One year ago this week, police sirens shrieked outside my window continuously for two days. Protests and demonstrations following the May 25th murder of George Floyd by a racist police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota had erupted across the United States in cities large and small. Statues of Confederate generals from the 1860-64 American Civil War, as well as statues of Christopher Columbus, were being toppled and vandalized everywhere. The United States’ original sins – the genocide of native peoples and the kidnapping and enslavement of Africans—underwent a very public accounting in the streets and online. In Washington, DC, some enterprising thieves had broken into high-end department stores on Wisconsin Avenue while the city’s police force was focusing on Black Lives Matter demonstrations downtown. Others taking advantage of the situation had thrown rocks and bricks through shop windows in various parts of the city in a brief but frightening looting spree unassociated with the political protests. Despite the pandemic and the demand that everyone maintain social distance, thousands of people of all ages, ethnicities, genders, and classes were crowding together in Washington’s streets, shouting and chanting their demands for justice for George Floyd. “Black Lives Matter” is a cry that echoes particularly strongly in the nation’s capital, where half the city’s population is African American and economically disadvantaged.
Given the frequency of police murders of Black people in the United States, protests have become a regular phenomenon, particularly since the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement following the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014. But last June, something was different: demonstrations following the murders of other African Americans at the hands of racist police had been constrained to particular times and places. This time, though, no temporal or spatial constraints existed. The streets around the White House transformed into a forum where progressive people of all ages and backgrounds faced a heavily armed and largely white police contingent outfitted with ninja-like equipment and black face masks for days. Then-President Donald Trump and his team did their utmost to paint the protestors as dangerous Antifa radicals intent on violence, mayhem, and destruction. For the first time in decades, protestors were tear-gassed and pushed away from Lafayette Park near the White House. Yet the groundswell of anger, activism, and solidarity with George Floyd and the plight of African Americans only grew and spread beyond the United States, sparking huge protests in the United Kingdom, Europe, and Latin America. “Something has changed,” pundits said. “George Floyd changed the world,” activists intoned.
A year has passed, and although no police sirens are shrieking outside my window this week, massive protests are happening in Washington, DC and elsewhere across the United States – and indeed, throughout the world. The focus now is on supporting Palestinian human rights and condemning Israel’s impunity for successive war crimes in Gaza. I’ve been to at least half a dozen pro-Palestinian demonstrations in Washington, DC over the last two decades. Usually, they start at the White House and march a couple of miles through town for about two hours. Maybe 1000 people participate, and the overwhelming majority are Arab Americans, Palestinians, Muslims, and veteran activists from a variety of peace groups. This year, though, is different: there have been many demonstrations in Washington, DC and elsewhere over the last two weeks, drawing huge numbers of people from a wide variety of backgrounds into the streets. American newspaper headlines are calling attention to Israeli abuses and Palestinians’ suffering in uncharacteristically stark terms. Most notably, Human Rights Watch released a report in late April that bluntly called Israel an Apartheid state, putting a big dent in Israeli hasbara about its status as “the only democracy in the Middle East.”
Americans have suddenly discovered that Palestinian Lives Matter, and that Israeli rationales for massive civilian deaths, occupation, economic blockades, land-grabs, and infrastructural devastation are empty rhetoric. It’s quite possible that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – and the United States’ unconditional support for Israel – could become a key issue in U.S. domestic politics and election debates for the first time since the 1987-1993 Palestinian Intifada. If so, President Joe Biden might want to reconsider his strategy (or lack thereof) in dealing with Israeli intransigence and violations of international law.
Since coming into office less than five months ago in the wake of an attempted white supremacist Republican coup at the Capitol Building, Biden has won kudos from the progressive wing of the Democratic Party for undoing Donald Trump’s disastrous COVID-19 policies, relieving the stress on working and middle class American families, moving forward on the Green New Deal in response to global warming, and planning to tax billionaires. Even stalwart Bernie Sanders supporters have given Biden good marks on domestic policy thus far. He is trying to undo the damage wrought by Trump on numerous fronts–immigration, systemic racism, and LGBTQI rights–but more importantly, he has brought a tone of decency and dignity back to the White House.
