Youth in the U.S. Rise Up in Solidarity with Palestine

Jimena Vergara

November 18, 2023

America’s youth are rising up for Palestine, reinvigorating the student movement. Can the tide against the genocide sweep the labor movement?

Israel’s brutal offensive on Gaza has shaken the world, which has watched the genocide against the Palestinian people unfold in real time. The unconditional political, financial, and military support of the U.S. bipartisan regime for this massacre, along with the McCarthyist offensive on the right to protest, has reawakened the multiracial youth in the United States. Unlike Black Lives Matter, which found its highest expression in the streets, the growing movement against the Israeli assault on Gaza has its epicenter in the colleges and universities as well. In this movement we can see echoes of the very powerful student protests against the Vietnam War that shook the foundation of the U.S. empire in the 1960s and 1970s. To succeed, the youth and students who support the Palestinian people must work to drag the American labor movement into the struggle.

From the River to the Sea, Palestine Will be Free

Within days of the Hamas attack and the latest Israeli bombings on Gaza, the first mobilizations for Palestinians took place in the United States. They were called by organizations such as the Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL) and Arab organizations such as Within Our Lifetime (WOL), and were led by sectors of the youth and the Muslim and Arab community that is made up of some three million people in the United States. These protests in the U.S. are also taking place within the context of a much larger wave of pro-Palestinian protests around the globe, from imperialist countries to those in the Arab world. And despite harsh repression and attacks on protests in countries like Germany and France, the movement in solidarity with Palestine has only grown stronger. 

On October 12, the first student walkout for Palestine was called by Arab student organizations such as Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), along with spontaneous calls for mobilizations in dozens of universities across the country, made up of multiracial crowds of students. These actions shook public opinion. The bourgeois media responded either with silence or by defaming protestors as terrorists and antisemitic. The mobilizations grew just a week after they began and anti-Zionist Jewish allies began to raise their voices, saying “not in our name.” On October 14, students at Harvard responded in protest to the university administration’s official line — dictated by the White House — that the institution stands staunchly with Israel and its “right to defend itself.”  

By the end of October, mobilizations on college campuses across the country had spread like wildfire, including major demonstrations and marches at New York University, Penn State, Temple, Columbia, Berkeley, Yale, and the City University of New York (CUNY). Not long after these initial protests, the Jewish anti-Zionist organization Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) took over Grand Central Station in NYC on October 27, while filmmaker Michael Moore streamed the demonstration live to his Instagram account. Hundreds of anti-Zionist Jews were arrested that day while shouting slogans against the Israeli occupation and in support of Palestine, including: “not in our name!” “ceasefire now!” “free Palestine!” “end the occupation!” and “let Gaza live!” The protest went viral, exposing the false equivalence between anti-Zionism and antisemitism. This incredible mobilization of Jewish people did not fall from the sky. It is the current expression of a generational rupture that has been brewing for several years among the Jewish diaspora that has helped build the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, and that increasingly rejects Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian people.

Despite these protests around the world, Israel has been able to continue its genocidal bombing campaign on Gaza unimpeded. Every day, we wake up to see with horror that the genocide in Gaza continues: Israel has killed more than 12,000 Palestinians so far, with thousands wounded and millions displaced, not counting the atrocities perpetrated by the army and settlers organized as paramilitaries in the West Bank. Behind the numbers are names, many the names of Palestinian children. We are seeing one of the most violent and bloody faces of imperialism in its Zionist manifestation. However, we are also seeing hope in the movement in solidarity with Palestine and internationalism in the making.

The international movement for Palestine and its expression in the heart of the empire contrasts with the genocidal propaganda of the mainstream bourgeois press. It exposes the tireless McCarthyist diatribes against any kind of solidarity with Palestine, and the false accusations and weaponization of antisemitism that serve to strengthen Islamophobia and racial divisions among the working class and the oppressed. 

