed to do thus far. But this bridge is built precisely by sending the message that our power is at the polls, that the Democrats can be pressured to the point that we should “commit” to them under the influence of the Democratic Party. Further, it keeps the masses passive, outside the terrain of class struggle, out of the streets, rather than activating people as protagonists in the struggle for a free Palestine. It is based on atomized voters who express their preferences at the polls. The current leaderships of the movement for Palestine have failed to unleash the independent power of all the people furious at Genocide Joe, instead opening the door to Democratic Party co-optation.

The Movement and the Left

Most of the movement for Palestine’s leaders have politics that promote illusions in the capitalist regime and the Democratic Party. This comes alongside and is connected to a lack of rank-and-file, democratic organization.

The clearest example of this comes from the DSA, which is still the country’s largest self-proclaimed socialist organization, with important sectors connected to the new union leadership. The complete bankruptcy of their strategy of working within the Democratic Party is laid bare amid this genocide. Bernie Sanders, the DSA’s darling and its focus for years, has refused to even call for a permanent cease-fire, has passed the Hawley Resolution, and has even called the cops on protesters in his office. AOC voted for a resolution that equates anti-Zionism with antisemitism. Amid these disgraceful positions, the DSA chose to endorse AOC again. This is no surprise, since Jamaal Bowman, a DSA member, voted yes to fund the Iron Dome project, and the DSA refused to expel him.

In its strategy toward the movement, the DSA is once again bringing progressives into the fold of the Democratic Party. While they are going to protests, they also organize phone banking to call on politicians to support a cease-fire, promoting the notion that our power comes from pressuring imperialists instead of organizing an independent movement from below. They continue to promote Democratic Party politicians who coexist with the Zionist and imperialist party committing genocide right now. They are at the forefront of the “Vote Uncommitted” campaign across the country. In short, the DSA is playing a central role in building a bridge between the movement and the Democratic Party.

Similarly, Jewish Voice for Peace has the explicit and stated goal of organizing actions to pressure politicians to call a cease-fire. As late as November, they chanted, “Biden, Biden, choose a side, cease-fire or genocide” — as if Biden hasn’t been a committed Zionist his entire career. Organized via “cells” meant to mobilize, but with little to no spaces of democratic discussion and decision-making, JVP’s leaders are explicit that they aim to build symbolic actions to pressure politicians to call a cease-fire.

While some see the PSL as a more left option, it too is functioning within the context of pressure campaigns for Democrats. The PSL and the “Shut it Down” coalition it leads alongside the Palestinian Youth Movement has emphasized the call for a “cease-fire” along with pressure campaigns like “Schumer: Answer your constituents!” This strategy focuses on pressuring politicians and is sometimes organized with Democratic Party politicians, like the 24-hour vigil in front of city hall in NYC.

None of these groups demands action from unions or confronts the union leaderships restraining the movement. None of them draws a hard line against the entire Democratic Party and all capitalist politicians, both in the US and around the world. While the PSL speechifies against the Democratic Party, it promotes illusions in the Democrats through its pressure campaigns, not to mention promoting illusions in Chinese capitalists in the CCP.

Further, these leaderships divide the movement. In New York City, most mobilizations are called by JVP, PSL alongside PYM in the Shut It Down Coalition, or an Arab-led group, Within Our Lifetime, which has strong roots in the Palestinian community of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. While each group could move thousands of people, there was never any politics to unify these sectors. Sometimes there were even actions called on the same day, at the same time but in different locations.

Perhaps the worst part of this lack of unity has been the refusal by PSL and JVP to defend Within Our Lifetime from the attacks from capitalists and the state — to defend them against being barred from Instagram, a highly dictatorial and anti-democratic step that we should all stand against.

This lack of unity in the streets is linked to the lack of spaces of self-organization — of open discussions and assemblies where the movement can come together to put forward politics, discuss, vote, and decide on the movement’s course. In such spaces, JVP, PSL, WOL, PYM, and the many university-based chapters of SJP and others could present proposals, make clear their disagreements, and move together in unity. They could then more effectively pursue their campaigns and actions to end the siege, to end U.S. aid to Israel, to defend doxed activists, and to reinstate WOL on Instagram.

The lack of unified action, the lack of democratic meetings, reflects a politics that refuses to find ways to build a bridge between a mobilized vanguard and the masses of people we should be seeking to speak to, mobilizing, and radicalizing. In an open assembly, participants could not only vote on proposals, but also do outreach at every subway station, workplace, and more. It could “meet people where they are at” on the terrain of class struggle, not Democratic Party primaries.

Anti-imperialism and Anti-capitalism Go Hand in Hand

The PSL, which is one of the leading groups of the Shut it Down Coalition, has not only taken a cease-fire as its main demand for months, alongside taking up the strategy of pressuring the Democrats, but it has fostered illusions in and proposed reforming the UN, a historical imperialist bourgeois institution. In response to the United States’ three vetoes against a cease-fire, the PSL has recently called for abolishing U.S. veto power (also held by China, Russia, France, and the UK) in the UN Security Council, with the goal of democratizing it. While it’s clear that the U.S. has been using the UN for its imperialist interests, the UN has also been an instrument of oppression used by many other bourgeois countries. The UN is a reactionary institution through and through.

