How our recent social justice movements changed how we talk about Israel-Palestine

A protester waves the Palestinian flag in Chicago on May 13. [Photo by Jacek Boczarski/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images]
ByZulekha Nathoo

John Oliver said on Last Week Tonight that Israel is committing a “fucking war crime.” Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, in an essay for The New York Times, described Palestinians as being marginalized and demonized by the Israeli government. Trevor Noah questioned Israel’s retaliation tactics on The Daily Show, in a clip that has been viewed more than 5 million times in a week. And celebrities, from actor Idris Elba to model-influencer Bella Hadid, who is half-Palestinian, are widely expressing solidarity with the #FreePalestine movement to their millions of social media followers.

More than 230 Palestinians have been killed in the latest uprising between Israel and Palestine, which began May 10. That includes at least 65 children, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. By comparison, 12 have been killed in Israel, including one child. The fighting this time has been centered on the Gaza Strip, with the militant Hamas government and the Israeli state trading deadly rocket fire. It’s hard to pinpoint one reason for the violence, given Israel’s longstanding occupation of the West Bank and the fierce tensions that exist between Israel and Hamas, but a series of recent events appear to have sparked the embers: the threatened eviction of dozens of Palestinian families in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah; the confrontations at the sacred Al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem, where Israeli police in riot gear fired rubber bullets and stun grenades at Muslims during the holy month of Ramadan; and government instability on both sides, including canceled elections for Palestinians side and an inability to form a ruling coalition for Israelis.

On Thursday, Israel agreed to a cease-fire with Hamas, saying the agreement was “without preconditions.” The ceasefire began at 2 a.m. local time Friday, though centralized clashes already broke through in Jerusalem around the Al-Aqsa compound. Still, if the overall truce holds, it would bring to an end the worst round of fighting in the region in seven years.

A young protester in Ohio on May 17. [Photo by Whitney Saleski/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images]

But while the conflict itself seems at times to be the same horror on repeat, public discussions in the U.S., which for years have broadly dismissed debate around Palestinian rights, are notably shifting. And it’s likely thanks to the work of activists.

“More and more, people are beginning to make the connection between various forms of oppression in various parts of the world and understanding that while it's not the same, that there are similarities between the kind of oppression that people of color, certainly African Americans, Black Americans, face, and the kind of oppression that Palestinians are struggling against,” Laurie Brand, a professor of international relations and Middle East studies at the University of Southern California, tells Mic.

And it’s not just a vague change of tone in the media. According to a 2021 Gallup poll, “Americans’ favorable views of the Palestinian Authority are at a new high of 30%,” up from 23% last year.

“We saw a little bit of what we called ‘warming’ toward the Palestinians,” Lydia Saad, Gallup’s director of U.S. social research based in Washington, D.C., tells Mic. More people are sympathizing with Palestinians than in the past, per Gallup’s poll, and more people than before believe we should put pressure on Israel to make compromises — 34% in 2021 compared to just 27% in 2018. Conversely, 44% think the onus should be on Palestinians, a proportion that was all the way up to 50% in 2018. While Saad tells Mic that overall, the changes appear to be a result of Democrats changing their views, some of the increases are happening among Republicans as well.

Zareena Grewal, a professor of American studies and ethnicity at Yale University, says Americans are starting to see this country’s own battles — from police brutality to land appropriation — reflected back to them in the visuals coming out of the Middle East.

“Those are all reference points now for us to understand what's happening with Palestinians.”

Brutal clashes with police in Jerusalem caught on camera are reminiscent of Black Lives Matter and civil rights protests, she tells Mic, and the dispossession of Palestinian land isn’t unlike the battles being fought by Indigenous peoples. The expanded consciousness is also giving way to a deeper understanding of the term “settler colonialism,” or the replacement of Indigenous populations with settler societies.

“Those are all reference points now for us to understand what's happening with Palestinians,” says Grewal.

Grewal also cites the ongoing fight for equality in the U.S. — sparked by the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis nearly a year ago — as a catalyst for pushing Americans to speak out more on injustices abroad.

“That’s where the Black Lives Matter movement and other movements have really pushed [people] to say, ‘I'm not allowed to just opt out of this conversation and just be quiet,’” Grewal tells Mic. “‘I have to say something.’ And I think that's really a critical shift.”

It’s something Brand, who’s been teaching about the Middle East for 32 years, has never witnessed in the U.S., even during the region’s last big escalation in 2014. “Members of the House of Representatives and also some senators, including some senators who have historically been just stalwart supporters of the state of Israel ... they're coming out and saying that they think this needs to stop, as opposed to just remaining silent,” she says.

A protester in Michigan on May 18. [Photo by SETH HERALD/AFP via Getty Images]

This new awareness has allowed people to take into account the totality of the conflict, Grewal says. “In an earlier moment, you would talk about the crisis, as in what's happening right now or what's happening in the last week or what's happened in the last few days,” she explains — moment-to-moment discussions that made the fighting sound “spontaneous and irrational or so complicated that one could not possibly understand it.” But now, she says, “people are saying, ‘Oh no, actually this is pretty simple,’ and you don't need to read a bunch of books to understand this.”

This is not to say that support for Israel isn’t staunch. In fact, Saad says Israel has been viewed favorably by a majority across party lines for the past two decades, with Republicans and evangelical Christians being the most supportive. But whereas the go-to political slogan “Israel has the right to defend itself” could previously go relatively undisputed, more people are now questioning its limits. That became apparent when Democratic New York City mayoral candidate Andrew Yang, who tweeted earlier this month his unwavering support for the people of Israel, was forced to reframe his statement after wide criticism. He was publicly denounced by members of his own party, and privately, he said, by his own team — but praised by prominent far-right Republicans such as Ted Cruz. President Biden was also compelled to push harder for a ceasefire after he, too, initially said Israel had the right to defend itself.

Brand says that kind of blowback by a broad audience when it comes to Palestinian rights is new. “If a high-profile politician feels like he needs to back down, then maybe future politicians aren't going to stick their neck out,” she says. “It's just a matter of now, I think, strategizing for the ways that progressives can try and have an impact on national policy.”

This perception shift could move the needle meaningfully over time. Democratic Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), Mark Pocan (Wis.), and Rashida Tlaib (Mich.) introduced a resolution Wednesday to block the U.S. arms sale to Israel worth $735 million. It’s seen as mostly symbolic, but the challenge itself is novel, and backed by a similar resolution Sanders introduced Thursday in the Senate.

“The sense of shared struggle is something which is catching on in a way it didn't really before,” says Brand. She’s not sure where it might lead. But when there’s momentum to challenge a dominant narrative, it can lure more people to step off the sidelines and join the fight.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled Laurie Brand's last name. We regret the error.