ST. LOUIS, Missouri — Early one November morning, nearly one hundred protesters met at the foot of the steps of the federal courthouse downtown to protest Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip. Hundreds more protesters shut down a West County street that afternoon.
Later that evening, another one hundred people or so wound through the city’s Cortex Innovation District, drumming and chanting slogans.
There, 33-year-old Ahlam Jaber looked around of Madison County, had been involved in the movement for Palestinian statehood for about a decade; but never before had she seen St. Louisans show up in such numbers for the cause.
“People get tired. I’m tired,” Jaber stated. “We’re grad students. We’re working. We’re moms; we’re dads. We’re tired. But we’re showing up — and we’re showing up in pretty large numbers, for St. Louis.”
Hundreds rallied across St. Louis, demanding an immediate cease-fire and an end to U.S. support for Israel’s shelling of Gaza.
Some weeks have seen protests almost every other day in the Gateway City; at least one march drew more than 1,000 protesters. Researchers and activists say there have been unprecedented turnouts, driven by a mix of factors: the 24-hour news cycle, omnipresent social media, and the high death toll of both Israelis and Palestinians — not seen in decades. But the gatherings have also been driven by changes in how people protest, both here and across the country, and changing views of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict itself.
“What’s remarkable here is both the scope and the persistence of these protests on the pro-Palestinian side and the fact that that continues to grow,” mused Harvard University political scientist Jay Ulfelder, whose job it is to track protests. “And what seems to be driving that is this visceral reaction to the deaths of thousands of civilians in Gaza.”
International attention on the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict was re-ignited on October 7th of this year, when the militant group Hamas took control of Gaza in 2006, launching an attack on Israel and killing more than 1,200 — taking more than 200 hostages.
Since then, Israel has dropped thousands of bombs on Gaza, flattening entire neighborhoods and killing more than 12,000 Palestinians, including more than 4,000 children, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. More than half of the strip’s 2.3 million people were displaced, and Israel’s siege has cut off basic resources, prompting dire warnings from the United Nations and humanitarian agencies.
St. Louis protesters have been calling for a cease-fire, having marched in downtown St. Louis and Clayton and having staged walkouts at Washington University. Protesters have blocked traffic on Kingshighway in the Central West End, and some closed their businesses or stayed home from work or school to protest. A smaller group of the most dedicated among them have protested a pro-Israel resolution at the St. Louis Board of Aldermen, and temporarily blocked the gates to a Boeing weapons plant in St. Charles.
Protestors say calling for a cease-fire is an urgent act to save Palestinians; they say they’re drawing attention to U.S. involvement, including diplomatic support and billions in military aid for Israel. “This may seem like it’s happening far, far, far away, but it’s being funded by the U.S. government — and that’s money and weaponry,” said 28-year-old protester Sara Bannoura of Maplewood.
The Jewish community has held events here, too. While they have been less frequent, some have drawn hundreds of participants: prayer vigils, gatherings to call for the release of those abducted and charity fundraisers. Some recently traveled to Washington, D.C., to participate in the March for Israel. “There’s this feeling — just a feeling of deep pain,” stated Rori Picker Neiss, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of St. Louis. “For the Jewish community, the world was transformed on October 7th.”
National civil rights groups, in recent weeks, have reported increases in reports of harassment, bias and sometimes physical attacks against Muslim and Jewish people across the country. Local Jewish groups told the Post-Dispatch that members of their community have been harassed. Brian Herstig, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, said some have been afraid to wear the Star of David or don shirts with Hebrew characters on them.
Herstig said he is concerned with actions reported at some of the recent protests here and elsewhere in the U.S. The chant, “from the river to the sea,” has been repeated at Palestinian rallies, which many Jewish groups say equates to a call for Israel’s destruction, wiping Jews from the Jordan River in the east to the Mediterranean Sea in the west.
But protesters here say the phrase is a call for equality for Palestinians in Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank, a Palestinian territory under Israeli occupation.
“Conflating antisemitism and critique of a country, those are very different things,” said Michael Berg, a member of Jewish Voice for Peace, a group of Jewish-American activists supporting Palestinian protests. “People are not protesting because they want anybody hurt. They are protesting because they want justice for Palestinians.”
