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How the War in Gaza is Shaping the 2024 Elections — And the Future of the Democratic Party

In critical Midwestern states, a growing movement is pushing candidates to challenge the Biden administration’s position on Israel

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How the War in Gaza is Shaping the 2024 Elections — And the Future of the Democratic Party
Layla Elabed, campaign manager for Listen to Michigan, the day after the 2024 Michigan primary. (Mostafa Bassim/Anadolu via Getty Images)

In a public park just outside Cleveland, Ohio, a small plaque marks the last stop on the Underground Railroad, the secret network that helped tens of thousands of enslaved people flee to freedom in the decades leading up to America’s Civil War. Etched into a paved walkway that leads to the water, the marker at Lakewood Park is easy to miss, a fitting emblem of a region that is nothing if not understated. Yet it was here, along the shores of Lake Erie, that the former slaves of the American South boarded boats to Canada, leaving behind a young country that would soon be at war with itself.

To the emancipated and the railroad’s “conductors,” the Cleveland of the antebellum era was known by its codename: “Station Hope.” Today, the city is the second poorest in America, dismissed by some as “the mistake by the lake.” On its periphery, though, the hollowed-out steel mills that symbolize the Rust Belt also recall the industrial boom of the post-Civil War era, when the city’s easy lake access made it a transportation hub and center for social activism. Progressive Era politicians embraced urban planning designed to help the poor. Immigrant workers helped launch the labor movement.

Like other so-called “swing states” in the American Midwest, Ohio has also been a political bellwether. In the past 60 years, all but one of America’s presidential elections have gone to the candidate who won Ohio, giving rise to the adage “As Ohio goes, so goes the nation.” The state skewed right in the past two elections, though, and it was little surprise when Republicans chose Cleveland to host their 2016 convention, at which Donald Trump formally accepted his party’s nomination. When the polls preceding that year’s election put Hillary Clinton comfortably in the lead, Ohio watchers — who had seen Trump pull 8 percentage points ahead of his Democratic rival there — knew the pollsters were wrong.

In this year’s election season, Midwestern states have become a different kind of proving ground — this time, for the Democratic Party. In cities and smaller towns in states like Ohio, Wisconsin and Michigan, a growing Palestinian rights movement is pushing Democratic candidates to challenge their party’s unchecked support for Israel. The movement’s successes, detailed in interviews with a range of organizers and elected officials for this article, are inspiring activists elsewhere in the country. And that, observers say, is reshaping the party’s foreign policy from the ground up, presaging unprecedented changes in Washington.

The movement has been fueled by widespread opposition to Israel’s war in Gaza, which leading historians, genocide scholars and legal experts have described as a genocide. The Crowd Counting Consortium (CCC), a joint project of the Harvard Kennedy School and the University of Connecticut that collects data on marches, protests and demonstrations in the United States, has documented more than 7,000 “pro-Palestine” gatherings across the country since Oct. 7, when Israel launched its military response to Hamas’ deadly attacks. The death toll from those attacks was quickly dwarfed by Gaza’s casualty counts, and the average number of protests against Israel’s assault has remained steady, drawing more than 1.2 million people in the last six months, according to the CCC. That number includes dozens of encampments on university campuses nationwide, where students are demanding that administrators divest from Israel.

The encampments, which the White House labeled “antisemitic,” continued to spread through April and early May, sparking faculty walkouts in solidarity. Some Democrats, like Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota — whose daughter was suspended from Columbia University for participating in the Gaza encampment there — have expressed solidarity with the students, but recent congressional hearings make it clear that the “antisemitism” charge is being wielded by politicians on both sides of the aisle. On May 1, the House of Representatives passed the Antisemitism Awareness Act of 2023 with 61 co-sponsors, 15 of them Democrats. Addressing the House on the day of the vote, Democrat Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey made the erroneous claim that protesters “call for the death of Jews on college campuses and across the country.” The bill he co-sponsored would require the U.S. Department of Education to apply the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism — which Human Rights Watch has said would “wrongly label criticism of Israel as antisemitic” — to allegations of discrimination on campus.

