Commentary: Why are pro-Palestinian activists protesting Bowman and AOC?

Even as pro-Israel groups spend millions against Rep. Jamaal Bowman, some pro-Palestinian activists remain critical of him.

Pro-Palestinian activists march in Brooklyn on May 31, 2024.

Pro-Palestinian activists march in Brooklyn on May 31, 2024. Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

On Saturday, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders is holding a rally with Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jamaal Bowman in the South Bronx. A group of leftist, pro-Palestinian activists have announced plans to protest the rally.

Why does Within Our Lifetime – the organization spearheading the protest – want to disrupt a rally for three of the most progressive members of Congress? Why do the activists consider them “sell-out” politicians, even as Israel hawks spend millions to crush Bowman?

The answer, on one hand, is straightforward. Within Our Lifetime fiercely opposes Israel and is fighting for a single, multinational state with the right-of-return for all Palestinian refugees who lost their land when Israel was established in 1948. They believe Zionism is “white supremacist” and Israel is a “settler-colonial” state – completely illegitimate, in their view. Sanders, who is Jewish, is a proud Zionist, and neither Bowman nor Ocasio-Cortez have openly endorsed establishing a nation without a Jewish majority. Within Our Lifetime also embraces a “right to resist” which can be interpreted as a defense of Oct. 7 and Hamas violence. Despite what their opponents on the right might say, Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez and Bowman do not support Hamas.

The South Bronx rally is intended to bolster Bowman and Ocasio-Cortez’s reelection bids. AOC is not seriously threatened in her primary. Bowman very much is, facing down more than $14 million in AIPAC spending on behalf of George Latimer, the Westchester County executive. Latimer is a staunch Israel supporter who has been unwilling to critique Benjamin Netanyahu’s war in Gaza, which has killed tens of thousands of Palestinians. 

Bowman, meanwhile, has drifted leftward and taken an endorsement from the Democratic Socialists of America, which is firmly anti-Zionist. After supporting funding for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system, Bowman has called for conditioning military aid to Israel and labeled the bombing of Gaza a “genocide.” Ocasio-Cortez has done the same. 

Within Our Lifetime, though, is furious at both her and Bowman for endorsing President Joe Biden. The Biden administration has continued to send weapons to Israel and has not been able – or willing – to check Netanyahu’s war aims. If conservatives perceive Biden as insufficiently supportive of Israel, most on the left believe he has been overly tolerant of the Jewish State’s military actions since Oct. 7. Within Our Lifetime wants to send a message: by endorsing Biden, AOC, Bowman and Bernie are endorsing genocide. 

And it’s this sort of message that, even among the far-left, is controversial. 

Other anti-Zionist organizations, including Jewish Voice for Peace and Palestinian Youth Movement, are not protesting the three progressive politicians. DSA is not, because many rank-and-file members support all of them – certainly enough to ensure Bowman had their endorsement ahead of the June 25 primary. None of the pro-Palestinian politicians in elected office are targeting the progressives who support Biden. Rep. Rashida Tlaib has endorsed Bowman and criticized Within Our Lifetime’s planned protest. 

A large difference between Within Our Lifetime and DSA or Jewish Voice for Peace is the dim view the former takes of electoralism. Both JVP and DSA are active in Democratic primaries, hoping to elect open socialists or anti-Zionists to local and national offices. In New York, DSA is aiming to expand their caucus in the state legislature, and local chapters throughout America are slowly trying to elect as many leftist Democrats as possible. JVP has an electoral arm, JVP Action, which endorses Democrats.

Within Our Lifetime and other far-left, pro-Palestinian groups do not participate in these elections. They view the American political system as morally bankrupt and only focus on direct action – street protests, cultural boycotts, and various pressure campaigns. In the view of a Within Our Lifetime organizer, there is no meaningful difference between Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Donald Trump: both, to them, are complicit in the genocide of their people. They are largely suspicious of all politicians. Even Tlaib, the Palestinian American representative from Michigan, is not a favorite. 

These tensions are likely to come to the fore in the future as the bulk of leftists try to defend politicians sympathetic to the Palestinian cause while Within Our Lifetime continually targets them. Many members of New York City DSA are frustrated that Bowman, barely hanging on in his primary, is now facing a protest from the left. Bowman, in their view, has sufficiently evolved, and is now worthy of support. Within Our Lifetime isn’t fond of DSA, either. 

One challenge, for the leftists who want to engage in elections and not cannibalize their own, is the decentralized nature of the pro-Palestinian movement. There is nothing AOC, DSA, or JVP can do to urge Within Our Lifetime and allied activists to not protest progressive politicians – even those who are more aligned with the Palestinian cause than anyone else in elected office. Since there are few established leaders within the activist movement – those with the standing that Martin Luther King Jr. or Stokely Carmichael enjoyed in the Civil Rights Movement – there is no easy way to negotiate or bargain among political actors. There will only be rage, unabated.