Five Players in the Campus Protest Showdown

By | May 06, 2024
JPP 5.6.24

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1. Joe Biden: Tragic Hero

As student protests spread across the country in the last few weeks, it became clear that this was way more than merely a nuisance for Jewish students and a headache for college administrators. President Joe Biden began to realize that his administration is facing a defining moment—and yes, once again, it is about Israel.

An old-time Democrat, Joe Biden is truly struggling to balance two values that now seem to be in conflict: protecting freedom of speech and countering antisemitism. (One important caveat: After spending some time at two pro-Palestinian encampments and watching endless posts from others, I must note that while antisemitic comments and signs have been present at too many of these protests, they are not the main driving force or theme.)

Initially, Biden tried to avoid confronting the issue. The White House press shop and Biden himself stuck to brief statements expressing both care for free speech and concern over antisemitism and violence, but on Thursday, as tensions boiled over, Biden made a brief, unscheduled speech, in which he stressed that “order must prevail” and that while “dissent is essential for democracy,” it is important to remember that “dissent must never lead to disorder.” He went on to make clear that “there should be no place on any campus, no place in America for antisemitism or threats of violence against Jewish students.”

Biden is feeling the heat. Campus protests are threatening to upend his policy, his politics and his reelection strategy.

When asked by reporters if the protests will make him change course on the Middle East, the president responded with a curt “no.” But the Biden administration’s policy is based, even now,  on the premise that embracing Israel at a time of war is not only the right thing to do but also the only way of influencing Benjamin Netanyahu to adhere to American requests. The protesting students, through their broad spectrum of demands and complaints, are telling Biden: This strategy has failed. It’s time to pressure Israel, and if that doesn’t work, it’s time to reconsider America’s support. 

Does Biden have to listen to them? Of course not. But he is also well aware that this is no longer a bunch of radicals on the campus quad. It is a nationwide movement that has succeeded in capturing the attention of the American people and is dominating the news cycle. Policy without public support is doomed to fail.

And this is where the politics part of the equation comes into play. Angry students and their progressive supporters are only one part of the Democratic base. Biden’s grip on the party relies on the other, bigger group, that of centrist activists and donors who may support putting some pressure on Israel but who view campus events as a danger to their lives (especially those with Jewish kids in college) and to the academic institutions which they support morally and financially. 

And then there’s the upcoming election. At any other time, Biden would have the luxury of taking his time, waiting for tensions in the Middle East to ease, and then dealing patiently with progressive dissent. But the election clock is ticking and this added sense of urgency is forcing Biden into a corner with no good options. He can either lean in forcefully in favor of students’ right to protest, but then risk losing his base, or stick to his guns on supporting Israel and protecting Jewish students, and then see these protests sink his campaign. 

Biden has only one way out: ending the Gaza war.

2. Progressive Democrats: Playing Catch-up

Calls coming from college campuses across the nation echo many of progressive Democrats’ ideas and demands. For the first time ever, the far-left views on America’s relationship with Israel are making it to the front pages of major newspapers and are leading the news coverage.

Prominent members of the progressive bloc, including Ilhan Omar (whose daughter was suspended from Barnard because of her role in the protests) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, visited the Columbia University pro-Palestinian encampment to show their support, while other members of Congress, including Jamaal Bowman and Rashida Tlaib, spoke out against the university’s decision to evict the demonstrators. 

But this moment in history is not theirs. While progressive and far-left politicians have consistently spoken out in favor of Palestinian rights and have called on the administration to pressure the Netanyahu government, eventually it was the keffiyeh-clad students who caught the world’s attention and who are leading the movement.

The politicians were pushed out of the limelight. For some, it may have been preferable because they felt uneasy with the troubling antisemitic undertones that became, in some cases, part of the campus struggle. For others it was simply because the protesters didn’t seem to need their help.

Either way, there’s a wave out there that corresponds with many of the goals and demands of the Democratic Party’s left-wing, but the politicians representing these views still haven’t found a way to ride it.

3. The GOP’s Favorite Villain

Politically speaking, college protests have been a godsend to Republicans. 

Even in their wildest dreams they couldn’t have imagined the stars aligning so perfectly: an anti-Israel wave taking over college campuses, driving Jewish students into a state of fear, putting university leaders in a state of shock, and tearing apart the Democratic support base.

Republicans have been presented with a rare opportunity here: They get to rebrand themselves as the party of Jewish defenders and as the leaders in the battle to combat antisemitism (neo-Nazis and white supremacists storming the Capitol? Kanye West and Nick Fuentes at Mar-a-Lago? Who can even remember them now?)

And Republicans get to take aim at some of their favorite targets: Democratic leftists, who the GOP loves to depict as leading Biden by the nose, and their most precious enemy—elite college presidents and trustees. 