Attacks on these student actions are further evidence of a growing gap between the political class and the younger voters who are propelling the movement for Palestinian rights. The first signs that this movement was coalescing around a political agenda came with the passage of several city council resolutions calling for a cease-fire in Gaza. Not far from Cleveland, activists in Akron, Ohio — a midsize city best known for birthing the tire industry — were among the first to adopt this approach, securing a unanimous cease-fire call in November, some six weeks into Israel’s war. Since then, more than 100 such measures have been adopted across the country. But like activists in many of these cities, Jacob Saliba, who was born not far from Lakewood Park, says the resolutions were mostly symbolic.

The one proposed to the Cleveland City Council, which passed a final draft the same day as a similar March 25 successful U.N. Security Council resolution, “did nothing to change the long-term situation,” says Saliba, executive director of the Cleveland-based Arab American Voter Project (AAVP). That was despite a 17-week effort that included hours of public testimonies, sit-ins and social media outreach. Although he acknowledges that the effort was an important way to galvanize the community, which includes Arab-American, Muslim and Jewish activists, he sees it as just a first step toward building a truly inclusive Palestinian rights movement — one that can have an effect beyond cities like Cleveland.

“We’re pushing for long-term engagement and civic participation,” he says. “A big fear at AAVP is that it will be labeled a progressive or Arab-American issue.” He thinks the massive protests against Israel’s war, which has so far killed at least 33,000 people in Gaza, have shown that Palestinian allies represent a broad spectrum of American society. But effecting policy change will mean “reaching beyond activist circles.” That, in turn, will mean redirecting the energy spent on city council advocacy toward electoral politics.

A candidate town hall in Cleveland organized by the Arab American Voter Project (AAVP) and the Cleveland chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR. (Image courtesy of AAVP)

As the cease-fire resolutions “fade into the distance,” in Saliba’s words, the AAVP has been shifting its focus to local, state and congressional elections. The group helped organize a March 6 town hall in Cleveland for candidates to interact directly with the Arab-American and Muslim communities. Among the speakers was Matt Diemer, who, at the time, was seeking the Democratic nomination to run against Republican Rep. Max Miller, the Trump conservative who told an interviewer, “We’re going to turn Gaza into a parking lot.” At the town hall, which was co-sponsored by the local chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), Diemer made a point of recalling that quote in his opening statement, assuring voters that he condemned it.

Diemer’s credibility with Palestinian advocates may have played only a small role in his clinching the Democratic nomination. Still, according to one attendee at the event, it was striking that a politician would speak up about the destruction in Gaza at all. To encourage other Democratic candidates to follow suit, AAVP launched Allies Against Apartheid in late 2023. Among the coalition’s demands is that elected representatives sign a pledge to halt U.S. aid to Israel while upholding the civil liberties of Palestinian rights advocates. Saliba describes the initiative, which so far has chapters in Ohio and western New York, as “a widespread coalition of everyday Americans who wanted to ensure that what is happening in Gaza could never happen again.”

The focus on “everyday Americans” is deliberate. Saliba says his upbringing in the Midwest has helped him understand that, while many in his community may be inclined to support the Palestinian cause, “They also need to have the space to ask questions,” especially given their fears of being labeled antisemitic. To broaden the conversation around Palestinian rights, the movement needs “those everyday Americans, those people who are just trying to pay their bills,” to participate, he tells me.

In neighboring Michigan, activists were also looking for ways to move beyond city councils and press for an actual cease-fire, one that would bring an end to the killing in Gaza but also stave off a looming famine. (In early May, the World Food Program’s executive director, Cindy McCain, said that northern Gaza was already suffering from “full-blown famine” and that the humanitarian catastrophe was quickly spreading to other parts of Gaza.)

“The conversation kept coming back to, how can we get a cease-fire?” recalls Layla Elabed, campaign manager for Listen to Michigan, which has since become the inspiration for the national uncommitted movement. “A lot of folks were saying they don’t trust the electoral process, that their votes don’t matter.” Initially, she says, the community wanted to focus only on local races, pressing elected city and state representatives to support a cease-fire in exchange for primary votes. They were encouraged to think bigger by a memo from Waleed Shahid, a former spokesperson for Justice Democrats, the group that helped elect progressive Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jamaal Bowman of New York.

The memo laid out plans for an “uncommitted” voter campaign that would hold President Joe Biden accountable for his Gaza stance. The same tactic had been used in the 2008 Michigan presidential primary by supporters of then-candidate Barack Obama, who had withdrawn from the primary after the Democratic National Committee — citing the state’s decision to change the date of its primary — said it would exclude Michigan delegates from the party convention. The vote went ahead anyway, with 37% of voters choosing “uncommitted” rather than marking their ballots for Hillary Clinton.

