Democrats split over campus protest crackdown

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Senate Democrats in tough races are calling on college and university presidents to crack down on campus protests that have spun out of control, as images of protesters smashing windows and unfurling Palestinian flags are becoming a political problem for President Biden and his allies.

But leading progressives are defending students’ rights to protest and pushing back against calls for the federal government to intervene on campuses across the country.

“It’s 100 percent unacceptable for Jewish students or any students to be harmed on campus. You’re seeing this at campus after campus that now there’s physical violence,” said Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.), who faces a tough reelection race this fall.

“This is pure, blatant antisemitism and it needs to be stopped. It should not be tolerated,” she added.

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), one of the Senate’s most vulnerable incumbents, said, “We all speak strongly that the antisemitism and hate and violence are not acceptable.”

“The law should be enforced,” he said when asked about protesters who smashed windows and unfurled an “intifada” banner while taking over Hamilton Hall in the middle of Columbia University’s campus.

One Democratic senator who requested anonymity said that Biden and Democrats need to step up their condemnations of displays of antisemitism on college campuses.

“We all need to do more. This is something that rears its ugly head,” the senator, who acknowledged it’s a “huge challenge” to address given the First Amendment’s protections for political speech, said.

“It’s not easy for anybody. I’m sure it’s not easy for [Biden.] We do need to push back on it,” they continued.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) on Tuesday condemned what he called the “lawlessness” on Columbia’s campus.

“Campuses cannot be places of learning and argument and discussion when protests veer into criminality,” he warned.

“It is also unpredictable when Jewish students are targeted for being Jewish — when protests exhibit verbal abuse, systematic intimidation, or glorification of the murderous and hateful Hamas or the violence of Oct. 7,” he said.

Some Republicans are criticizing Biden for not being more outspoken about the campus protests.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) called on the Justice Department to investigate potential violations of Jewish students’ civil rights.

“If moral clarity does not prevail in the ivory tower and the Biden administration, this could go down as a particularly shameful episode,” he said on the Senate floor.

Senate Republican Conference Chair John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) called on Biden to restore order.

“Joe Biden would rather waffle than act. Why does he bow down to these pro-Hamas protesters. It’s because the election is coming up and he knows he needs their votes,” he said. “What the president ought to be doing is applying the law, returning order to campuses and getting students back into the classroom.”

Democratic strategists acknowledge that Biden needs to turn out young voters to the polls in November to win and that recent polls show that a majority of them feel more sympathetic to Palestinians than Israelis amidst the mounting death toll in Gaza.

A New York Times/Siena College poll of 1,059 registered voters nationwide from April 7 to 11 found that 45 percent of voters ages 18 to 29 sympathize more with Palestinians than Israelis in the conflict. Only 15 percent of the same group said they felt more sympathy for Israel.

Clashes between protesters and police or between protesters and counterprotesters have brought back memories of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations that roiled cities ahead of the 2020 election, when Republican candidates ran against the “Defund the Police” movement.

The growing turmoil on campuses has Democrats feeling anxious about their upcoming presidential nominating convention in Chicago this August.

Some Democratic senators fear a reprise of the clashes between police and anti-Vietnam War protesters that rocked the Democratic convention in 1968, which split their party heading into that year’s election, when Richard Nixon defeated Vice President Hubert Humphrey.

But Democrats are divided over whether Congress needs to put more pressure on college and university presidents to crack down on campus unrest.

Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.), an outspoken critic of the pro-Palestinian protests who calls the campus demonstrations “pup tents for Hamas,” said he’s open to putting “conditions” on federal aid to colleges and universities that have let protests spin out of control.

“I think there has to be consequences,” he said. “It’s rampant hate speech in all of this, and I just don’t understand how this is allowed.”

Asked about cutting federal funding, Fetterman noted “there are parts of my party that love conditions on Israel” military aid.

“Then we should have conditions on a lot of these universities,” he said.

Fetterman said Wednesday he supports the Antisemitism Awareness Act, which passed the House on Wednesday with strong bipartisan support.

The bill would direct the Department of Education to adopt a definition of antisemitism sponsored by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance to enforce antidiscrimination laws.

The bill divided House Democrats, with Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) voting for it and Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) leading the Democratic opposition to it.

Nadler warned the bill threatened to “chill” constitutionally protected speech.

“Speech that is critical of Israel alone does not constitute unlawful discrimination. By encompassing purely political speech about Title VI’s ambit, the bill sweeps too broadly,” he argued before the vote.

The bill passed the House by a vote of 320-91 and now presents Schumer with a tough decision about whether to bring it to the floor.  

A total of 133 House Democrats voted for it while 70 Democrats, including prominent liberals such as Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Katie Porter (D-Calif.) and Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), voted no.

Asked about it before the House vote, Schumer declined to say how he would handle the bill if it came over to the Senate.

“We haven’t seen what the House is sending us yet,” he said.

Asked whether Biden needs to get “more vocal” in condemning violence and antisemitism on college campuses, Schumer said: “I have made my views clear … there’s no place for violence or antisemitism on the campuses.”

The debate over the campus protests is already dividing Senate Democrats.

Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), who faces a difficult reelection race in a presidential battleground state, earlier this month introduced with Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), a potential GOP vice-presidential candidate, the Senate’s version of the Antisemitism Awareness Act.

“On the campuses, they’ve got to enforce the law. If people are engaged in violence or property destruction, you’ve got to enforce the rules of the campus. By that I mean expulsion or some action. And then there’s a law enforcement element as well,” Casey said.

“When there’s antisemitic actions taken on a campus, there has to be a consequence to that,” he said.

“Secondly, we’ve got to provide appropriations funding so that the Office of Civil Rights within the Department of Education can start these investigations, complete them in a timely manner and provide a sanction or a penalty when … there’s a finding that there’s a hostile environment,” he said.

But Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) took to the Senate floor late Wednesday to defend the rights of students to protest at Columbia, noting that anti-Vietnam War protesters occupied the same building, Hamilton Hall, in 1968.

“I did want to take a moment to remind some of my colleagues about a document called the U.S. Constitution and specifically the First Amendment of that Constitution,” he said on the Senate floor.

Sanders condemned protesters who threw a brick through a window at Columbia and also counterprotesters on the campus of the University of California, Los Angeles who attacked what he called the “peaceful encampment of antiwar demonstrators.”

He argued that politicians and pundits are accusing today’s antiwar demonstrators of antisemitism to deflect scrutiny from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s use of overwhelming force in Gaza.

“It is outrageous and it is disgraceful to use the charge of antisemitism to distract from the immoral and illegal war policies that Netanyahu’s extremist and racist government is pursuing,” he declared.

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