‘The whole world saw me’

Nevine Khalil, Sunday 12 Nov 2023

Massive pro-Gaza demonstrations are sweeping across the US. Will they force a policy change, asks Nevine Khalil

Protesters at the Freedom Plaza in Washington DC
Protesters at the Freedom Plaza in Washington DC


“Biden, Biden, you can’t hide; We charge you with genocide.” An estimated 300,000 were on the streets in Washington, DC, on Saturday demanding an end to the onslaught on Gaza. Outside the White House, hundreds of thousands gathered well into the evening as part of a wave of pro-Palestinian demonstrations and protests sweeping across the US, and demanding a ceasefire.

“If Biden was home, he definitely heard us,” Zeina Farhan, 23, told Al-Ahram Weekly. “We wanted to make sure Palestinian voices are heard. We called on [Biden] by name... Time will tell if he heard us.”

Like thousands of other protesters, Zeina came a long way to join the protest. She drove for nine hours from her home in Michigan with her mother Nabileh, sister Sadeel, 17, and brother Youssef, 12, reaching the capital the night before. “I saw this on social media and we decided to all go. I had no idea how big it would be,” she added. “I felt heartened and blessed to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with all those people. It was momentous.”

Her mother, Nabileh, said that her family came from Michigan to stand in solidarity with their family in Palestine. She was comforted to see Neturei Karta demonstrators, dressed in Ultra-Orthodox Jewish hats and coats, standing beside her with their children. “I felt supported when they stood beside me in solidarity.”

Sadeel said she found the experience very inspiring, “because we usually feel alone here when we defend Palestine.” She was overwhelmed by the numbers, and how their chants and slogans vibrated through her and echoed down the street. The youngest, Youssef, was very proud because he stood in front of a news camera waving a Palestinian flag. “The whole world saw me,” he said. “I feel the world can hear my voice and what I’m saying.”

Hundreds of buses drove through the night from major cities even as far away as Texas and Florida, to bring protesters to the capital, while other demonstrators flew in from the West Coast and Canada. The Palestinian Youth Movement (PYM) was a major sponsor of Saturday’s rally, along with about a dozen others including ANSWER Coalition and the American Muslim Alliance. Altogether, some 400 organisations signed on to endorse the national march on Washington’s “Free Palestine” at Freedom Plaza.

“Our goal is not to appeal to the conscience of decision makers, but to make firm demands and to make our voices heard in such great numbers and strength that they have no choice but to listen to the people,” asserted Miranda, a member of PYM, to the Weekly. “It is clear the tide is turning, and there is increased and overwhelming mass support for Palestinian liberation all over the world.”

“Yes, these demonstrations do matter,” one US analyst told the Weekly. “This has become a civil rights and human rights issue here. We are watching genocide live on television which [the US] is funding.” He believes the White House “is shocked about the support and concern for Palestinians” and this is certain to influence the administration. “The US will call for a ceasefire,” he predicted, “even if they have to call it by a different name.”

Lara Friedman, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace (FMEP), agrees the protests are enormous and unprecedented but, she argues, they will not change the administration’s position. “The administration is beyond the point of no return,” Friedman told the Weekly. “They have already waited for a month, and nothing is changing their mind.”  The best they can do is to urge Israel “not to be so obvious and brazen, and finish this up quickly.”

The only possible pivot, according to her, is if Congress puts pressure on the White House. “People in Congress do not change their views due to events on the national level,” she explained. “It’s their constituents who count.” Today, Palestinian, Jewish, Muslim, younger and progressive voters across the US are engaging their representatives to do something other than ignore what is happening. “Jewish Americans, myself included, are clearly sending a message that we reject this,” stated Friedman. “Most likely, the administration will not change course unless Congress puts pressure on the White House due to a push from their grassroots.”

Friedman stressed that the protests “are a powerful way to send a message about the scope of what is happening in Gaza. We have not seen this before in any context, and certainly not for Palestinians.”

According to Maya Berry, executive director of the Arab American Institute, the protests confirm what is known and confirmed by polling: “The Democratic Party base does not support the Biden administration’s failed policy on Palestine and Israel.” Berry believes that the turnout at demonstrations demanding a ceasefire “impacts the policy conversations happening internally”.

The implications could be momentous for US President Joe Biden, who will be running for re-election next year. “I know that the political calculation is that voters will forget by then,” she told the Weekly. “But I don’t think the people are going to forget.” Berry elaborated that “the people” does not just refer to Arab American voters, but also progressives, younger voters, Black voters, progressive Jewish Americans, Muslim Americans and others. “People care very deeply about the devastation being brought upon innocent Palestinians, and they are demanding it stops,” she added.