“We took this theory of change and applied it to Biden,” Elabed says. Listen to Michigan was launched on Feb. 6, amid increasingly urgent warnings about the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. With just three weeks before the Michigan primary, organizers wasted no time generating “a million direct voter contacts,” according to Elabed, half of them through calls made by a volunteer phone bank team. Ahead of the Feb. 27 election, the campaign hoped to see 10,000, maybe up to 15,000 uncommitted votes by the end of the night, a “modest goal” that could have sent a warning to the president: adopt new policies, or expect protest votes in November.

Instead, the number of uncommitted votes quickly surpassed that threshold — even before the results from Wayne County, where most of Michigan’s Arab Americans live, had been tallied. By the time the full count was in, that number grew to more than 100,000 people (13% of the total Democratic vote), with 73 of Michigan’s 83 counties reporting at least 10% of votes as uncommitted, according to Elabed.

News of the campaign’s success spread quickly. Newsweek said the strength of the uncommitted vote “embarrassed” Biden, and soon activists in other states were eager to replicate the effort. After the primary, Listen to Michigan volunteers supported similar campaigns in Minnesota, Washington state and Wisconsin — all of which took root “completely organically,” according to Elabed — through text messaging and phone banking. The efforts also made inroads with state-level campaigns, including in areas, such as suburban counties in Metro Detroit like Oakland and Macomb, that regularly elect pro-Israel representatives. This reception reflected widespread discontent among Democrats over Biden’s Gaza stance. But it also showed that advocates for Palestinian rights could mobilize Democratic voters who are otherwise unenthusiastic about the candidate and his Gaza policies ahead of the November election.

“We learned that Democratic voters don’t want to see their tax dollars used to bomb Palestinian children,” Elabed says. “But we also saw many people turn out for the primary specifically because of [Gaza].” Their participation, she says, is as much an indictment of the president’s policies as it is an incentive for him to change course.

Although she acknowledges that some in her community will “never vote for Biden” because of the deep betrayal they feel over Gaza, Elabed insists that the uncommitted campaign “was never about ousting” the president. “We are saying to Biden, there is time between now and November for you to listen to your constituency — not only the hundreds of thousands who have cast protest votes across the country, but also the majority of Democrats who oppose Israel’s actions in Gaza.” A Gallup poll published in late March revealed that only 18% of Democrats approve of Israel’s military action in Gaza, while an April YouGov poll showed that 83% of likely Biden voters support a cease-fire. According to a Zeteo and Data for Progress poll of likely voters conducted in late April, 56% of Democrats believe Israel is committing genocide against the Palestinians in Gaza.

Rep. Summer Lee of Pennsylvania, a Democrat critical of Israel’s war in Gaza, speaks at a rally in Pittsburgh. (Nate Smallwood for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Beyond Michigan’s uncommitted vote, Biden can look to local and state Democratic races for lessons on how Gaza is shaping the future of his party. Not far from Cleveland, in western Pennsylvania, 24-year-old Democratic congressional candidate Preston Nouri has refused to accept funds from the pro-Israel lobby group AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee) and made this a centerpiece of his campaign. Running unopposed on the Democratic side, Nouri will face off in November against Republican Mike Kelly, who accepted $62,000 in AIPAC funds last year, according to OpenSecrets, a nonpartisan research group that tracks the flow of money in U.S. politics. In a March 31 fundraising email, Nouri pledged his “opposition to the Israeli government’s genocide of the Palestinian people” and told supporters that, if elected, he would help change the national conversation about Gaza.

Also in Pennsylvania, 12th District U.S. Rep. Summer Lee of Pittsburgh has been an outspoken critic of Israel’s war in Gaza, which she has said “looks increasingly like a genocide.” Yet despite facing stiff opposition from an AIPAC-backed candidate during her 2022 run, she has been largely ignored by the pro-Israel lobby in her 2024 reelection bid.

“Instead of shaming the uncommitted movement and calling them extremists, we need to recognize that the Democratic Party can’t win without this coalition,” Lee, who easily defeated her primary challenger on April 24, told Semafor. The numbers back her up: In Wisconsin, an “uninstructed” campaign (Wisconsin’s equivalent of the “uncommitted” vote) garnered more than 47,000 votes in the Democratic primary — more than twice the margin by which Biden won the state four years ago. Although his 2020 margin in Michigan was higher, his current poll numbers in the state have him trailing Trump, making the uncommitted vote critical to Biden’s reelection prospects.