House Speaker Mike Johnson left Capitol Hill to visit Columbia and to meet with Jewish students. Virginia Foxx, chair of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, announced she will hold more of her blockbuster hearings with university presidents, and Rep. Elise Stefanik was quick to call on Columbia’s president, Minouche Shafik, to resign and to call on the administration to cut government funding to the institution.

In an impressive show of force, especially given the fractured state of the House Republican caucus, GOP lawmakers put forward a bundle of legislative moves, congressional hearings and press statements aimed at fighting antisemitism on college campuses while the Democrats got bogged down by nuanced and balanced messaging.

4. Pro-Israel Activists Seize the Moment

Last Wednesday, right after police in New York dispersed the students barricaded in Columbia University’s Hamilton Hall and as clashes with local police forces spread to campuses across the nation, the House of Representatives approved the Antisemitism Awareness Act. The bill’s sole practical significance is that it may broaden the Department of Education’s ability to go after universities at which Jewish students are being discriminated against. It does so by expanding the definition of antisemitism to include certain forms of anti-Zionism and of anti-Israel expressions.

And this is exactly where this small bill contains a huge controversy.

The legislation adopts the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, which has been seen by many pro-Israel advocates as a necessary update to the concept of antisemitism, since it views delegitimization of the Jewish state as a form of Jew-hatred. Critics, mainly from the left, had been warning that the IHRA definition will serve as an excuse to shut down any criticism of Israel.

When you hear ‘From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,’ that is calling for the eradication of Jews and the State of Israel,” said Republican congressman Mike Lawler, the bill’s coauthor, in explaining why he believed it was needed. 

The IHRA definition of antisemitism, though vague, could render the “river to the sea” chant enough to launch a government investigation into the university’s conduct. 

The bill was approved by a huge majority: 320 to 91. And here’s where the crisis turned into an opportunity: Among those 320 supporters were 133 House Democrats. Only 70 Democrats voted against it.

Under normal circumstances, Democrats would do everything in their power to fight this bill, which, if passed by the Senate, could lead to stifling the debate over Israel and to penalizing academic institutions for allowing scholars and students to voice views critical of Israel. But at this specific moment in history, when protests have reached their extreme and when Jewish students and communal activists are turning to Congress for help, Democrats couldn’t say no.

5. Student Protesters: Holding the Key

So what does the future look like? Much of it is in the hands of our final player: the protesting students.

In a couple of weeks, most colleges will be done with their academic year and with commencement ceremonies. The campuses will be empty, dorm rooms will be cleared, and it will be up to the protesters to decide what happens next. Many vow to stay on and maintain their encampments, no matter what. Realistically, that’s not likely to happen. 

Their challenge will be keeping the movement alive by shifting the protest from college campuses to the public arena. It can take the form of sit-ins, of mass protests in large cities or of disruption of political gatherings—including the Democratic National Convention in Chicago—and other events.

But this will require cooperating with political and civic organizations and transforming an organic campus uprising into a national movement. 

And most of all, it will require getting the masses behind the movement. Right now, at least, it is hard to see these masses emerging. The pool of motivated ultra-progressives willing to take on the anti-Israel cause seems limited, but much will depend on the circumstances. A cease-fire on the ground would change the dynamic. It would make it easier for Biden to advance his agenda and harder for protesters to claim there is an ongoing genocide in Gaza. That is where all hopes converge: those of many Israelis who want to see a hostage release deal that includes some form of ending the fighting, those of many Palestinians in Gaza desperately in need of assistance, and the hopes of Biden and centrist Democrats who need the war to end in order to show the world, and show far-left voters, that America is in control of the situation and that this situation is about to improve. 

Top Image: Gage Skidmore (CC BY-SA 2.0) / Wikimedia Commons

One thought on “Five Players in the Campus Protest Showdown

  1. Devi Eden says:

    I think you are missing the one huge elephant in the room – that these “student” protests have been significantly funded, organized, attended by, mentored, and supported by non-student outside funds and extremist organizations – Muslim Brotherhood, Qatar, Hamas and other extremist Muslim players. At least 2 nation-wide “student” groups (SJP and the other Palestinian campus group (?)..) have received “toolkits” and instructions regarding the hows and wheres to set up their encampments, what to bring (hammers, ropes, crowbars, bolt cutters), how to not get caught, how to recruit other naive students (including naive Jewish students, LGBQ students, Native Americans, African Americans, etc), to their supposed left-ish looking cause, which we know is not leftist at all, but is antisemitic and much closer to fascist. These toolkits include instructions regarding how to intimidate, bully, coerce, disrupt, shut down, and otherwise use/abuse our western values and ‘freedom of speech” laws against us to shut down speech, shut down our educational systems and force further isolation of Israel through boycots, divestments and sanctions. These are orchestrated, timed, and coordinated very carefully with the activities of Hamas in Gaza and other of Iran’s proxies, distract from Iran’s nuclear weapons program, which has accelerated at a much higher pace of R&D since Oct. 7. The west is in danger and these so-called “student” protests are just another distraction…

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