Iman Abid-Thompson, advocacy director for the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, speaks at a rally outside the White House on Nov. 30. (Photo/Forward-Courtesy US Campaign for Palestinian Rights)
Iman Abid-Thompson, advocacy director for the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, speaks at a rally outside the White House on Nov. 30. (Photo/Forward-Courtesy US Campaign for Palestinian Rights)

Palestinian advocacy groups hope to make Gaza a 2024 election issue

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A major pro-Palestinian advocacy group is creating a political arm that would grade members of Congress on a scorecard, mobilize voters for candidates it supports and make political donations. 

The news, announced Thursday by the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, followed similar moves in recent years by Jewish Voice for Peace, an anti-Zionist group, and American Muslims for Palestine, amid shifting political currents in the country.

For decades, American voters have shown more sympathy for Israelis than Palestinians, and these attitudes have been consistent across party affiliation and age range. But that seems to be changing. Supporters of the Palestinian cause have been touting a shift among Democrats, and especially younger liberals, following the Oct. 7 terrorist attacks in Israel and the Israeli military aerial bombardment and ground invasion of Gaza.

Many have claimed that these voters, along with Arab and Muslim voters, could even cost President Joe Biden his reelection. Youth organizers, including leaders of the Sunrise Movement, the group behind the Green New Deal, warned the White House last month that Biden’s stance on the war “risks millions of young voters staying home or voting third party next year.”

“I think it’s the first time that Palestinian human rights might emerge as a voting issue,” said Waleed Shahid, a former spokesperson for Justice Democrats, the progressive political action committee. 

But legal restrictions have long prevented some of the country’s largest pro-Palestinian advocacy groups from making that case directly to lawmakers. Tax-exempt nonprofits can seek to educate lawmakers, and endorse specific bills, but they can’t donate to support friendly politicians or threaten to tell members not to vote for hostile ones.

Iman Abid-Thompson, advocacy director for the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, said her organization had chafed under this limitation.

“Many members of congress are listening to not only people who care about an issue, but people who will turn out and vote for them,” she said. “We knew whatever it is that we were advocating for had to have some kind of leverage behind it.”

Beth Miller, political director of JVP, said that her organization had similarly chosen to engage in electoral politics in order to more “directly shift the political calculus” for elected officials.

“The increasing number of PACs that focus primarily on Palestinian rights, and the inclusion of Palestinian rights on the agenda of an ever-widening set of other progressive electoral organizations, shows that complicity in Israeli apartheid is a right-wing agenda,” Miller said in a text message.

Shift in voter views

As political spending related to Israel has heated up in recent years, the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights is only the latest group to enter the fray.

For many years, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and other pro-Israel lobbying groups did not directly endorse or donate to candidates, instead directing supporters to make individual donations or funnel contributions through independent political action committees.

That changed two years ago, when AIPAC created a super PAC. The group spent roughly $30 million during the 2022 primaries, mostly focused on defeating progressive Democrats in primary battles, and Slate reported that they may spend as much as $100 million during the current election cycle.

I think it’s the first time that Palestinian human rights might emerge as a voting issue.

AIPAC’s work has been boosted by Democratic Majority for Israel, a political spending group founded in 2019, which has spent millions against Democratic candidates and officials who are critical of Israel.

An AIPAC spokesperson declined to comment on the creation of USCPR Action.

Israel’s supporters have ramped up political spending as support for the country has eroded among some voters. For the first time this year, Democratic voters expressed more support for Palestinians than Israelis by about 10 percentage points. That was a dramatic swing from as recently as 2016, when they were 30% more sympathetic to Israelis.

Meanwhile, young voters have turned against both Biden and Israel in recent weeks. A poll released earlier this week showed that, among voters ages 18 to 29, 74% believe that Israel is not doing enough to protect civilians in Gaza and 67% believe it should immediately end its military campaign.

Shahid said that the current war in Gaza could represent the kind of political sea change that took place around gun control following the Sandy Hook and Parkland High school shootings, incidents that prompted the creation and growth of groups like Everytown for Gun Safety and March for Our Lives.

“We’re seeing the Palestinian human rights movement move toward slowly building that political infrastructure,” Shahid said.

Not competing on spending

Political groups opposed to Israel’s policies toward Palestinians have not been able to match the sums raised by AIPAC and similar organizations. J Street, a liberal pro-Israel group, spent nearly $6 million during the 2022 cycle, according to Open Secrets. J Street donates almost exclusively to Democrats, and has condemned AIPAC for backing Republicans who supported overturning the 2020 election. But the two groups also endorse many of the same candidates, and both support a Jewish state in Israel. 

USCPR Action will join a small but growing number of pro-Palestinian groups that support the boycott movement against Israel and an end to U.S. military aid for the country with political wings, either PACs, which focus on donating directly to candidates, or special nonprofit entities that are allowed to endorse candidates and spend on their behalf but have more restrictions than PACs. USCPR Action is not a PAC. Jewish Voice for Peace launched a political action arm called JVP Action in 2019; American Muslims for Palestine created AJP Action in 2021 and organizes an annual Palestinian Advocacy Day on Capitol Hill where supporters call on lawmakers to crack down on Israeli settlements and protect Palestinian Americans traveling in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza.

IfNotNow, a progressive Jewish group, also has a political action arm but does not have an official position on Zionism or the boycott movement.

USCPR was founded as a coalition of pro-Palestinian organizations, though it now operates as an independent organization. Its current campaigns include ones focused on ending U.S. military funding for Israel and defending the right to boycott Israel.

Abid-Thompson acknowledged that USCPR Action would not seek to compete with AIPAC and other pro-Israel groups when it came to political contributions. “That’s not going to happen,” she said.

But she does hope that the new political operation can serve as an educational resource for individuals and other progressive groups around the country that may want to know more about where candidates stand on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“This issue is going to weigh in on people’s hearts when they show up at the ballot,” she said.

This article was originally published on the Forward.

Arno Rosenfeld
Arno Rosenfeld

Arno Rosenfeld is a reporter at the Forward. He is a former J. intern and has worked as a correspondent for JTA and The Times of Israel.