Biden tries to navigate the Israel-Hamas war protests roiling college campuses

NEW YORK — Student protests over the war in Gaza have created a new and unpredictable challenge for President Joe Biden as he resists calls to cut U.S. support for Israel as he tries to hold together the coalition of voters he needs for re-election .

The protests at Columbia University in New York and other campuses have drawn global media attention and renewed questions about Biden’s lagging support from young voters. His handling of the Middle East conflict is also being closely watched by both Jewish and Arab-American voters in key swing states.

At best for Biden, the protests are a passing distraction while the White House continues negotiations for a ceasefire and the release of hostages held by Hamas, while at the same time pushing Israel to increase its casualty count limit more than 34,000 Palestinian deaths. At worst, they build momentum heading into the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in August, potentially setting off scenes of violence that could recall the unrest of the anti-Vietnam War protests at the party’s convention there. 1968.

“If it ends with Columbia, that’s one thing,” said Angus Johnston, a historian who focuses on campus activism. “If this sends the national student movement to a new place, that’s a very different situation.”

Biden’s aides have already had to work to minimize disruptions by anti-war protesters, host smaller campaign events and tightly control access. Protesters forced his motorcade to change routes toward the Capitol on the way to the State of the Union, and they threw a red substance meant to symbolize blood near his home in Delaware.

The president could face more confrontations with students this spring. Morehouse College said Tuesday that Biden would appear on the iconic historically black campus in May.

More than a hundred pro-Palestinian protesters camped in Columbia were arrested Thursday, while dozens more were arrested on other campuses. Many are now charged with trespassing or disorderly conduct. The protesters have demanded that their universities condemn Israel’s attack on Gaza following the October 7 Hamas attack and divest companies that do business with Israel.

Some people have reported anti-Semitic chants and messages on and around Columbia’s campus, and similar concerns have been reported at other universities. Some Jewish students say they have felt unsafe on campus. The White House in a message Sunday marking the Passover holiday denounced what it called an “alarming surge” of anti-Semitism, saying it “has absolutely no place on college campuses, or anywhere else in our country.”

Four Jewish Democratic congressmen toured Columbia’s locked-down campus Monday with members of the school’s Jewish Law Students Association. They decried that things had escalated to the point where Jewish students felt unsafe and that the university canceled in-person classes on Monday. Columbia said it would use hybrid remote and in-person learning through the end of the spring term.

Rep. Kathy Manning of North Carolina called on the Departments of Education and Justice to work with the White House “to ensure that all universities take the necessary steps to keep Jewish students and faculty safe.”

“This discrimination is simply unacceptable and cannot be allowed to continue,” she said.

Biden on Monday sought the same middle ground he has used for months, supporting Israel’s military operations with arms deliveries while also pushing Israel to limit civilian casualties and increase humanitarian aid in Gaza, where the United Nations says there is a famine threatens. .

“I condemn the anti-Semitic protests,” the president said at an Earth Day event. He then added: “I also condemn those who do not understand what is happening to the Palestinians.”

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, a high-profile progressive who represents parts of the Bronx and Queens, spoke for Biden at the same event. She said it was “important that we remember the power of young people who are shaping this country” and praised “the leadership of those peaceful, student-led protests.”

Former President Donald Trump, Biden’s presumptive Republican opponent in November, pointed to headlines and images coming out of Columbia to shift attention from his criminal hush-money trial in New York, telling reporters at the courthouse Tuesday that Biden bears the blame. of the unrest.

“If this were me, you’d be after me. You’d be right after me,” he said. ‘But they’re trying to release him. But what’s going on is an embarrassment to our country, and it’s all Biden’s fault and everyone knows it.”

In a sign of the political potency of the situation in Columbia, Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson planned to visit the school Wednesday and meet with Jewish students.

Joel Rubin, a former State Department official and Democratic strategist who spent years working in Jewish politics, rejected critics who blamed Biden “for everything that went wrong” but said the president ” argument should be made as to why the policy is the right one’. and let the chips fall where they may.”

“If it were purely about politics and polling, it would be very difficult,” Rubin said. “But I think Biden is making these decisions based on national security.”

Biden graduated from Syracuse Law School in 1968, sidestepping the campus convulsions caused by the Vietnam War. Twenty years later, he distanced himself from that protest movement during his first bid for president.

“I was married, I was in law school, I wore sport coats,” Biden said in 1987. “You’re looking at a middle-class man. I am who I am. I’m not really into body armor and tie-dye shirts. You know, I’m not.’

Biden has been endorsed by many leading youth activist organizations this year and has also built his campaign around key social issues — such as defending abortion rights, fighting climate change and canceling student debt for millions of people — that they believe will appeal to voters under 30 , who are more likely to vote, can provide energy. to be concerned about the president’s approach to Gaza.

He was in Florida on Tuesday to capitalize on momentum against nationwide abortion restrictions and to criticize a soon-to-take state law that bans abortions after six weeks, before many women know they are pregnant. A day earlier, Vice President Kamala Harris held an event to promote abortion rights in the swing state of Wisconsin.

Safia Southey, a 25-year-old Columbia law student who is Jewish, has been participating in the protest since Thursday and has been sleeping in the encampment on the university’s quad. She believes the outrage over the war will hurt Biden’s chances against Trump because staunch supporters of Israel are more likely to support the presumptive Republican nominee.

“I think Biden has tried to be very strategic, but it has backfired in many ways,” she said.

However, Southey said she will vote for Biden “pretty much anyway” in a matchup against Trump.

“The students who are angry, especially at these types of universities, are smart enough not to stay home,” she said. “I think they will vote and go for the most strategic option, even if they are not happy for Biden. I think they would do everything they can to ensure that Trump does not come into power.”

Democratic pollster Cornell Belcher was skeptical that campus demonstrations over Gaza would prove politically influential.

“What percentage of Americans are actually in these small spaces, and how representative are they of a broader American audience, or even a broader youth audience?” he asked.

Johnston, the historian of student activism, said today’s protests do not approach the size or intensity of demonstrations in the 1960s, when school officials were taken hostage and campuses were vandalized.

But over the years, he said, “there have been many moments when student protests have shaped the national debate.”


Weissert and Megerian reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Jill Colvin in New York contributed to this report.