Many Democratic officeholders across the country already recognize this, even if their national leaders in Washington do not. In Michigan, more than 40 local elected officials have signed a pledge to uphold the demands of the uncommitted movement, including a cease-fire and conditioning aid to Israel. Wisconsin’s uninstructed campaign also enlisted local elected officials. Twenty of them, including members of city councils, boards of education and the State Assembly, signed a letter pledging to cast the protest vote and inviting others to join them.

The drive to restrict military aid, in particular, is gaining traction among Democrats. On April 11, a coalition of left-leaning organizations and labor unions petitioned the White House to end arms shipments, citing Israel’s refusal to comply with two U.S. laws — the Foreign Assistance Act and Arms Export Control Act — that proscribe military aid to countries that violate them. Last month, independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont made a similar request and Democratic Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware said he would support conditioning aid to Israel.

All of this has party insiders worried that Biden’s Gaza policy may dampen Democratic voters’ enthusiasm come November, possibly driving them to vote for third-party candidates or not vote at all. But to Elabed, elected Democrats shifting position on Israel hardly represents a break with the Democratic Party’s base. “If anyone’s breaking with the party,” she tells me, “it’s Joe Biden.” Many in the party agree. As one House member told The Hill earlier this month: “It’s not just the progressives who are angry about the U.S. support of the Gaza operation — it’s now broader than that.”

By all accounts, the president remains largely tone-deaf to the protests fueling the uncommitted movement and its offshoots. In a March interview, he denied that protesters were accusing him of supporting genocide in Gaza (an extraordinary claim given that his nickname among many activists is “Genocide Joe”). In his obliviousness, Biden is joined by much of America’s mainstream media, which has cast the protests as disruptive and shortsighted. An April 7 story in The New York Times showed how protesters were interrupting political gatherings but offered no insight into the strategic political thinking behind their actions.

Activists in the Cleveland area, for example, are now campaigning against the Development Corporation for Israel (DCI), which sells bonds whose proceeds in part help fund Jewish-only settlements in the West Bank. The activists are targeting state and local governments that purchase these bonds by using tax revenue generated by individuals and others. Since Oct. 7, the Jewish News Syndicate (JNS) reported on May 8, “more than 35 U.S. state and municipal governments have invested in Israel Bonds for a total of $1.7 billion.” That represents more than half of total sales of $3 billion for the bonds in the past seven months, according to the report.

In nearby Akron, activists have called on city officials to cut ties with businesses that support what the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem calls apartheid in the Occupied Territories and to ban U.S. police training in Israel. According to Amnesty International, the training, which has also attracted hundreds of police officers from Cleveland and Cincinnati, another Ohio city, places U.S. law enforcement “in the hands of military, security, and police systems that have racked up documented human rights violations for years.”

Even if activists’ policy demands have yet to be met, their vocal opposition to Israel’s actions is already influencing the public statements of Democratic officials. Akron Mayor Shammas Malik had initially alienated Palestinian advocates when he suggested, in November, that Israel was not “solely responsible for a 75-year conflict.” In March, as the Palestinian death toll had topped 30,000 people, Malik was openly criticizing Israel for its atrocities in Gaza. He tweeted: “Put simply — the way the Israeli government is conducting this war is wrong.”

Sentiments like that are taking hold well beyond the Midwest, and Israel’s supporters are taking notice. To counter the growing movement for Palestinian rights, AIPAC is reportedly spending $100 million this election cycle, an effort aimed at defeating candidates they view as insufficiently supportive of Israel. That includes Democrats like Dave Min of California, a state senator running for the House of Representatives in the competitive 47th District in coastal Orange County. Although Min never called for a cease-fire, he earned AIPAC’s ire for his private criticisms of Netanyahu. The pro-Israel lobby group spent over $4.7 million on attack ads against him. Despite AIPAC’s opposition, in the March all-party primary, Min won a plurality of votes and advanced to the November general election, in which he will face off against Republican Scott Baugh.

Some observers have pointed to Min’s race and others as evidence that AIPAC’s influence may be waning in “down-ballot” races. In Washington, though, lawmakers remain staunchly pro-Israel. In just the first month following the Oct. 7 attacks, Congress passed seven bills aimed at supporting Israel, including through supplemental military aid, condemnation of antisemitism and expanded sanctions on Iran. But Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations for the greater Los Angeles area, says Democratic voters are beginning to challenge their congressional representatives’ unquestioning support for Israel.