The call to end the US’s UN Security Council veto (and notably, not the vetoes of other countries) is part of the PSL’s “multipolarity” logic, in which supposedly “no one country dominates” and the emergence of China and Russia as world powers is a progressive phenomenon. This is combined with a “campist” way of characterizing conflicts, which means that almost any state that opposes U.S. imperialism is understood as anti-imperialist or “progressive” in the face of U.S. aggression. Following this logic, a UN led by countries like China and Russia would become a space that can serve the working class and oppressed. What is worse, the PSL sees China as a country with socialist features, standing on the side of the Chinese Communist Party and its billionaires instead of with the Chinese working class. This isn’t an irrelevant detail. It means that the PSL does not represent an anti-capitalist, working-class perspective in the movement for Palestine.

We must understand that the fight against imperialism and the fight against capitalism are one and the same; imperialism is an epoch of capitalism, as Lenin explains, and in that sense, it is inseparable from a system based on private property and the extraction of surplus value. That is why leaderships that do not break with capitalism always capitulate and compromise with imperialism; the political alternative is using the method of class struggle to fight imperialism, which in Palestine means advancing against the interests of the Arab bourgeoisie and the Iranian regime. While we stand strongly against imperialist attacks, the movement must build a fully liberatory perspective, one that includes the full liberation of all oppressed people by understanding the connection between the struggle for true national liberation in the fight for international socialism.

We Can Build a Mass Movement for a Free Palestine

Despite the politics put forth by the movement for Palestine’s leaders, we are witnessing a sea change in U.S. politics and an incipient anti-imperialist movement. Those who are on the streets for Palestine can not only stop the siege but play a role in changing the course of U.S. history. But this means changing the movement’s political perspective.

First and foremost, we need to build massive, united actions in the streets, mobilizing all the people who stand for ending the genocide. While we need unity in the streets, that doesn’t mean united politics. Instead, we need democratic spaces of discussion and decision-making,

A movement organized democratically should also seek ways to massify the movement. We could organize a workplace committee to distribute flyers in the streets, their workplaces, or in their sectors of labor — seeking to take the passive support for a cease-fire to an active support for a free Palestine.

This kind of unity in action must also take up the common defense of all activists in the movement for Palestine. It would include the harassment and firings of workers and students involved in the movement for Palestine, the fired CUNY professors, and the suspended Columbia students, as well as the police harassment of activists in the movement, including leaders of WOL and the PSL.

This spirit was reflected in a pledge put out in November by Cuny4Palestine, which called on supporters “to stand together to defend our right to speak out against genocide and over 75 years of settler colonial violence, dispossession, and erasure” — signed by over 200 organizations. This unity against Zionist propaganda and attacks needs to be reflected in the streets and on campuses.

In this context, the labor movement has a central and strategic role. Indeed, it is the working class that makes all of society run; it is the working class that ships the weapons to Israel and that produces the weapons. We must rebuild and massify the tradition of the heroic dockworkers who organized stoppages against the Iraq War and refused to ship goods to apartheid South Africa. This means making specific calls to Shawn Fain and the UAW, who say to stand with a ceasefire but are continuing to produce and ship weapons to Israel. Our unions must heed the call from Palestinian unions to stop arms shipments, following the example of workers in Belgium and India. Even workers who are not in sectors that ship or build arms play a central role in producing capitalist profits. We must build the strength in the labor movement to not only take the streets for Palestine but also to shut down capitalist profits. The main thing standing in the way of this is a union leadership that has tied the working class to the Democratic Party and encouraged passivity.

Building strength in the labor movement is a long-term project that socialists must take up. It will not happen overnight. But it’s not just a question of being in the right place. It’s a question having the right politics — a politics of standing up to the union leaders and their sellout contracts; fighting the subservience of labor to the Democratic Party; and building a class-struggle, socialist approach to the labor movement.

In that sense, the questions before the movement have to do with party and leadership.

Not Uncommitted, Committed to Our Own Party

A new political moment has opened up for socialists in the United States, in the context of the movement for Palestine, the questioning of the Democratic Party, the questioning of U.S. imperialism, a generalized crisis of the regime, and polarization on both the Left and the Right. The people mobilizing for Palestine and voting uncommitted clearly express the possibilities of this moment. The main direction of the movement for Palestine right is toward strengthening the Democratic Party, and even further, toward strengthening the idea that our power lies solely in the voting booth.

The movement is being pushed to reduce its demands to a cease-fire and to fight around the idea of pressuring politicians and pressuring Biden. Very soon, this will be transformed into the argument that we must show up at the polls for Biden — after all, he is easier to pressure than Donald Trump, they will say. But it doesn’t need to be this way. This movement can be the foundation to write a new chapter in the history of U.S. class struggle by forming our own organization.

To fight for self-determination in Palestine, we need a unified, international anti-imperialist movement in the imperialist countries alongside the revolutionary efforts of the working class in Arab nations and Iran. These efforts, along with those of the Palestinian people and Jewish workers who reject Zionism, are crucial.

We don’t share the perspective put forward by groups like PSL, which considers capitalist and oppressive governments like Iran and China to be “friends” of the Palestinian people. That is not the party we need. We fight for a political alternative, a party of the working class that fights for socialism using a strategy based on class independence, workers’ councils, and democratic planning of the economy.

We fight with the perspective of establishing a workers’ socialist Palestine, fostering democratic and peaceful coexistence between Arabs and Jews — a vision that includes establishing a federation of socialist republics in the Middle East.

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Tatiana Cozzarelli

Tatiana is a former middle school teacher and current Urban Education PhD student at CUNY.

Luigi Morris

Luigi Morris is a member of Left Voice, freelance photographer and socialist journalist.

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