A Generational Shift
Palestinian protests have filled St. Louis streets before: Amid an Israeli ground offensive in Gaza in 2014, hundreds took to the streets of University City to call for an end to fighting. A couple of weeks later, 600 people gathered in Clayton for competing protest rallies.
In 2018, when the U.S. decided to move its Israeli embassy to Jerusalem, about 100 gathered downtown to oppose the move. In 2020, about 100 people marched downtown to protest Israel’s plans to annex land in the occupied West Bank and U.S. support for the move.
In 2021, marchers rallied in the Central West End and downtown to protest Israeli settlers trying to evict Palestinians from their homes in East Jerusalem, during which Hamas fired rockets at Israel and Israel responded with airstrikes on the Gaza Strip. Hundreds of protesters also gathered outside the Jewish Federation complex to rally in support of Israel.
“Those protests related to racial justice and police brutality had a deep impact on protest culture in the United States, the readiness of people to go out in the streets and the framework of the vocabulary to understand that things are wrong and need to be changed,” said Wendy Pearlman, a Northwestern University professor of Middle East studies who has studied the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “And Palestinian Americans are able to situate the Palestinian struggle and solidarity with Americans in that framework.”
Meanwhile, a generational shift has seen uncritical support for Israel diminish among younger generations compared with their older counterparts. Polls in the past two years by Pew and Gallup have found an increase overall in American support for Israel but greater sympathy for Palestinians and criticism of Israel among younger generations, including young Jewish Americans.
In past decades, many saw Israel as defending itself from attack by Arab state armies, Pearlman said. But after peace treaties with many neighboring states, focus shifted.
“To this generation, Israel is an occupying power over Palestinians,” she said.
‘You Have More Power’
And Palestinian-Americans protesters say they feel more confident in American politics. Most are part of a rising generation whose parents or grandparents came to the U.S. from the region, including U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., elected in 2018 as the first and lone Palestinian American in Congress.
At a public vigil on the Delmar Loop for Palestinian civilians killed in Gaza, Bannoura stood up in front of a crowd of about 200 to tell her story growing up in Bethlehem in the West Bank, where her father, a Christian minister, mother and sister live. At the vigil she found people who understood the pain and anger she’d felt watching Israel’s shelling of Gaza.
“I realized everyone in the crowd had been going through the same thing, stuck at home, alone, watching, crying and grieving in pain and anger,” said Bannoura, who came to study in St. Louis in 2013. “Everybody was going through this alone, and that should not be the case. There is power in community and having a shared voice.”
Three weeks later, Bannoura shared her story again, this time to about 30 people who gathered for a small Shabbat prayer and dinner service organized by a group of young Jewish activists to hold vigil for those killed in Gaza and those killed and taken by Hamas.
She recounted seeing Israeli tanks on the street, neighbors losing loved ones killed in clashes with Israeli settlers or soldiers, needing permits to leave the West Bank, and waiting hours at Israeli checkpoints while armed soldiers searched their car, before they could continue on to visit her grandmother’s village, she said.
Often, requests for permits were denied. Soldiers would harass Palestinians on their way to church or to the mosque, demanding documents.
“It matters more that you hear my voice,” Bannoura told the crowd at the Shabbat prayer and dinner. “The people of Palestine know what is going on. You have more power than I do.”
Yara Alhejoj, 22, of St. Louis County, said her grandparents were among those expelled from Palestinian villages in 1948, and her parents were born in Jordan. As she grew up, she learned about the conflict, and now, with social media widely accessible around the world, she sees other young people learning.
“A lot of the younger generations are appalled — especially that they did not know that our tax money is going to fund the violence,” Alhejoj said.
Steve Tamari, a professor of history at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville is a longtime member of the St. Louis Palestine Solidarity Committee formed around 2008, said the committee has grown over time, especially after protests in Ferguson, in which many people connected the protests for racial justice to the Palestinian cause, in coalition with other activist groups.
“We agreed change is not going to come from the top, it’s going to come from the ground up, and we should point our attention to coalition-building with people who also feel oppressed or marginalized by the system as it is,” Tamari said.
Now the committee has drawn more interest than ever before, Tamari said.
“We never had crowds like this,” said Tamari, whose father was a Palestinian immigrant. “For many of us, it’s a way of not feeling alone.”
Nassim Benchaabane and Annika Merrilees of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch wrote the original version of this article.