From the Universities to Washington

November 4 marked a high point so far of a broad vanguard movement of the multi-racial youth against Israel’s genocidal attacks on Palestinians and the brutal occupation. That day, 100,000 people flooded Washington DC from all over the country, some as far away as the West Coast. Dozens of demonstrations were also held the same day in other cities across the U.S. including Detroit, New York, Chicago, Las Vegas, Portland, and Cincinnati. The national scope of the movement is reminiscent of Black Lives Matter at its peak in 2020. These protests have brought together Muslim and Arab communities, the generation forged in Black Lives Matter, and a youth still awakening to political life. In the most massive protests, like the one in Washington, it was not only the youth that mobilized, but entire families, children, and many Palestinians who have family in Gaza. The demonstrators put forward demands for a ceasefire and an end to all U.S. aid to Israel and chanted the slogans that have so far marked the movement, including “Joe Biden you can’t hide, we charge you with genocide,” “free, free, free Palestine,” and “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” 

One of the most striking developments is the rise of a student movement, the likes of which has not been seen in nearly 50 years, recalling the anti-Vietnam War movement of the 1960’s. On college campuses, this renewed movement is being led by pro-Palestinian and Arab organizations, like the SJP and JVP, both of which have been persecuted and banned on several campuses. On November 8, social work students at Columbia University took over their department in solidarity with Palestine. Although we are not yet facing the size and scope of the anti-Vietnam War movement, these protests call to mind the spring of 1968, when Columbia students took over the entire campus in solidarity with Vietnam and more than 700 students were arrested by the NYPD.

On November 9, the student character of the movement was strongly evident with a national day of multiple actions of civil disobedience by college and high school students across the country. In New York, against the backdrop of shouts from students at the New School — one of the city’s elite universities — chanting “Free, Free Palestine,” four 12-year-old Black boys raised a Palestinian flag from a basketball court. On the previous day, While students in New York and around the country kept local police occupied, activists and journalists took over the headquarters of the New York Times which they dubbed “The New York Crimes,” demanding a ceasefire and denouncing the pro-genocide coverage of one of the most prestigious mass media outlets in the world.

Despite the McCarthyist tactics of oppression being used by bosses and university administrators against protesters and their supporters, the movement is continuing to grow and develop, since the regime does not at this moment have the necessary balance of power to criminalize the movement as a whole.

A McCarthyist Offensive in the Making and a Democratic Movement in Response

Both the Republican and Democratic parties have launched an offensive against pro-Palestinian representatives in Congress. For example, the House of Representatives censured Palestinian-American Democrat and Democratic Socialists of America member Rashida Tlaib for demonstrating in solidarity with Gaza and for saying “from the river to the sea” in Congress. More than 20 Democrats sided with Republicans in supporting the censure. Employers and university officials have overwhelmingly responded to the movement by restricting pro-Palestinian speech, smearing and banning protests for being “antisemitic,” allowing and encouraging activists to be harassed by Zionists, and even firing people for speaking out for Palestine or advocating for ceasefires in healthcare and other industries. Platforms like Instagram have already removed pro-Palestine accounts, such the Jewish Voice for Peace Detroit or Eye on Palestine accounts, both with millions of followers.

States are voting on extraordinary budgets, such as the ones passed in New York and Florida, to “fight antisemitism” on campuses by investing in more surveillance and technology to create a blacklist of people who speak out in solidarity with Palestine. Just a few days ago, in response to the peaceful takeover of the social work department at Columbia, the Arab student organization Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and the Jewish organization Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) were suspended for supposedly using “intimidation and threatening rhetoric.” The McCarthyist offensive is also a preemptive response to the movement’s advance, in which the bipartisan regime is pushing hard for repressive measures against all criticisms of Israel, claiming that they are antisemitic.These attacks on the movement have encouraged the emergence of a democratic response and defense of the protesters that has gone beyond those mobilizing in the streets and on the campuses. It includes those who are boycotting brands such as Starbucks and McDonalds for “promoting genocide,” those involved in the BDS movement, those workers, professionals, housewives, and others who are demanding a ceasefire on social media, and those making demands from their workplaces and schools. This broader sector of the movement has raised the consciousness of millions of people in the U.S. who are now demanding a ceasefire along with slogans like “Free Palestine,” “Stop the genocide,” “Stop the occupation,” and “Stop all U.S. financial and military aid to Israel.” The movement has both parties of imperialist capital — Republicans and Democrats — against it, along with the state of Israel, Joe Biden, Donald Trump, the antisemitic far right, and the bourgeois media — yet it continues to grow.

“Genocide Joe” 

If there was one thing Joe Biden did not need in his bid for re-election and foreign policy agenda, it was a potential regional war in the Middle East along with an anti-imperialist and anti-war movement at home. The Biden administration has faced significant challenges since the Israeli-Palestinian crisis erupted, both domestically and internationally. 

