Neal Meyer is a national leader of Bread & Roses (B&R), a caucus of Marxist activists in the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), who is based in New York City. He spoke with Green Left’s Federico Fuentes about the impact that Israel’s war on Gaza is having on US politics.
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How has the US-backed Israeli war on Gaza impacted domestic politics? Has public opinion shifted since the war began?
When the Hamas attacks happened on October 7, the initial reaction among most people not on the left was knee jerk sympathy for Israel and against our pro-Palestine mobilisations.
This created a really difficult political climate for DSA and the various social movements who knew what was coming in terms of Israel’s response. There was a sense that we had to hunker down that first week or two as popular opinion was definitely not on our side.
But since then, it has become obvious to most people that Israel is carrying out horrific atrocities in Gaza and that the [Joe] Biden administration is empowering it. The popular mood has really shifted.
Now, around New York, you will see a lot of Palestinian flags in windows and lots of graffiti and stickers expressing solidarity with Palestine. In contrast, there has been a visible decrease in the presence of pro-Israel propaganda.
This shift is reflected in recent polls, which show almost two thirds of the country supporting a ceasefire and expressing strong discomfort with the Biden administration’s position. Those sentiments are even more pronounced among young people.
It is also very pronounced inside the Democratic Party, where a plurality of Democratic Party supporters now sympathise more with Palestine than with Israel. And there is really strong support for a ceasefire among everyone left of centre.
This has created a very difficult dynamic for the Biden administration, as its own party and base are so obviously out of sync with it. Nevertheless, Biden so far is pushing through and remains committed to supporting Israel’s genocidal campaign.
Can you give us a sense of the state of pro-Palestine organising?
In the first two or three weeks after the October 7 attacks, many of us on the left found ourselves unsure about where the country stood. Since then, there has been a real reassertion of popular energy against what is happening in Gaza and a constant stream of activity throughout the country.
It is hard to tell whether the demonstrations are still as large as they were at their height in November, but the number of actions has remained about the same. Pro-Israel mobilisations on the other hand have declined significantly.
A lot of Palestine solidarity activism seems to have pivoted from mass mobilisations to more targeted civil disobedience. I think we are also going to see a lot more disruptions of presidential campaign events as a new tactic.
Why has the movement pivoted towards civil disobedience?
I would attribute the shift to a need to move solidarity work towards actions that are more sustainable and targeted. It is hard to maintain mass mobilisations at the same level after a while.
And there is a desire to have a more targeted effect in bringing attention to the issue. Some of the best actions have been those targeting defence corporations or particular politicians who support Israel.
There is a debate to be had, however, about the utility of some blockades, for example on bridges and highways. The argument activists make in favour of these actions is that it forces people to pay attention to an issue they would otherwise ignore.
But most people sympathise with Palestine and are pretty critical of Israel. So, it is a question of whether the public should be the target of civil disobedience — it is a question of tactics.
What role has DSA played in these protests?
DSA has been active in organising marches and demonstrations, as well as civil disobedience protests.
DSA and DSA-aligned politicians have also done a good job in standing up to the Democratic Party leaders’ vicious propaganda campaigns. Politicians such as [New York congresswoman] Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and especially [Michigan congresswoman] Rashida Tlaib have been very vocal in supporting Palestine and pushing back against the dominant pro-Israel discourse in Congress.
In New York, DSA has a big group of politicians in the state legislature and a few city councillors that have been really good on the issue and actively participate in solidarity demonstrations and civil disobedience.
Have there been examples of unions and the Palestine campaign linking up?
There has been an impressive amount of support for Palestine among labour activists. The demonstration for Palestine I went to in New York a couple of weeks ago, which had thousands of people out on the streets, had a really strong labour component.
There were a lot of public sector workers, teachers, nurses, electricians, UPS workers, Starbucks workers — overall there was a strong representation of the various more left-leaning unions and union activists.
In terms of specific unions, the Postal Workers Union, which has a very progressive leadership, has been pretty pro-Palestine. Most excitingly, the UAW, which used to be so conservative and pretty corrupt in many ways, under its new leadership has been strong in its support for a ceasefire and really critical of Israel.
Overall, there has been a good level of cooperation between left-leaning sections of the labour movement and the Palestine solidarity movement for the past few months, which is really great to see.
What will the likely impact of Israel’s war be on the US presidential elections?
Israel’s genocidal campaign is actively rewriting people’s expectations for this presidential election. A lot of people expected it to be very close because [Donald] Trump enjoys a base of rock-solid support while Biden is not super popular. But I think the genocide in Gaza and Biden’s support for Israel is really beginning to put into question expectations of a close race.
Trump is doing real pretty well in a lot of polls: he is polling very well among Latino voters, he is polling surprisingly well among Black voters, he is polling well among young people.
Biden is not doing as badly as that might lead you to think, primarily because he has gained some support among whiter and more affluent voters — as Democrats continue to evolve into the party of higher-income, college-educated voters and shed workers from all racial groups.
But the trends do not look good for his reelection chances.
There is a lot of completely understandable anger towards the Biden administration among Arab and Muslim communities. There is every reason to think many will stay home in November and not vote for Biden.
Michigan, which has a large Muslim community that traditionally supports the Democratic Party, is going to be a key state: if Biden loses even a couple of thousand votes, that could push Michigan back to Trump.
And I just do not see any reason to think the Democrats will enjoy anywhere near the support they got from young people in 2020. There is mass disgust at what Biden and the Democrats have done.
A lot can change in 10 months, but there is every reason to think Israel’s genocidal campaign and the Biden administration’s support for it has rewritten what is going to happen in this presidential election. And all of this is the Biden administration’s fault — their response to this issue has strengthened Trump’s hand and made it more likely that Trump will win.
As for DSA, as an organisation it did not support Hillary Clinton in 2016 nor Joe Biden in 2020.
A lot of people on the left held their nose and voted for Biden four years ago because there was a sense that Trump was very dangerous. That part has not changed.
But I have a hard time imagining, at the moment, there being a vocal movement from independent activists and leaders on the left for lesser evil voting on the scale we saw in 2020.
What is happening is so bad that it is hard to imagine persuading people on the left to vote en masse for Biden.
And I think that will have an effect on the vote, especially because the left in the US is much larger than it used to be. It is now a small but significant factor in US politics. Biden and the Democrats can not afford to entirely discount its importance for their campaign.
[Abridged from a longer interview published at links.org.au.]