“Voters are becoming wiser and understand the undue influence of money that is funneled into local and state elections,” Ayloush tells New Lines. “I believe this is what you saw play out in the Min race.” The results of that congressional primary, he notes, should have been obvious to anyone paying attention to public opinion polls on Gaza, which show that most Democrats are critical of the president’s handling of the crisis. Candidates like Min, Ayloush adds, “stood on principles, not necessarily bowing to the party line.”

At the national level, progressive groups want to encourage others to follow Min’s example. Justice Democrats, the grassroots political action committee, recently helped launch Reject AIPAC, a coalition that wants Democratic candidates to refuse the lobby’s endorsement or financial support. Another coalition member, the anti-occupation Jewish organization IfNotNow, helped put together a letter from more than 100 Jewish Americans opposing AIPAC and supporting candidates who turn down the lobby’s support.

For Ayloush, pushing back against the pro-Israel lobby is only part of the story. “The Muslim community is not merely focused on countering AIPAC,” he says. Members of his community are “educating themselves, getting involved in the campaigns of candidates whom they support and building infrastructure to sustain these efforts for the long term.”

Colorado state Rep. Iman Jodeh at the state Capitol in Denver in 2023. (R.J. Sangosti/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Like the city council efforts that preceded them, this kind of advocacy is effective because it is local, drawing on activists’ proximity to their elected representatives. But according to Iman Jodeh, a state representative in Colorado (the first Palestinian American, and also the first Muslim, elected to the Colorado General Assembly), the national push to hold Biden accountable is also directly influencing how down-ballot races are run. She points to the national “Abandon Biden” movement, which, according to its website, is rallying Muslim Americans to “actively campaign against” Biden’s reelection, especially in key swing states like Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Unlike the uncommitted movement, which holds out hope that voter pressure could force the president to call for a cease-fire, Abandon Biden activists, who launched their campaign in December 2023, say his refusal to do so has already cost him their votes. “Both the Abandon Biden and uncommitted campaigns were organized quickly, and the results were shocking,” Jodeh tells New Lines. “The influence of these campaigns is trickling down the ballot.”

It is also shaping how Jodeh views the role of state officials. Although she acknowledges that her fellow representatives, especially those “directly impacted by world events,” have the right to exercise their freedom of speech, she has “not normally encouraged state and local electeds to ‘play’ in international politics.” Israel’s war in Gaza, though, “has shifted this thinking,” she says, “and it’s not just because I’m Palestinian.”

In November, Jodeh asked current and former elected representatives, organizations and community leaders to sign a “very simple cease-fire letter” that called for the release of hostages and arbitrarily imprisoned Palestinians, for more humanitarian aid and for shifting the U.S. role in the conflict to a diplomatic one. She estimates that only 12 of the Colorado General Assembly’s 100 legislators endorsed the letter.

Jodeh points out that ultimately the same constituents vote for state legislators as for congressional representatives, and that what happens in Colorado can influence the conversation about Biden’s Israel policy. “As lawmakers, we believe that upholding laws should be at the core of our work,” she adds. “The International Court of Justice’s ruling [which ordered Israel to comply with the U.N.’s Genocide Convention] should be no different.”

Many of Jodeh’s constituents agree. Just outside her district, organizers in Denver have drawn thousands of protesters to rallies calling for an end to Israel’s war. As in Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio, gatherings like these also help spread the word about the uncommitted campaign. In Colorado’s Democratic presidential primary, 52,000 voters (about 9% of those voting) chose “noncommitted” on their ballots in the March 5 balloting.

So far, the uncommitted movement has tallied roughly 500,000 votes across the United States. It is an impressive milestone for a campaign launched just four months ago — and in a part of the country that is too often overlooked. But for Democrats, paying attention to the uncommitted movement is not just good politics in an election year. Seven months of sustained protest against Israel’s onslaught — and U.S. complicity in it — have pushed activists to look beyond the current crisis and challenge a system that values power over human life. That a growing slate of candidates is heeding their call points to a potential sea change in the Democratic Party. It may also make the movement for Palestinian freedom a quintessentially American one.

As the AAVP’s Saliba says: “Our civic participation is demanded at this moment, and we will not be silent.”

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