After quickly endorsing Israel’s response to the October 7 attacks and backing any and all of the “fake news” put out by the Israeli government, the Biden administration has moved on to advocate for a “humanitarian pause.” Sectors of the regime are demanding that the administration recommit to the two-state solution and a possible regime change in Gaza in the hands of the discredited Palestinian National Authority (PNA).

Although such a proposal for a “humanitarian pause” is disingenuous, it is nonetheless in response to widespread international and national support in solidarity with Palestine. The movement in the United States is part of the broader international phenomenon mentioned above, ranging from Yemen, to Egypt and Jordan, to the Spanish State, France, Germany, Mexico, Costa Rica and Australia. The current pro-Palestinian movement has made it difficult for the U.S. to keep Netanyahu in line with the overriding U.S. interests in the region and to maintain at all costs the status quo in spite of declining U.S. hegemony.

Although publicly the Biden administration fully supports Israel’s heinous actions, behind the scenes it has been trying to prevent Netanyahu from escalating his response to a level that could have unpredictable consequences. In this context, the Biden administration has not been immune to the growing loss of legitimacy of Israel’s actions — questioned by dozens of countries and the United Nations — and its actions are generating a crisis that is calling his re-election bid into serious question.

In mid-October, Josh Paul, a senior State Department official, resigned over his disagreement with Biden’s blind support for Israel and the President’s endorsement of the “status quo of the occupation” (emphasis added), and on November 15, more than 500 U.S. officials signed a letter protesting Biden’s unequivocal support of Israel. In addition to the enormous anger and dissatisfaction that younger people have toward Joe Biden, recent polls showed results that are of great concern to Democrats. Biden’s support among Arab Americans — who are crucial voters in swing states — has plummeted from a comfortable majority in 2020 to just 17 percent, amid growing anger over his support for Israel’s siege on Gaza. Biden was already losing Arab American support even before the current conflict — from 59 percent in 2020 to 35 percent in 2023 — according to a poll commissioned by the Arab American Institute. This is in the context of other recent polls where Biden is four points below Donald Trump in important swing states.

At the same time, the influence of the Democratic Party and its hold on the masses and the movement is significantly weaker compared to other issues that have brought people into the streets, such as reproductive rights. The Democratic Party faces significant challenges in trying to control the movement from below. It is a different scenario than the war in Ukraine, where the administration has been successful in rallying Democratic voters, a swath of independents, and a not insignificant amount of Republicans behind its policies. With respect to Ukraine, Biden has successfully been able to ideologically frame the war as a struggle for democracy and freedom against tyranny.

Palestine is a different story. The challenges of the Biden administration, and the regime in general, have fueled the pro-Palestinian movement and are fast becoming a major issue not only for Democrats, but for sectors of the bourgeoisie who do not want the unpredictability and adventurism of a second Trump administration.

Bernie Sanders, the Union Bureaucracy, and a Growing Pro-Palestinian Sentiment in the Working Class

As we have said, the movement is increasingly targeting Biden and the Democrats. Despite this, the Democratic Party did not have a terrible performance in the elections, including gubernatorial, state legislatures, and ballot initiatives, on November 7. This is not due to the party’s strength in appealing to voters, but to issues such as abortion rights that can bring out the Democratic social base to the polls.

The Democratic Party’s crisis over the pro-Palestinian movement has even reached Bernie Sanders’ base, who protested inside his office earlier this month chanting, “Bernie Sanders you can’t hide, we charge you with genocide!” The Vermont senator has defended Israel’s “right to defend itself,” supports Biden’s “humanitarian pause” policy, and even called the police against the protesters.

The crisis has also affected sectors within the DSA. For example, its Palestine Solidarity Working Group recently split from the organization.

The social democratic wing of the party — in particular Rashida Tlaib, Jamaal Bowman, and Ilhan Omar — is agitating for a ceasefire and is being persecuted by the establishment wing of the bipartisan regime. The social democratic wing may gain ground in the future if the Democratic Party needs to contain the movement. NGOs, particularly those organizing Muslim and Arab communities in the United States, are already participating in mobilizations such as the one in Washington, with a program of “No Ceasefire, No Votes.

