A cold, steady rain fell on hundreds of anti-war activists who took to the streets in Baltimore on the evening of Oct. 20, chanting “Free, Free Palestine!“ and “Hey, hey, ho, ho, the occupation has got to go!” as they demanded a ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas War.
Activists rallied at City Hall before shutting down traffic from Pratt to President Street to express outrage at the US-backed Israeli assault on the Gaza Strip, a small, densely-packed sliver of land on the eastern Mediterranean that’s home to over 2 million Palestinians.
“I’ve never been more proud of being a Baltimorean or an American to see how much everyone is opening their eyes and seeing the truth about what’s going on overseas,” Noor, a Palestinian-American, told Baltimore Beat as he waved a large, red, white, black, and green Palestinian flag. He, like other Palestinian activists, declined to provide their last name, citing fear of harassment by Israeli occupation forces.
Hamas, a Palestinian political and military organization that controls Gaza, launched a brazen cross-border attack on Oct. 7 killing 1,400 Israelis, the majority of them civilians. Hamas continues to hold an estimated 230 Israeli hostages. In response, Israel launched an unprecedented retaliatory bombing and artillery campaign on Gaza, killing over 3,800 Palestinians by Oct. 20 — a death toll that had nearly doubled a week later when Baltimore Beat went to print. Local authorities say Israel’s assault on Gaza has bombed churches, schools, and hospitals, and damaged or destroyed 40 percent of the homes. The US deployed an aircraft carrier group and 900 troops to the region amid growing fear the conflict will spread.
Many of the people protesting on behalf of Palestinians have been clear that they are not antisemitic. They said that they oppose the killing of innocents, and noted Palestinians lack a standing army and are defenseless against Israel’s onslaught. On Oct 28, as Israel cut electricity and internet access and unleashed a massive bombing campaign on Gaza ahead of a ground invasion, hundreds of mostly Jewish protestors were arrested at a protest at Grand Central Station in New York City organized by the group Jewish Voice for Peace. Over the last few weeks, actions were held on 100 college campuses and in cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, and Washington DC.
Critics say Israel’s overwhelming military response — which includes dropping 6,000 bombs on Gaza in the first six days of the conflict alone — amounts to collective punishment against a population living in what human rights groups call the “world’s largest open-air prison.” The United Nations has warned of a dire humanitarian catastrophe after Israel cut access to food, medicine, water, electricity, and humanitarian assistance, and ordered the evacuation of one million Gaza residents from the north.
At the Baltimore march, speakers also criticized U.S. President Joe Biden and Democratic officials for their ongoing support of Israel’s military assault. Israel has the best equipped and trained military in the Middle East, receiving $3.8 billion a year in military aid from the U.S. Along with defending its attack on Gaza, Biden has proposed sending an additional $16 billion to its Middle East ally.
“We are going beyond calling for a ceasefire,” Rachel Viqueira of the Party of Socialism and Liberation (PSL), which co-organized the rally, told Baltimore Beat. “We’re calling for an end to apartheid in occupied Palestine. We’re calling for an end to genocide in Palestine, and we’re calling for the U.S. to end all funding that they sent to Israel to implement that apartheid.”
Apartheid was the term coined for white South Africa’s brutal system of institutional segregation and discrimination of its native Black population. The term has also been used to describe Israel’s five-decade brutal military occupation of Palestinians, enforced by suppressing nonviolent protests and confining their populations into scattered enclaves using Palestinian-only roads and military checkpoints.
Young, local Jewish activists have played a central role in opposing Israel’s assault on Gaza, challenging the narrative equating criticism of Israel with antisemitism.
“I’m here to say that my Jewish identity is not synonymous with Israel,” Anna, who declined to share her last name citing previous threats against her family for their activism, told the crowd assembled at City Hall.
Two days before attending the rally in Baltimore, Anna was arrested at the U.S. Capitol, alongside hundreds of other Jews — including dozens from Baltimore — in a protest led by rabbis decrying what they called Israel’s “genocide” against Palestinians.
Along with the mounting death toll in Gaza, they cited Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, which is considered a violation of international law. With US support, over half a million Israeli settlers have moved into what the international community recognizes as the future home of Palestinian state, seizing Palestinian lands and destroying their communities.
“Israel is an apartheid state that has been explicit about segregating, dehumanizing and ending Palestinian life for decades,” Anna said. A 2021 survey found 25 percent of U.S. Jews — including a third of people under age 40 — consider Israel an apartheid state.
“To witness the same hateful, dehumanizing strategies used on Jews in Europe for hundreds of years now employed against our siblings and Palestine is despicable. I grieve for my people for our past, our present, and our uncertain safety in the future. And none of that will ever justify what we have seen play out over the last few weeks or decades in Gaza,” Anna said.
Organizers highlighted the longstanding solidarity between Palestinians and Black Lives Matter. In Baltimore, activists have also likened the systemic oppression and violence Black Baltimore residents face to apartheid.
“Palestinians have always stood with Americans against racial oppression, specifically Black Americans against police brutality,” said Viqueira. “Palestinians were tweeting at us telling us here’s how you can get tear gas out of your eyes,” she said.
There are growing attempts to suppress the expression of solidarity with Palestinians. Pro-Israel groups have “forced the cancellation of major conferences, prompted demands for the dismissal of workers who express support for Palestinians and led to intimidation campaigns against Arab American voices critical of Israeli policies,” The Guardian recently reported.
Despite the repression, political organizers like Sammy, a member of the Palestinian Youth Movement, a transnational, independent, and grassroots movement of Palestinian and Arab youth, noted a shifting public opinion and growing awareness of the reality of the conflict.
“In my lifetime, I’ve never seen this much open support for Palestine, and this much advancement of the Palestinian cause, in terms of the way people are speaking openly about supporting Palestinians,” he said.