“Biden is behind the times, uninspiring and doesn’t understand that this is a different era,” according to the US analyst. Due to his blind support for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s massacre of Gazans, Biden has fractured his Democratic base and disillusioned Arab American voters. Last week’s special poll by James Zogby Strategies showed that support for Biden among Arab American voters plummeted from 59 per cent in 2020 to 17 per cent today.

“He could make amends in the next 15 months, but will he regain the support of all Arab American voters? No,” insisted the analyst.

“We won’t know for a long time if these demonstrations will have an impact on elections, but they are an indicator of the health of our society,” said Friedman.

PYM’s Miranda said that Palestinians and Arabs in the diaspora play a key role in standing in solidarity with those suffering under Zionist occupation. “When our people rise up in Palestine, we rise up in the locations where we live,” she said. PYM has organised hundreds of events across the US, Canada and Britain in the past month, including public facing protests in every major city, direct actions, teach-ins, student sit-ins or walk-outs, as well as community focused events where they empower and organise Arabs in their local community.

But all this work has not been easy sailing. “We have been shadow banned on Instagram countless times and our account taken down,” Miranda said. “This is a common pattern in an attempt to censor and silence Palestinian voices and any counter narrative to Zionist propaganda.” Nonetheless, they gained a hundred thousand new followers on Instagram and are seeing growing popular support for Palestine. “You can imagine how much bigger that number could be without these desperate repression tactics,” she added.

The mainstream media in the US has mostly ignored the massive protests that are purported, by those paying attention, as the biggest wave of anti-war protests in the US since the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Many of the protests over the past month were even organised and sponsored by Jewish activists.

On 2 November in Philadelphia, more than 300 people held the largest interfaith civil disobedience action calling for a ceasefire. College students, clergy from all faith backgrounds, and elected officials shut down 30th Street Station to say: “No business as usual as long as [Israel wages] genocide in our names.” It was not business as usual on the highway in Durham, North Carolina, either, where protesters held up traffic for 2.5 hours during rush hour.

But the headline grabber in this avalanche of pro-Palestinian activism has been Jewish Voices for Peace (JVP). On 27 October, protesters shut down Grand Central Terminal in New York. That day, Israel plunged Gaza into darkness by cutting off electricity and the Internet to prevent Gazans from communicating with the outside world. In New York, thousands of Jews and allies staged an emergency sit-in during rush hour. “Let Gaza Live” and “Not in Our Name” were their rallying cries as the iconic train station’s main concourse came to a halt; and then hundreds were arrested.

JVP is a progressive Jewish anti-Zionist organisation which is organising a grassroots, multiradial, cross-class, intergenerational movement of US Jews in solidarity with the Palestinian freedom struggle, according to their website. Even before the bombs began to rain on Gaza last month, JVP joined hundreds of Jewish New Yorkers and allies outside the UN to protest Netanyahu’s speech to the General Assembly “in which he attempted to defend Israeli apartheid”, according to a JVP statement on 22 September. “There are many Jews, especially young people, who do not automatically and unconditionally support everything that Israel does,” JVP communications director Sonya Meyerson-Knox told the media earlier this year. “They are accepting that they can be Jews who are critical of Israel.”

On 18 October, Josie Felt, a rabbinical student, attended a protest with 500 others who sat on the floor of a building on Capitol Hill in prayer and song, to demand an end to genocide in Gaza. Their challenge is more than making political leaders listen and act; it is to stand up to their friends and family.

“I don’t believe my commitment to standing in solidarity with Palestinians comes at the expense of standing with my people,” Felt said. “We will not allow the grief and fear for Israeli family members, friends and colleagues to be used to justify the ongoing violent collective punishment [by] the Israeli government.” Felt was arrested as she prayed in the rotunda of the Congressional building.

The lexicon being used is also changing the narrative for many in the US. The killing of Palestinians is “genocide” and “ethnic cleansing”, Israel is an “apartheid state” that is committing “war crimes”. The Jewish If Not Now Movement (INNM) organised protests and even issued statements declaring: “We must act to stop a second Nakba”. On 25 October they were outside the office doors of congressional leaders such as Bernie Sander, Charles Schumer, Hakeem Jeffries and Katherine Clark. They sat cross-legged on the floor and meditatively chanted “ceasefire now”, passing rocks to honour and mourn those who were killed (as per Jewish tradition). Dozens were arrested in the process.

Daniel Maté, a Jewish activist who was in DC on Saturday, posted on his Instagram account: “Watch how the mainstream media tries to spin, malign, or diminish this historic day.” Maté, who is also an acclaimed composer and playwright, had described the Gaza Strip “concentration camp” in an Instagram live broadcast on 8 October. “We all know what concentration camps are; it’s where my great grandparents died. To hear me describe Gaza as a concentration camp might be shocking, but people are certainly concentrated and they can’t leave. If you don’t like that, just call it an open-air prison.”


* A version of this article appears in print in the 9 November, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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