The labor movement is not immune to the crisis in Palestine and the domestic turmoil. This, despite it already being in a process of subjective recomposition that has been happening since before the pandemic, with the UAW strike as the high point of the workers’ struggles of the last two years. The AFL-CIO backs Biden and Israel, and its leadership blocked passage of a ceasefire resolution. Although the AFL-CIO leadership supports the Democratic Party’s imperialist agenda — as always — the rank and file in many unions (not just Starbucks, which expresses the most advanced elements of Generation U) are putting great pressure on their leaderships to come out in favor of Palestine. Dozens of rank-and-file union statements signed by thousands of workers are widely circulating. One union leader who did speak out in support of Palestine, Kooper Caraway, the executive director of SEIU Connecticut State Council, was pressured to resign for expressing support for Palestine after a near-unanimous vote by SEIU’s state council to force him out.

We have also seen actions by the labor movement, such as the Oakland dock workers actions in support of the pro-Palestine protests, which blocked ships bound for Israel for several hours. With labor struggles developing, motivated by inflation, unionization fights and general worker discontent, Biden will attempt to intervene on behalf of labor to keep his house in order and block the possibility of the working class taking up the fight for a free Palestine. In general, the Democratic Party machinery is already in motion, albeit discreetly, given that the struggle for Palestinian liberation goes directly against the interests of U.S. imperialism, which has Israel as a staunch strategic ally. Biden’s initiatives toward the labor movement, with the strategic goal of containing the class struggle, cannot obscure the fact that for growing sectors of the population, the current president will go down in history as the executor of the genocide in Gaza.

The new left bureaucracy, like that of Shawn Fain in the UAW, has not taken a stand for Palestine. This new bureaucracy has emerged in the heat of a process of recomposition of the working class with a new generation of trade unionists injecting energy into the traditional trade union organizations. It remains to be seen if the anger of rank and file workers can force their leaders to break with Democratic Party policy and act independently, with an internationalist policy in solidarity with Palestine. 

Developing a Revolutionary Socialist Perspective Within the Movement for a Free Palestine

We as Left Voice are part of the international Trotskyist Fraction that is intervening in the movement in solidarity for Palestine in France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Argentina, Chile, Mexico, Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Uruguay, Venezuela, and Costa Rica. In France and Germany in particular, our comrades are facing the strong repression of their imperialist governments alongside tens of thousands of activists who have taken to the streets for Palestine despite criminalization. In France, four comrades of Révolution Permanente were arrested while doing graffiti for Palestine. In Argentina, our comrade Myriam Bregman of the PTS, candidate for president for the FIT-U, was threatened and attacked by the Argentinian far right for her defense of the Palestinian people against Israel’s attacks.

In the United States, with our modest forces, our website has become one of the references at the forefront of the pro-Palestine movement, showcasing the mobilizations against the media siege and giving voice to the Arab, Jewish and multi-racial youth mobilizing in solidarity for Palestine. From our website, social media and in our work in the universities, we are agitating for a mass movement for Palestine and for the democratic right to protest and criticize the crimes of the Israeli state and all forms of imperialism and oppression, including Islamophobia and antisemitism.

As the movement itself has been saying, the financial, political, and military support that Biden and the bipartisan regime have been providing to Israel makes them complicit in the genocide being acted out against the Palestinian people now. That is why we shout, together with hundreds and thousands of demonstrators: Not a penny for U.S. imperialism and Israel to carry out its genocidal program in Gaza! Not a penny for the killing of Palestinian children! Down with Biden’s $105 billion package! End all U.S. aid to Israel!

In the student movement, together with other organizations, collectives, and activists, we are part of the CUNY for Palestine committee, with professors and students of the largest public university system of New York City. CUNY is made up of at least 400,000 students, many of them Black, Arab, Jewish and coming from working class families. At Columbia, as part of the coalition Social Workers for Palestine, we took part in the takeover of the Social Work department on November 8, denouncing the McCarthyite offensive on the movement.

Regarding the student movement in particular, it must articulate itself in a bold democratic campaign against the domestic expression (the McCarthyite reaction and repression) of Biden’s imperialist agenda towards Palestine, which is intended to prevent the emergence of a politically influential mass movement in the United States. That is why at both CUNY and Columbia we are calling for the broadest unity to defend the movement: Defend our right to protest on the streets and campuses, Down with repression against the Pro-Palestine Movement and the criminalization of Arab student organizations, Down with antisemitism and Islamophobia, Down with the witch hunt on campuses, Freedom of speech, Stop the firings, intimidation and harassment of pro-Palestine activists. 

