College campus protests highlight tensions in Biden’s coalition

President Joe Biden’s hopes of recreating the coalition that lifted him to office in 2020 are coming under threat as the protest movement against Israel’s war in Gaza spreads across college campuses.

Pro-Israel Democrats are now pushing the president to respond more forcefully to antisemitic incidents at colleges and universities, echoing calls from Republicans, including former President Donald Trump, who have cast the increasingly combative demonstrations as a mark of incompetence inside the White House.

For months, Democrats on Capitol Hill and in the highest echelons of the party have approached the conflict in Gaza with relative caution, but as the protest encampments dig in, college officials weigh canceling commencement ceremonies and Republicans ratchet up their attacks, Biden’s work to hold together a united front are fraying.

The White House and congressional leaders seemed to embrace a new, tougher tact Tuesday when discussing the overnight occupation of an academic building by protesters at Columbia University.

A demonstrator breaks the windows of the front door of Hamilton Hall at Columbia University in New York City on April 30, 2024. - Alex Kent/Getty Images
A demonstrator breaks the windows of the front door of Hamilton Hall at Columbia University in New York City on April 30, 2024. - Alex Kent/Getty Images

“President Biden respects the right to free expression, but protests must be peaceful and lawful. Forcibly taking over buildings is not peaceful – it is wrong,” White House deputy press secretary Andrew Bates said, adding that the president “condemns the use of the term ‘intifada,’ as he has the other tragic and dangerous hate speech displayed in recent days.”

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer also denounced the protesters at Columbia, suggesting that the demonstrations were poised to “veer into criminality.”

“Smashing windows with hammers, taking over university buildings is not free speech,” the New York Democrat said. “It is lawlessness and those who did it should promptly face the consequences that are not merely a slap on the wrist.”

The administration’s shift in tone, though, is unlikely to quiet the calls for Biden to take a heavier hand with the protesters. But it could further risk the president’s standing among younger voters, who, according to recent polls, overwhelmingly disapprove of his handling of the war.

Also Tuesday, the College Democrats of America – a mainstream, Biden-backing organization – put in its lot with the campus protesters, many of whom are Jewish themselves. It praised the “bravery” of students willing to endure arrest and suspension “to stand up for the rights and dignity of the Palestinian people.”

While the group reiterated its support for Biden and other Democrats in the coming election, it also issued a warning to the president’s campaign.

“Each day that Democrats fail to stand united for a permanent ceasefire, two-state solution, and recognition of a Palestinian state, more and more youth find themselves disillusioned with the party,” the College Democrats wrote.

Escalating tensions

On Monday, before protesters at Columbia took over the school building, nearly two-dozen House Democrats issued an ultimatum to members of the university board: Clear the protest encampments or step down.

The pro-Palestinian activists who occupied Hamilton Hall at Columbia said they had “liberated” it in honor of a young Palestinian child, Hind Rajab, who was killed alongside her family in late January during the Israeli military offensive in Gaza City.

Outside on Tuesday, students chanted, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” and “Palestine will live forever,” video obtained by CNN shows. Protesters also displayed banners from a window reading “Intifada,” the Arabic word for an uprising, and “Hind’s Hall,” according to video.

Republicans have moved quickly to message around the latest developments. House Speaker Mike Johnson said at a news conference Tuesday that Republicans would “hold these universities accountable for their failure to protect Jewish students on campus.”

“We need moral clarity on the issue,” Johnson previously told reporters. “We need everyone from the president on down to speak out about this and say that it is clearly wrong and Jewish students aren’t second-class citizens and they can attend class just like everyone else.”

Unlike the Democrats, GOP officials have been in lock step denouncing the protests and related efforts to curb Israel’s military campaign, which has killed more than 34,000 people in Gaza, according to the enclave’s health ministry. Trump, the party’s presumptive 2024 nominee, has gone so far as to claim that Jewish Democrats, who include critics of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government, “hate their religion,” and he has sought to yoke Biden to the least savory characters in the college protest hubs.

“Nobody knows where the US stands right now. I think Biden is not on the side of Israel, and he’s making a tremendous mistake. You have to clean up the terror that we witnessed on October 7,” Trump said in a phone interview with Fox News Tuesday.

The GOP also plans to put the spotlight on Democrats with a planned vote Wednesday on the Antisemitism Awareness Act, a bill introduced by GOP Rep. Mike Lawler, a swing-district freshman from the New York suburbs. The legislation has Democratic co-sponsors but uses a definition for antisemitism – tying it to support for Israel – rejected by many party moderates, progressives, and Jewish advocates. It is expected to pass the chamber, though, and likely to become a political wedge come November.

The back-and-forth among Democrats heated up last week, when Florida Rep. Jared Moskowitz responded to a statement from Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders condemning Democratic leadership’s decision not to bring up for a vote his amendment “to end offensive military aid to Netanyahu’s war machine.” Moskowitz, in a social media post, suggested Sanders was evading a more important issue.

“Bernie, now do AntiSemitism,” Moskowitz wrote. “Why so quiet?”

The next day, New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who has been bird-dogged by some left-wing activists for not taking a hard-enough line against Israel, came to Sanders’ defense.

“Sen. Sanders’ family was killed in the Holocaust,” Ocasio-Cortez wrote on social media. “He dedicates his every moment to realizing tikkun olam. His commitment to protecting innocents in Gaza stems FROM his Jewish values. He and many other Jewish leaders deserve better than to be treated this way. This is shameful.”

