We are now almost two weeks into the deadly crisis that began on October 7 when Hamas slaughtered more than 1,400 Israelis, most of them civilians, according to government officials. Israel responded with indiscriminate bombing of Gaza, which has already claimed the lives of more than 3,000 Palestinian civilians, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry. Witnessing the scenes of carnage and human suffering has been harrowing, but it should not fail to move us to action. As Israel prepares for a potentially catastrophic ground invasion of Gaza, it is more important than ever that we on the American left do not become distracted from the urgent task at hand: to stop the massacres that are still ahead of us by advocating for a ceasefire.
We write as one Jewish American and one Palestinian American, both committed to ending the occupation and achieving equal rights between Israelis and Palestinians. We have each been disappointed by the reaction of many who identify as progressives in recent days. First and foremost, there is the leadership of the Democratic Party, which has offered unqualified support for the Israeli military response. Though we can’t say we are surprised by this, the abandonment of Palestinian civilians to their fate under the rubble strikes us as a profound betrayal by a party that had been moving, albeit very slowly, in the right direction.
The activist left did not rise to the occasion either. Some organizations of the American left, as well as prominent writers and thinkers, have made unaffordable errors in promoting rallies sponsored by the Party for Socialism and Liberation and the ANSWER coalition, and playing defense for indiscriminate violence perpetrated by Hamas, including the taking of civilian hostages. These actions only set back the cause of Palestinian liberation. A serious and moral struggle for Palestinian rights must be rooted in a simple fact: Arab Palestinians and Jewish Israelis will continue to live together in the land between the river and the sea, and all are entitled to freedom, dignity, and equality.
As progressives, our solidarity must be with the people of Palestine and Israel who are fighting for such a future. Leftists should be under no illusions that Hamas, with its theocratic and reactionary ideology, shares this vision. Neither does the Israeli government, which today contains fascist elements who speak openly of ethnic cleansing. Our allies in Israel and Palestine are the brave activists and parliamentarians calling for an end to the current round of violence.
Several observers, including Israeli officials, have likened the current moment to the immediate days following the attacks on September 11, 2001. This sends a chill down our spines. As it did in the United States in the aftermath of 9/11, public discourse in Israel has narrowed considerably since the massacres, with all suggestions of restraint treated as nothing short of madness—that is, when they are considered at all. The Israeli bombing campaign in Gaza is apparently viewed by most Israelis as inadequate. A ground invasion appears imminent.
The prevailing argument in Israel and most Western capitals is that Israel has a right to defend itself from external aggression. No one expected Israel not to respond, but at this point Israel has responded with destructive force. The recent atrocities should not be viewed in isolation. For Palestinians, the recent violence is a horrific development in a decades-long history of dispossession, occupation, and apartheid. For Israelis, it is the bloody culminating failure of Benjamin Netanyahu’s security doctrine and the indefinite postponement of a political resolution for Palestinians.
Where, then, should the left go from here? We are clearly outnumbered in Washington. But we are not voiceless. There are a few honorable members of Congress who have been calling for an immediate ceasefire and the release of hostages. A senior State Department official has already resigned in protest of the administration’s total support for the Israeli military response amid low morale and growing dissent in Foggy Bottom. Rep. Ro Khanna’s political director publicly resigned after the congressman refused to support a ceasefire. A letter signed by Jewish and Muslim staffers on Capitol Hill demands equal recognition of Palestinian humanity.
Public pressure of this sort must continue. This should be the case regardless of the administration’s strategy. If President Biden and his team believe that lockstep support now will enable him to pull Israel back from the brink later, then mounting calls for ceasefire negotiations within his party will only strengthen his hand when the time comes to tell Netanyahu that the military operation must end. If President Biden plans to support Israel’s stated objective of totally eliminating Hamas’s military capability, which will almost certainly mean a months-long ground war in Gaza that will kill thousands, then his policy must be opposed by the left on humanitarian grounds.
It is beyond our power to bring back those innocents whose lives have already been lost, but we can work to prevent the calamity that will surely follow if Israel continues to retaliate as it has so far. That is why it is paramount that every American of the political left, whether they be Jewish or Palestinian or otherwise, support calls for a ceasefire and for all necessary humanitarian aid—not to mention electricity, water, food, and fuel—to flow into Gaza.
Our long-term objective, liberation, will come only through the end of the occupation and the establishment of a free, democratic, and equal Israel/Palestine that values Palestinian and Jewish lives alike. There are important debates to be had about the exact political and sovereign configurations of such a new reality, matters which divide the left in the United States and in the region. To the extent these controversies may hinder us in the immediate mission of saving lives, they must be set aside for now. How can we imagine the details of a better future while any possibility for its realization smolders before our eyes?
Perhaps in the solidarities formed in this moment between Jews, Palestinians, and their allies around the world who believe in the inherent dignity and value of all people, we may at last build the movement we need.
Y. L. Al-Sheikh is a writer and organizer active in the Democratic Socialists of America and in international solidarity work between Israel/Palestine and the United States.
Abe Silberstein is a writer who has worked in several American Jewish organizations and nongovernmental organizations based in Israel.