Both Arab and anti-Zionist Jewish organizations, and the left in general, have been attacked by the government and the two imperialist parties. The movement must speak out categorically against all sanctions and censorship against Rashida Tlaib and pro-Palestinian members of Congress, against attacks on student and community organizations such as Students for Justice in Palestine or Jewish Voice for Peace and left organizations such as the Democratic Socialists of America or the Party for Socialism and Liberation. We defend these organizations and individuals unconditionally against the attacks of the state, the far right, and Zionists, calling for unity against these attacks. Together with the anti-Zionist Jewish community, we say that anti-Zionism is not antisemitism, and that our movement is anti-racist and against all kinds of discrimination.

The mass movement needs to develop in unity with the struggles of the working class, a movement that will not be co-opted by the Democratic Party, beaten down by repression, or burnout in the weariness of the constant street mobilizations. In order to stand up to Israel and the U.S. in their unilateral war against the Palestinian people, the U.S. working class must take up the liberation of Palestine as its own and fight with its methods of struggle such as strikes, roadblocks, and picket lines. We cannot win bread and butter demands at home when our brothers and sisters in Palestine are being slaughtered with U.S. weapons.

Our Left Voice healthcare workers are part of the Healthcare Workers for Palestine committee that organizes over 100 healthcare workers. This committee has pushed for a statement demanding that the leaderships of health care workers’ unions speak out and become active in solidarity with Palestine. The statement so far has thousands of signatures. On Friday, November 3, they organized a vigil for Palestine in NYC that brought together 300 people, many of them healthcare workers. The message of our comrades was very clear, among other things, in their demand that unions break with the policy of the pro-Israel Democratic Party and take up the Palestinian cause and fight for the international working class to break with the policy of their governments to stop the genocide. 

The growth of the movement is leading to different strategies for its development and for Palestinian liberation. Our position is that there are objective bases for the student movement and the workers movement to converge in an anti-imperialist struggle, to inspire the world proletariat and to stand up against the genocidal offensive of Israel and the United States on the Palestinian masses.

A sector of the Left is leaning towards relying on international diplomacy to achieve a “humanitarian” solution that contrasts with the murderous Israeli army and at the same time hoping that the social democratic wing of the Democratic Party can impact the orientation of the party. This sector is promoting the utopian idea that it is possible to fight for two states without realizing that the existence of the state of Israel as an imperialist enclave is anchored in the oppression of the Palestinian people. Another sector participates in the movement without any delimitation of Hamas, whose strategy is to oppose the State of Israel with another theocratic ethno-state, and whose methods do little to fight for the unity of Arabs and Jews against Zionism, a unity that in fact is being expressed in the streets of the United States.

We as revolutionary socialists stand in solidarity with the mass movement for Palestine, unconditionally defend pro-Palestinian organizations against the McCarthyist repression and march in unity with all those fighting against the genocide in Gaza. We are fighting and agitating in the streets, our schools and workplaces for the struggle for a free and socialist Palestine, from the river to the sea, where Arabs, Jews and Christians can live in peace, free from the yoke of Zionism and imperialism.

As during the Vietnam War, the bipartisan regime will do everything to repress and co-opt the movement to prevent student-worker unity at all costs. In that sense, we are also positing that the growing anti-Biden sentiment that extends beyond the vanguard and the accelerated experience that the vanguard is having with its leaders like Bernie Sanders, is raising the possibility that a youth and working class political alternative to the Democratic Party will finally emerge from within the movement. The youth are disgusted with the imperialist policies of the two big parties of capital that bomb the Palestinians and exploit, oppress, and repress us at home. And this growing distrust of the Democratic Party is touching the working class deeply. The strategy of Bernie Sanders — and therefore of the DSA leadership — is showing all its limits by demonstrating that the Democratic Party is an imperialist party and always will be, and therefore is the enemy of the youth, workers and the oppressed. From this experience, the vanguard has to draw lessons and work toward the construction of a working class party with a socialist perspective that is unconditionally anti-imperialist and on the side of Palestine and all the oppressed of the world.

Originally published in Spanish on November 12 in La Izquierda Diario.

Translation by Molly Rosenzweig

Jimena is an author of the collection "Mexico en Llamas" and lives and works in New York City.