Moskowitz responded by relaying his own family’s ordeal during the Holocaust and pointing to his votes for aid to Israel and Gaza.

“We see each other at work,” he then told Ocasio-Cortez, “we are both better than doing this here” on social media.

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1968 redux?

In their letter Monday to Columbia University’s board of trustees, Reps. Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey and Dan Goldman of New York, along with nearly two dozen other Democratic co-signers, exhorted the school, whose president has already called in the New York Police Department to disperse demonstrators, to immediately “disband the encampment.” (The NYPD’s first effort failed, and the scenes from campus provided rocket fuel for further, nationwide protests.)

Parallels between the current, increasingly hostile stand-off between Democratic leaders and activists and the antiwar movement of the 1960s – or, more recently, Occupy Wall Street – are easy to find. Especially in the rhetoric used by Republicans to capitalize on the tumult, as Richard Nixon did in 1968 when he called for “law and order” over the forces of anarchy and what the right then called the “lunatic fringe.”

In one sense, there is an unlikely degree of unity among Democratic officials for supporting Israel – at least within official Washington, which has largely coalesced in backing Netanyahu’s stated mission of dismantling the terror group Hamas, which killed at least 1,200 Israelis on October 7. Progressive leaders in the Senate, most notably Sanders and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, have been critical of Israel’s tactics in Gaza and the fuzzy parameters around US aid but have not sought to bring all the demands of the protest movement to the national stage.

With few exceptions, the driving forces behind the movement within the Democratic Party to defeat corporate-friendly centrists and moderates in primaries have appeared squeamish about the prospect of loudly defying the White House or being seen to endorse the growing demonstrations.

One longtime progressive strategist, who has worked with outside-the-party movements and high-profile Democratic campaigns alike, told CNN there was “a pretty significant disconnect” between the progressive base and like-minded elected officials.

“Even the Biden people who think the progressive base will come around no matter what do think ‘We have to worry about Bernie,’ or ‘We have to care about Warren,” the strategist said. “But (Sanders and Warren) are not going to the White House and saying, ‘You really got to do something about this.’”

Both Sanders and Warren announced their support for a ceasefire after initially hesitating. Members of the House “squad” of progressive lawmakers were more aggressive in pushing for peace, but the largely bipartisan support for Israel’s initial incursion mostly drowned them out.

On CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday, Sanders pushed back fiercely against claims – from members of both parties – that the protests are antisemitic by definition and repeatedly pointed to the facts on the ground in Gaza to push for new checks on US military aid to the Netanyahu government.

Asked whether he was comfortable with Jewish student supporters of Israel being called “pro-genocide,” Sanders – a Jewish man whose father’s family was killed in the Holocaust – sought to keep the focus on the actions of the Israeli government.

“I think the word genocide is something that is being determined by the International Court of Justice,” he said. “But this is what I will say: I don’t think there’s any doubt that what Netanyahu is doing now, displacing 80% of the population in Gaza, is ethnic cleansing. That’s what it is.”

Among the demonstrators, this is often viewed as a distinction – whether agreed upon or not – that blurs the bigger picture: specifically, that Israel is breaking international law by what its critics see as attempts to either annihilate, through death and destruction, or completely marginalize the Palestinian population in occupied land.

The Biden administration, along with his campaign, have painted a very different picture. In their view, Israel’s ground war in Gaza is a reasonable response to the carnage of October 7. Like nearly every other major elected official, Biden and his allies – including Sanders – have said that Israel has the right to protect itself.

More than 250 former staffers from the Obama-Biden administration implored the White House Tuesday to call for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza. Two people who signed the letter, which was first reported by the Huffington Post, provided it to CNN.

Democrats’ dilemma

Biden has sought, when he addresses the issue, to take the air out of the campus protest controversy and Republican efforts to use the demonstrations as an election-year cudgel.

Asked by reporters last week about the demonstrations, Biden said, “I condemn the antisemitic protests; that’s why I’ve set up a program to deal with that,” before adding, “I also condemn those who don’t understand what’s going on with the Palestinians.”

On Sunday, Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, who’s been critical of the civilian deaths and destruction in Gaza and has expressed openness to conditioning aid to the Israeli government, sought to disentangle the two issues.

“We should all speak out when protest crosses the line, when it becomes violent or when there’s hate speech. But 95% of the young people who are on these campuses are there because they believe there is a fundamental injustice being perpetrated in Israel,” Murphy said on Fox News. “We also have a history of overnight, multiday protests in this country. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with protecting the ability of peaceful protests to last beyond a handful of hours.”

Republicans have been less inclined to sort through the details.

Days earlier, New York Rep. Elise Stefanik, the fourth-ranking House Republican and a top GOP fundraiser, called on the Biden administration to begin an unprecedented crackdown on protesters, asserting that “anarchy has engulfed the (Columbia University) campus.”

“By allowing this support for terror to continue, this wicked ideology is able to spread,” Stefanik wrote. “I demand that you enforce existing law to revoke the visas and deport students here on visas who are suspended for their antisemitic actions.”

This story has been updated with additional developments.

CNN’s Donald Judd, Kevin Liptak, Annie Grayer, Kate Sullivan and Jeff Zeleny contributed to this report.

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