College Protests Highlight Differences in Views on Israel Among Democrats

Police load arrested protestors onto buses in front of the CUNY City College of New York in New York City, on May 1, 2024.

Student protests over the ongoing conflict in Gaza have become a difficult issue for President Joe Biden and many Democrats, drawing attention to his Administration’s stance on Israel and highlighting divisions within the party.

The protests, which have erupted on campuses like and UCLA, present a delicate balancing act for Biden as he navigates the complexities of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East while seeking to maintain support from key voting blocs—including young progressives—ahead of his reelection bid in six months.

“We’re divided,” Rep. Jamaal Bowman, a New York progressive, tells TIME of the Democrats. “We have many members of the party who are pro-Israel without qualification, and others who take a more balanced and nuanced approach.”

While the White House has affirmed its commitment to Israel’s security, it has also called for restraint and humanitarian assistance in Gaza, where thousands of Palestinians have been killed. But Biden is yet to publicly endorse calls from progressive lawmakers to cut off U.S. support for Israel or express solidarity with the student protesters calling on his Administration to take a more forceful stance against its military operations in Gaza.

Some prominent progressive lawmakers have noticed. “I think he could say that this is a critically important moment, and people feel very strongly,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a Washington Democrat and chair of the progressive caucus, tells TIME. “They are protesting this war, and they’re protesting the United States’ involvement. And we have a long history of doing that in this country with students on campuses, and I think it would be great if [Biden] lifted up that history, while making sure that people understand that antisemitism is wrong.”

For Biden, there’s no easy political solution. On one side of the Democratic Party are those who advocate for a more assertive stance against Israel’s actions, calling for sanctions and divestment from companies doing business with Israel—some even visiting the pro-Palestine encampments at colleges to show support. On the other side are those who emphasize Israel’s right to defend itself and warn against actions that could strain U.S.-Israel relations.

As pro-Palestininan protests explode at colleges across the nation, Biden has largely stayed quiet about the issue. He is yet to address the protests in a speech and has not given any public remarks in more than a week. “I can understand why he doesn’t want to comment on this,” Jayapal says.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre was pressed repeatedly Wednesday on why Americans haven’t heard from Biden on the protests. “The president is being kept regularly updated on what’s happening,” she said. “He is monitoring the situation closely.”

Protestors block Hamilton Hall as they take over the interior of the building on Columbia University campus during a pro-Palestinian encampment, on April 29, 2024.

In its messaging throughout the Israel-Hamas war, which began when Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, 2023, the Biden Administration has emphasized the need for diplomacy and has continued to provide military aid to Israel, while also expressing concerns about civilian casualties and urging de-escalation. Jean-Pierre added that Americans have the right to peacefully protest, but that “forcibly taking over a building is not peaceful.” Biden’s staff has come out strongly against illegal actions by the student protesters, with a spokesperson last week condemning an organizer of the Columbia protests for having said that “Zionists don’t deserve to live.”

The tensions came to a head at Columbia University and at City College of New York on Tuesday night, where . The NYPD was seen into a building occupied by the anti-war group, which had been demanding that the university condemn Israel’s actions and divest from Israeli-linked companies. Hours later at UCLA, dueling groups of protesters had beat each other with sticks overnight after pro-Israel demonstrators tried to pull down barricades surrounding a pro-Palestinian encampment. Fifteen people were injured and one was hospitalized during the clash, , leading the school to cancel classes.

Reports of antisemitic chants and messages at the protests have raised concerns about , prompting calls for intervention from lawmakers.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a progressive New York Democrat who visited the encampments at Columbia last weekend, tells TIME that it wouldn’t be enough for the Biden Administration to simply express solidarity with the protesters. “It’s not even about solidarity,” she says. “This is about free speech protections… The worst thing that you can do is send in police to violently escalate what is going on.” Chuck Schumer of New York, the top Democrat in the Senate, said Tuesday that “smashing windows with hammers and taking over university buildings is not free speech. It is lawlessness and those who did it should promptly face the consequences that are not merely a slap on the wrist.”

Bowman also says he wants to hear more from Biden on protesters’ rights. “This is America…we are not a police state,” Bowman adds. “We are supposed to be the beacon of liberal values, the beacon of freedom of speech… And so I would love for the President to use his bully pulpit to lean into who we are and the fabric of our country and our democracy.”

“The President believes making your voice heard and participating in our democracy is fundamental to who we are as Americans,” a Biden campaign spokesperson tells TIME. “He shares the goal for an end to the violence and a just, lasting peace in the Middle East. He’s working tirelessly to that end.”

The protests at Columbia and UCLA have become a focal point for political debate, with Republicans seizing on the unrest to criticize Biden’s handling of the crisis. has sought to capitalize on the issue, blaming Biden for the protests and accusing him of weakness on Israel. “What’s going on is a disgrace to our country,” Trump said last week, “and it’s all Biden’s fault and everybody knows it.”

The House voted on Wednesday to pass the bipartisan Antisemitism Awareness Act, which supporters say will help combat antisemitism on college campuses. The legislation would mandate that when the Department of Education enforces federal anti-discrimination laws, it uses a definition of antisemitism put forward by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. Twenty-one Republicans and 70 Democrats voted against the legislation, with many arguing that the definition is overly expansive and could threaten free speech.

How Biden handles the escalating protests could shape the political landscape in the months ahead. His ability to navigate the fault lines within his own party and forge a coherent strategy on Israel-Palestine relations could be crucial in determining his prospects for reelection. If Biden opts for a stronger stance in support of protesters’ rights, he could provide ammunition for Trump and Republicans, who have sought to link the President to campus disorder and lawlessness. But if he doesn’t, he risks alienating key groups of young progressive voters.

Biden’s advisers don’t believe the Israel-Hamas conflict is the main priority for young people in this election. A recent Youth Poll shows that Gaza ranks 15th on the list of top issues facing young voters, well below the economy and immigration. The same poll found that 51% of young Americans support a permanent ceasefire in Gaza.

The Middle East conflict could also hurt Biden politically with other voters, including Muslim Americans, especially in swing states like Michigan where more than 100,000 people in February in protest of the president’s . “Our government isn’t just complicit [in] this genocide, we’re actively participating,” Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a Michigan progressive and the first Palestinian