Solidarity Between American Activists and Palestinians — Including a Rebuke of Biden

Since the heinous Oct. 7 Hamas attacks and Israel’s declaration of war against the terrorist group, I have been going over and over a question I’ve not been able to answer fully: During this episode, why has the Palestinian cause sparked so much passion among veteran activists of the movement for Black lives?

Last week, I wrote that this could be traced to the ideological lens and residual energy of a younger generation attuned to protest and the ideas of equality and justice. But after interviewing several prominent activists in recent days, I realize there’s more to explore in the critical dynamics fueling that passion, which is born, in part, out of longstanding personal connections and a common sense of purpose.

There are two pivotal events that seem to have ignited the new era of solidarity between some young American activists and the people of Palestine. The first came in the form of Palestinian activists expressing support on social media for the 2014 protests in Ferguson, Mo., which activists describe as an uprising, not just a series of protests. Palestinians provided not just moral support, but offered practical tips that, as activist Cherrell Brown told me, included advice for protesters about how to protect themselves from tear gas.

Around that time, a small delegation of Palestinians even traveled to Ferguson and St. Louis to meet with American activists. This all created a moment of bonding around a shared sense of resistance.

The second event was a 2015 pilgrimage to Israel and the Palestinian territories organized by Ahmad Abuznaid, a Jerusalem-born Palestinian American who co-founded the Dream Defenders, a group of activists who came together in response to the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin.

The small delegation included some people who would also become central in the American movement, like the journalist and scholar Marc Lamont Hill.

When we spoke, Abuznaid, who has been criticized for his support for B.D.S., a movement calling for boycott, divestment and sanctioning of Israel, said he has led or been a part of several delegations to the Palestinian territories focused on what he describes as the injustices caused by the Israeli occupation.

These trips help not only to develop strong bonds between communities half a world away from each other, but also to connect the issues facing them. Hill, who lost his job as a CNN contributor after he gave a speech at the United Nations about Israel and Palestine that was condemned by groups including the Anti-Defamation League, would go on to be a co-author of a book about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, “Except for Palestine: The Limits of Progressive Politics.”

The events during this period reinforced a sense of internationalism among activists and connected a present solidarity with a historical one. It called back to a time when an American figure as notable as Malcolm X spoke out for the Palestinian cause.

Even activists who didn’t make these journeys describe coming to this cause in part through personal connections with Palestinians and Palestinian Americans.

And unlike some conflicts around the world, this one continues to play out in full view, in traditional media and social media. As the comedian, actress and activist Amanda Seales told me, this crisis has an urgency around it that others don’t because “we’re able to see it” in an unfiltered way.

The other thing that I initially underestimated is the level of criticism of the Biden administration for its response to this conflict and what effect that might have in 2024.

Shaun King, a former writer for The Daily News who has millions of followers on Facebook, Instagram and X, the site formerly known as Twitter, posted recently about how he would not vote for President Biden next year because of his embrace of Israel.

King, who has never been a strong Biden supporter and is far from a mainline Democrat, told me, “I feel like a voter without a candidate.”

While most activists I spoke to didn’t sound a note as strident as King’s about their voting intentions, several of them sounded an alarm about a possible wave of voter disappointment on the left over Biden’s stance in this conflict.

As Maurice Mitchell, the national director of the Working Families Party, told me, he couldn’t think of a more “demobilizing experience” for young, democracy-minded, multiracial coalition voters than an escalating war and escalating human suffering “with the understanding that our country and our government could have done more to prevent it.”

Tiffany Loftin, who describes herself as a civil rights activist and labor union organizer, and is a former national director of the N.A.A.C.P. youth and college division, said she would have a difficult time casting her ballot for “somebody who supported genocide” of Palestinians, which is how she characterized Biden’s position in the Israel-Gaza war. “I don’t know if I can do that, Charles,” she said.

The questions for the Democratic Party and the Biden administration are: How much of their support base does this discontent represent, and how much voter abstention can they absorb?

A lot will happen next year, and public attention will inevitably turn to other issues and controversies, but in a tight presidential race, an increasingly disaffected activist base on the left could be disastrous for Biden, and in a rematch with Donald Trump, that could be disastrous for our democracy.

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