Joe Biden is an adult who has endured a lot—the death of his wife and baby daughter in a car accident over 40 years ago, the recent death of one son from brain cancer, and the descent of the other son into addiction and despair. Biden emanates empathy and is not afraid of taking political risks domestically. His advanced age suggests that he won’t be seeking reelection, so he doesn’t seem to be preoccupied about the “optics” of his decisions and pronouncements, or whether they will poll well with voters. He seems to want to do the right thing—which is why his tone-deafness on Israel is so jarring and perplexing. The divide between Biden and the progressive grassroots of the Democratic party, which is increasingly young and non-white, has become undeniable over the last month.
In March 2010, then-Vice President Joe Biden made an official visit to Israel in an attempt to restart peace talks and final status negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The Obama administration was eager to move ahead diplomatically, but Israel, now led by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, was hostile towards Obama after his famous Cairo speech reaching out to Arabs and Muslims. Soon after arriving in Israel, and publicly declaring that, where Israel’s defense and security were concerned, there was “no daylight separating our two countries,” Biden, and indeed the Obama administration as a whole, received a sharp slap in the face as Israel’s Interior Ministry announced 1,600 new housing units would be built for Jews in East Jerusalem. Biden stated that this was “precisely the kind of step that undermines the trust we need right now.” Back at the State Department in Washington, DC, angry officials were urging Biden to get back on his plane and come home. Instead, he stayed and showed up – albeit late — for a dinner in his honor hosted by Netanyahu.
Despite being humiliated by Netanyahu 12 years ago, Biden has not learned any lessons, and is considered a “freier” (a Hebrew term for a sucker, a stooge, a dupe) by Israeli officials. Donald Trump is the kind of American president Israel admires and cossets. No matter how many times Biden and the old guard of the Democratic party bend over backwards to demonstrate their loyalty to Israel in its current particularly fascistic political incarnation, Israel would love to see Trump or someone like him return to the White house in 2024. Furthermore, the base of U.S. support for the hard-right in Israel is now to be found in the fringes of the Republican Party, particularly among white Evangelical Christian Zionists and QAnon fanatics. Biden can’t possibly win their votes by giving Netanyahu and his racist cohort free reign. He can’t out-trump Trump in giving Israel everything it demands.
The growing rift in the Democratic party is as much generational as ideological. Younger American Jews are particularly outspoken, and have been at the forefront of many recent protests against Israeli war crimes. Two weeks ago, Biden’s campaign staffers (mostly people under the age of 30) issued an open letter urging the president to take a different tack on Israel and Palestine. Musicians are now organizing for Palestinian human rights in a manner reminiscent of the anti-Apartheid protests that shook the racist foundations of South Africa 30 years ago. Like it or not, Biden and the Democratic Party elite are being drawn into a long-overdue debate over US support for Israel. Palestinian Lives Matter. The ground is shifting in Washington in ways that can’t be categorized neatly into either “domestic” or “foreign” policy. This is particularly evident in the U.S. Congress, as well as in the American Jewish community. The party’s progressive wing, exemplified by young women of color –Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, and Cori Bush – is at pronounced odds with the party’s largely white and male old guard, best personified by President Joe Biden himself.
Something has changed indeed in the United States over the last year: the narrative frame. Black Lives Matter and Native American activism in the streets, as well as an emerging discourse focused on decolonization and reparations among progressive intellectuals, academics, pundits, and activists, could well recalibrate Americans’ perceptions of Palestinians as human beings deserving of rights: Palestinians in the place of George Floyd under the brutal knee of Israel. Joe Biden and the old guard of the Democratic Party ignore this narrative shift at their – and the United States’ – peril.
(Read the Arabic version of this article here.)