Israel’s October assault on Gaza unleashed a global anti-war movement against the massacre of 25,000 civilians and counting, and in solidarity with Palestinian liberation. In the US, recent polling found that 68% of Americans support a ceasefire. But our politicians are not listening. As the war lurches on, antiwar activists in the US are at a critical juncture. On the one hand, the political establishment’s naked disregard could demoralize ordinary people to the point of disengagement or disillusionment – this can’t be allowed to happen. The movement must urgently grow to reach its as yet untapped potential to have maximum impact on political developments around the war. How can this be made possible?
It’s crucial to evaluate the movement’s trajectory over the past several months, to best understand what tasks are most important in the immediate future. The most visible actions have been mass protests in the streets, which in some areas have been held nearly every weekend since the siege began. According to the Counting Crowds Consortium, the events taking place are “almost certainly the largest and broadest campaign in support of Palestinian liberation in US history,” which between October 7 and the end of 2023 comprised nearly 3,300 pro-Palestine actions across every US state, involving a conservative estimate of 767,000 people.
Direct action has also featured heavily, disrupting business as usual across the country. In the first few weeks of war, Jewish organizations IfNotNow and Jewish Voice for Peace staged actions of hundreds in Washington and in Grand Central Station, where arrests were made en masse. The following months saw protesters blocking several major airports, bridges, tunnels, and roadways. Importantly, major unions in the US have put out statements demanding a ceasefire, including the United Auto Workers, 1199SEIU, United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers, and the American Postal Workers Union, and have even brought their members out into the streets. Student walkouts have erupted across the country.
The US Is Bankrolling This War
History is made not just by the decisions of a few people who hold power, but also by masses of people acting collectively. Without the scale of this protest movement internationally and the clear demand for a ceasefire, we might not be seeing any friction at all between the Biden and Netanyahu administrations. Splits in the ruling class, however small, are necessary for mass movements to wedge themselves in and create a larger crisis through which they can win serious concessions.
On the whole, the movement for a ceasefire has had an important impact. It’s created an enormous headache for Biden, significantly changing the terrain of the 2024 election and playing at least a partial role in the tanking of Biden’s approval. While Biden still stands firmly with Netanyahu, the movement has forced him to introduce some friction and chide the Israeli regime for running the war too hot. Still, these rebukes amount mainly to slaps on the wrist, and the movement must go further to have a more concrete impact.
Netanyahu is fully reliant on US-made bombs, US defense contractors, and billions and billions in aid to carry out his ruthless agenda. A key aspect of our role in the US, as part of this global movement for a ceasefire and an end to the occupation of Palestine, is waging a relentless fight to end US military aid to the Israeli regime.
Backing Israel is a strategic priority of the US capitalist class with bipartisan consensus. Knowing this, we should remain sober about what can and can’t be won so long as the capitalists remain in power. Pushing a ceasefire resolution through Congress is not in the cards today, but this does not contradict the urgent necessity of building the movement. Mass working class action has a critical role to play in slowing down the war machine, and most importantly, it points towards an international working class solution to war and national oppression: the overthrow of the capitalist class and imperialism.
Polarization & Dangers
But while there is a historic level of support internationally for an end to the Israeli assault on Gaza, the polarization surrounding the war poses a serious challenge for the movement. While 90% of Israeli-Jewish and 98% of Arab-Palestinian populations oppose violence against the other group, Israeli-Jewish support for a ceasefire is far more limited: many are convinced that a military defeat of Hamas is a prerequisite for peace. At the same time, the mass murder of Palestinians is leading to the growth in support for Hamas in Gaza and the West Bank. For the movement in the US to reach broader layers of the working class, it must not only denounce Israeli state terrorism and the role of US imperialism in backing it but also oppose the reactionary role of Hamas and the idea that the Israeli population is one reactionary mass.
At its core, the siege on Gaza, the denial of national rights, and the oppression of Palestinians in all of its forms stem from a vicious divide-and-rule strategy meant to benefit the Israeli capitalist class. As a whole, Palestinian workers suffer from a far greater level of oppression and poverty than the Israeli-Jewish working class (within which there is further stratification on an ethnic basis), but it would be wrong to say that Jewish workers actually benefit from the oppression of Palestinians. The national conflict is used to whip up a constant state of existential fear. The real obstacle to peace and security is the capitalist class. Absent capitalism and imperialism, working people of both communities could effectively work together to improve their lives. This scenario may sound far-fetched during times like these, but it’s essential to recognize.
Still, it is currently the national antagonism that dominates the consciousness of all who are involved. The key to cutting across communal conflict is to emphasize the common interests of working people on both sides of the national divide. Within Israel itself, some anti-war protests have been held that point in this direction, with one spokesperson pointing out to NPR that “The war is bad for Israelis and Palestinians. The war is good for the Hamas and Bibi. They both have interests in the war, of dead people, people scared from each other.” But the most powerful basis on which to expand the movement is with a program of clear working-class demands. Socialist Struggle Movement, Socialist Alternative’s sister section in Israel-Palestine, has energetically built and participated in these demonstrations, and holds a long record of determinedly organizing to unite Israeli and Palestinian working people in courageous public demonstrations against not only this war but the longstanding and brutal occupation that led up to it.
