In Europe, civil society has expressed its revulsion at Israel’s attacks on Gaza with mass protests across the continent. Ireland, historically pro-Palestinian, has whole towns that are boycotting Israeli products, and one British cabinet minister has resigned.
In the US, by contrast, popular sentiment is divided. Once monolithic, cracks are appearing in the post-Nixon ideological consensus that justified its pro-Israel foreign policy. While up until now most criticism of Israel has been met with denunciations and sanctions, vehemently equating it with anti-Semitism, individuals and groups have begun to speak out against the occupation.
On Sunday August 3, an estimated 10,000 people protested outside the White House in Washington, D.C., calling on Obama to end military aid for Israel. One demonstrator told reporters: “My reason for being here today is that my tax dollar is paying for 1,600 people dead in Gaza today, many of whom civilians, many of whom are children. And I regret that my tax dollar is paying for them.” At the demonstration, Professor Cornel West described Obama as a “war criminal” for facilitating “the killing of innocent Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank.”
The Washington Post reported: “Many Jewish Americans were among the crowd, said Shelley Cohen Fudge, 57, of Silver Spring, Md. She is the D.C. metropolitan chapter coordinator for Jewish Voice for Peace. ‘We have Arab Americans, Jewish Americans, people from Pakistan, people from all walks of life here,’ she said. ‘There are many Jewish Americans who are very upset by the very disproportionate situation — it’s not a war, it’s an assault and an invasion’.”
Smaller solidarity demonstrations have been taking place in major cities over the last two weeks, but have been ignored by the mainstream media. In New York City on Friday, several thousand braved driving rain to protest one-sided media reporting. “The US media is absolutely biased. All we hear is pro-Israel [stuff]. All the leaders we hear from on television are Israelis,” Palestinian-American Mohammed Hamad told Press TV.
In Washington, D.C., young Jewish-Americans protested outside the national office of the Jewish Federations of North America, calling on the organization to condemn the killing of Palestinian civilians and the bombing of UN schools. Huffington Post commented: “The protest is a reflection of broader trends among young Jewish Americans … while 70 percent of American Jews aged 18-29 believe there is a way for Israel and an independent Palestinian state to coexist peacefully, just 26 percent of people in that age group believe the Israeli government is making a sincere effort to reach that goal.” This is in line with national polling, which has found that American millennials were more likely to blame Israel for the current wave of violence than Hamas.
Most politicians – not just the born-again right, but the entire House and Senate, including Democratic progressives Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren – have proclaimed their unqualified support for Israel. Obama, while expressing distress at the plight of Gaza’s civilians, repeated and legitimized the Israeli rhetoric that it has an absolute right to defend its citizens from missile attacks.
In reply, Henry Siegman, the former executive director of the American Jewish Congress as well as the Synagogue Council of America, wrote in Politico that “Israel’s assault on Gaza … was not triggered by Hamas’ rockets directed at Israel but by Israel’s determination to bring down the Palestinian unity government that was formed in early June.” He asked on Democracy Now: “Couldn’t Israel be doing something in preventing this disaster that is playing out now, in terms of the destruction of human lives? … And the answer is: Sure, that they could have ended the occupation.”
According to the Guardian, the bombing “has emboldened diverse [Hollywood] figures to speak out – only in some cases to swiftly retreat. The actors Mark Ruffalo and Wallace Shawn, Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters and the director Jonathan Demme, have experienced jeers since taking a stand. … Two weeks ago Rihanna tweeted the hashtag #FreePalestine to her 36 million followers only to delete it eight minutes later, amid a surge of critical responses … Passions are running so high, however, that even silence from the likes of Spielberg, Streisand and Katzenberg is now considered a statement of sorts.” Pro-Israeli comedienne Joan Rivers yelled at reporters that Palestinians “deserve to be dead.”
One factor that explains American attitudes is the overwhelming partiality of the news media (with Diane Sawyer of ABC News showing footage of the aftermath of an Israeli airstrike on a devastated Palestinian family, which she then misidentified as an Israeli family), featuring Netanyahu prominently in newscasts and virtually nothing about Palestinians. However, reporters are beginning to question the official narrative.
At a State Department briefing, the spokesperson was challenged on the US resupply of weapons to Israel after the shelling of a school designated by the UN as a shelter. Alternet reported: “Matt Lee of the Associated Press dared to wonder about ‘consequences’ if the U.S. ever were to determine that Israel hit the U.N. school, and another reporter asked about U.S. munitions involved in these assaults on civilians.”
The Nation commented: “Already, there are anecdotal signs that conventional New York opinion, which tends to be liberal on everything except Palestine, is starting to shift. ‘If Netanyahu is so bothered by how dead Palestinians look on television then he should stop killing so many of them,’ wrote Benjamin Wallace-Wells in a piece on New York magazine’s website last week, a sentiment that would have been hard to imagine coming from that publication a few years ago.”
Americans in general are not aware of the connection of Israel with European settler colonialism, and propaganda about Muslim terrorists after 9/11 has had a cumulative effect. Furthermore, the Israeli narrative meshes with the American founding myth. An op-ed in the New York Times pointed out: “… the story of a nation of immigrants escaping persecution and rising from nowhere in the Holy Land resonates. The Israeli saga — of courage and will — echoes in American mythology …”
What should not be overlooked is that from the mid-1970s the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC had secured great influence in Congress by building on a narrative that linked the ideological justification of Israel with the Holocaust to make criticism of Israel taboo. Since Jewish people in the US benefited greatly from the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, when discrimination on the basis of race was outlawed, their votes became a pawn in AIPAC’s attacks on politicians who made even the mildest criticism of Israel’s actions.
What has changed is that politically significant sections of American society, especially the young, no longer believe the mainstream media and the spokesmen of their own government. While this may seem to be a minor change at the present time, growing struggles over the minimum wage and student debt will merge with this shift in attitudes to create potent new forms of resistance.