How the Activist Left Turned On Israel

7 minute read

Daniel Sokatch has spent much of his career fighting for equal rights for Israelis and Palestinians. As CEO of the New Israel Fund, he runs the largest global organization promoting democracy and equality for all who live under Israeli control. Sokatch was horrified to hear the news of Hamas's massacre of Israeli civilians on Oct. 7. But what further shocked him was the immediate response from some of his fellow advocates for Palestinian rights. "The reaction reeks of antisemitism," Sokatch says. "You can celebrate the slaughter of those people, just because they're Israeli, in a way that you wouldn't anywhere else in the globe."

Instead of condemning and mourning the deadliest day for Jews since Israel’s founding, factions of the grassroots left appeared to celebrate the assault as an act of Palestinian heroism. The national chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine called it "a historic win for the Palestinian resistance." A coalition of 34 Harvard student organizations issued a statement saying they "hold the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence." The Democratic Socialists of America promoted a pro-Palestinian rally in New York where attendees reportedly chanted “resistance is justified when people are occupied.” One was shown displaying a swastika. A Twitter account apparently belonging to Black Lives Matter Chicago posted an image of a paraglider with a Palestinian flag on X, appearing to celebrate the Hamas terrorists who descended to slaughter hundreds of Israelis at a music festival.

"The glorification and justification of violence against civilians is not something I've seen in this movement in the 25 years I’ve been looking at it," says Oren Segal, vice president of the Anti-Defamation League's (ADL) Center on Extremism.

The tone-deaf response by college students and left-wing activists has been matched by statements from the halls of power that are equally callous toward Palestinian lives. “We are fighting human animals and we act accordingly,” said Israel's Defense Minister Yoav Gallant. "Level the place," South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham said of Gaza. 

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But the vehemently anti-Israel response from some parts of the left also reflects a significant ideological evolution on the issue, especially among younger generations. From 2011 to 2014, polling by Gallup found that millennial Democrats sided with Israelis over Palestinians by 25 points when asked their views on the long-running conflict. By 2023, the same group sided with Palestinians over Israelis by 11 points—a 36-point shift. The Pew Research Center found last year that 56% of Americans under 30 had an unfavorable view of Israel.

At the same time, antisemitism in the U.S. has been on the rise. According to the ADL, antisemitic incidents hit their highest mark in 2022 since the group began record-keeping in the U.S. in 1979, rising 36% in a single year. Research released earlier this year by the ADL found a spike in antisemitic beliefs among the American public, with 85% of Americans believing at least one anti-Jewish trope, up from 61% in 2019. 

Over the last week, many American Jews felt as if anti-Israel sentiment and rising antisemitism was visible in the response to the massacre. "It’s going back to the idea that the Jews who were killed, that they had it coming, that they were part of a nation of colonizers, it's blaming Jews for their own misfortunes," says Mike Rothschild, a journalist and author who writes about antisemitism."It's ever present in right-wing discourse, but I'm seeing it much more on the left than I’ve ever seen it."

Despite the tropes, the response to the Hamas massacre by elements of the left took many Jews by surprise. "I have always defended the rights of people to criticize Israel, even very harshly, and not be accused of antisemitism," says Sokatch. "There's a big difference between leveling the harshest criticism at Israel for what it is doing in the West Bank and Gaza, and celebrating the murder, torture and rape of innocent people.”

It's not antisemitic to criticize Israel or Israeli policy—many Jews do. But the ferocity of anti-Israel sentiment and the unsympathetic reaction to the massacre from parts of the young progressive left has revealed a political and generational chasm on the issue. Many young leftists equate the struggle for Palestinian liberation with the fight for racial equity in the United States, under the binary, simplistic rubric of oppressor and oppressed. "It became impossible for someone to ID as a progressive who values human rights, and go along with the idea that Palestinians can continue being treated this way," says Omar Badder, a Palestinian-American political analyst. "It's no different than South African apartheid, no different than Jim Crow."

The same forces that have drawn many young Americans further left over the past decade or so—Black Lives Matter, social media, and Occupy—have also drawn them closer to the movement for Palestinian liberation. Palestinian activists and Black Lives Matter protesters built common cause amid the Ferguson uprising in 2014, when Palestinians advised racial-justice protesters about how to resist militarized police. "There was a combination of the Occupy protesters and Palestinian protesters who taught us what to do when we got tear-gassed," says DeRay Mckesson, a racial-justice activist who became one of the most prominent Ferguson protesters.

At the same time, social media has democratized information sharing, exposing the rising generation of American activists to more stories of Israeli atrocities against Palestinians, and hearing more Palestinian voices than their cable-watching parents ever saw. In the same way cell phone video awakened a generation to the reality of police violence against Black Americans, social media has spread awareness of the reality on the ground in Gaza. "You have a generation of people who grew up on social media rather than broadcast television," says Waleed Shahid, a progressive political strategist who has worked for Bernie Sanders and the Justice Democrats. "There's a generation of people who have grown up with footage of Palestinians expelled from their homes by settlers, or checkpoints, or separation walls."

The rightward lurch of the Israeli government in recent years—and the American right’s emphatic embrace of Israel—has only driven young lefties further towards Palestinian solidarity. "It's hard to think of Israel as something good, because we've only known it as a place where bad things happen and things keep getting worse," says Max Berger, a progressive strategist who worked for liberal Jewish organization J Street and co-founded IfNotNow, a movement of American Jews that works "to end U.S. support for Israel's apartheid system." "I've only ever known it as a place where people invoke my name in horrible human-rights offenses."

Thanks in part to the Occupy movement, this is also a generation attuned to the power of money in politics. Some young left-wing activists—including many Jews—say they became increasingly frustrated by the pro-Israel lobby's role in American politics, specifically the money it spent attacking progressive candidates. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC)'s spending to boost pro-Israel politicians inspired even more young leftist solidarity with the Palestinian cause, Berger says. "If the people who have an unbelievable amount of power and money are crushing anyone who even questions this, that is going to become something that you focus on," he adds. "That creates a gravitational pull."

Yet the alarming rhetoric from the far left makes it harder to mount broad political resistance to the catastrophe unfolding in Gaza, which is sure to result in even more deaths of innocent children. Many leading progressives, including Senator Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, have expressed horror at the massacre while simultaneously advocating for the protection of Palestinian human rights. Ocasio-Cortez condemned the DSA-endorsed pro-Palestinian rally in Manhattan. "It should not be hard to shut down hatred and antisemitism where we see it,” she told Politico, condemning the "bigotry and callousness" of the event.

But for many members of the young left, the massacre of Israeli innocents represents a glitch in a moral dogma that reduces most political conflict to an underlying battle between the oppressor and the oppressed.  "The default of the left is to side with the victims and defend them," says Berger, and in the long-simmering conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, "it doesn't seem like the Jews are the victims.”

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