Labor’s Central Role
Some shining examples of what is possible have emerged from the international labor movement, following a call to action by a host of Palestinian trade unions: to stop building and transporting arms to Israel and to pressure governments to stop funding Israel’s military. Unionized dockworkers in Belgium, Italy, and the Spanish State responded by issuing statements and refusing to handle arms on ships heading to Israel. The leverage that workers in this industry have to concretely disrupt the war machine is unparalleled, and points to the urgency of organizing within trade union channels to create the strongest possible threat from below to the warmongering ruling class.
The UAW is now one of the most influential unions in the country, having just pulled off an inspiring strike against the Big Three automakers in 2023 and announced a bold call to organize over a dozen new auto manufacturers. While some smaller rallies have been held by the UAW and other unions against the war, President Shawn Fain made a mistake when he endorsed Biden’s 2024 campaign. This conceded important political leverage and went against the union’s otherwise positive outspoken protest of the assault on Gaza. Still, the greatest leverage of all is in the workplace, where capitalist profits are made. The UAW and the other major unions calling for a ceasefire combined represent over a million workers. These unions could exert significant pressure on the Biden administration by more fully mobilizing their memberships and planning coordinated work stoppages, sick-outs, or strikes.
Major unions today calling for a ceasefire could potentially signal the beginnings of a much needed working-class foreign policy independent of the ruling class. However, unions need to infuse their membership with a deep understanding of the class basis for war and oppression. Many labor misleaders, like Stuart Appelbaum of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) and Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), continue to insist on Israel’s “right to defend itself,” completely ignorant of the fact that war, occupation, and oppression by the Israeli state are exactly the ingredients that led to Hamas’ viciously reactionary attack on Israeli civilians on October 7 and have helped to reinforce their support.
That the push for a ceasefire position in the UAW came from below is significant for two reasons: firstly, the position was not simply imposed from above without having any real reflection within the membership, and secondly, union leaderships often need to be emboldened, or even pressured, by their members to take principled positions on polarized topics. Union structures are supposed to facilitate this kind of democratic action, and although conservative union leadership frequently try to short circuit union democracy, , union members supporting a ceasefire nationwide should urgently push to get motions passed committing their unions to support a cease fire and oppose all US military aid to Israel.
Shipping ports can be effective targets for direct action, as activists can directly impact the transport of arms to Israel. Hundreds of demonstrators in Oakland were able to hold up a ship for 9 hours bound for Tacoma to pick up military equipment for Israel. That same ship was blockaded for 12 hours in Tacoma before military personnel were able to load the ship with weapons. “Block the Boat” actions have been most effective when activists have built strong relationships with the union representing workers loading the ships.
Direct actions certainly have a role to play in this struggle, but not all actions have equal impact in building the movement. For instance, when direct actions are staged by smaller numbers of people or seem dangerous they can have the effect of demobilizing sympathetic workers who see the movement as “too radical” to have a place for them. By running too far ahead of the movement, smaller groups of activists can in effect find themselves substituting themselves for the much larger active movement that’s needed. Actions can even end up isolating bystanders from the cause. A New York sanitation worker who was held up by activists blocking the Holland Tunnel remarked to Gothamist, “This is unbelievable. The citizens always pay at the end.” It is a testament to the deep support for the movement that many direct actions have been relatively large, often involving over 100 people. But even so, the targets to be disrupted need to be considered through the lens of building even more support for the movement.
Activists have won ceasefire resolutions in a number of cities, including Seattle where the resolution was introduced and spearheaded by Socialist Alternative. Many of the hearings for these resolutions have seen incredibly diverse turnout by hundreds of people – union members, left groups, Jewish organizations, students, the Arab and Muslim community, and individuals and organizations representing the enormous Palestinian diaspora. In addition to the important role these local battles can play in building up pressure and keeping the crisis in Gaza in the news and on people’s minds as an urgent issue, they can also help to attract and cohere a broad base of support for a movement that must be united, organized, and strengthened.
Calling for an end to US military aid to Israel brings our movement into direct conflict with the Biden administration and the Democratic Party as a whole. It has been largely Democratic members of City Councils who have held back ceasefire resolutions. Those who have supported resolutions have only done so under public pressure. Multiple times this year, Biden has had speaking events disrupted by protesters calling for a ceasefire. Making Biden’s culpability undeniable is crucial; the only way they will make serious concessions is if we raise the stakes by bringing the social power of the working class to bear.
As Biden directly bankrolls the mass murder of Palestinians, we cannot accept the Democrats as the lesser of two evils. We need to build a new party that stands steadfastly against war and oppression, opposes the two parties of imperialism, and can offer a united banner for the struggles of ordinary people against war, occupation, and all forms of oppression.