Biden’s pickle over the Gaza protests

Published by The i paper (29th April, 2024)

The students at Columbia University sat outside their tents, munching on beans and rice as they listened to one of their history professors discuss parallels between their encampment and the notorious 1968 protests. The symbolism was stark: anti-war movements that exposed deep fissures in society, erupting at this prestigious place of learning in New York and sparking a national movement after police were called to clear protesters from campus. There is even the uncomfortable parallel of another party convention looming for the Democrats in Chicago, scene of bloody clashes over Vietnam during that chaotic summer almost six decades ago.

Although Columbia students are demanding, again, an end to support for a military campaign on another continent, there are significant differences between the two movements. But the subsequent explosion of protests in recent days on campuses across the country present a no-win challenge for university chiefs, caught in the midst of generational and political divisions plaguing their country. While largely non-violent, the feverish environment of these events feed into the maelstrom of social media, with flashes of bigotry on both sides, fuelling fears of both Jewish and Muslim students amid the heightened tensions.

In this age of tribalism and bunkers, the images from this academic frontline harden perceptions already shaped by the sickening nature of last year’s Hamas atrocities or the bloodstained brutality of Israel’s response in Gaza. There is little room for nuance. So for one side, viral clips such as the middle-aged woman professor flung to the ground by a police officer show their country’s grotesque complicity in war crimes. For the other, video of an activist hiding her face in a keffiyeh while holding a sign saying “al-Qasam’s next targets” – a reference to Hamas’s armed wing – that points at people waving Israeli flags proves the antisemitism of these protests.

It is easy to scorn students at an expensive Ivy League college chanting “there is only one solution, intifada revolution” – especially when it emerges one leader said: “Zionists don’t deserve to live.” No doubt some who once yelled “defund the police” now chant “from the river to the sea” with no idea about the history or complexities beneath such slogans. Yet note also how fast the protests were seized upon by Republicans, House speaker Mike Johnson turning up the temperature by claiming the campus has become a war zone and calling for the National Guard. “We can’t allow this kind of hatred and antisemitism to flourish on our campuses,” he said  on a visit last week.

For these protests highlight how President Joe Biden finds himself in such a pickle on this issue. He performed well in leading the West’s response to Russia’s attack on Ukraine, a conflict with unusual moral clarity. Now he appears weakened ethically and politically after standing so strongly by Israel despite questions growing over its conduct towards civilians.

This is not the same as Lyndon Johnson’s war in Vietnam – and he is clearly concerned by Benjamin Netanyahu’s approach. But it becomes his problem when American-made bombs kill Palestinian children while he stands by a hard-line Israeli prime minister whose primary aim is not peace but political survival.

Biden was born during the Second World War and comes from the generation that grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust, inspired by those pioneers who built and then defended the planet’s only Jewish state. “If Israel didn’t exist, we would have to invent it,” he said, responding to the Hamas attacks. During that speech, pledging his country’s firm support, he told how he had met former Israeli leader Golda Meir shortly before the 1973 Yom Kippur war. “Don’t worry, Senator, we Israelis have a secret weapon,” she told him. “We have nowhere else to go.”

Golda Meir was born in the 19th century. But these protesters come from the generation of Biden’s grandchildren, growing up this century in such a very different era. Polls suggest younger American voters – especially those under 30 – are most sympathetic to the Palestinian cause in a country that has become steadily more disapproving of the military operation in Gaza, leading to erosion of traditional US sympathy for Israel. Now they see their president talking about freedom and human rights – but backing what they perceive to be a far-right government of occupation that ignores calls for restraint while inflicting cruel collective punishment. 

The challenge for Biden as he seeks re-election is that he leads a party divided on this issue. This is shown by his pivotal home state of Pennsylvania, which narrowly backed Donald Trump in 2016 then voted for him four years ago. John Fetterman, a serving senator, flies the flag for Israel while walking past pro-Palestinian protesters – but Summer Lee, a progressive Congresswoman among the strongest critics of Israel’s action, fought off her foes to win a primary last week in a test of this issue’s salience. And Biden was bleeding support from those young voters who turned out in historic numbers to deliver his victory in 2020 even before this conflict’s outbreak, due to their concerns over domestic issues such as the cost of living and housing.

The 46th president remains ahead of his predecessor with younger voters. And even polls showing a sizeable minority oppose his handling of the war suggest it comes far below concerns such as the economy, healthcare and gun control at the ballot box. Yet he needs to get young supporters out again to cast their votes amid a mood of widespread political disenchantment, inflamed by dismay that these two elderly men are fighting to run the world’s leading democracy.

As a furious Trump sits in a court claiming to be a victim of judicial persecution, Biden knows very well how the right weaponised the chaos and protests to help win the 1968 election for a crook called Richard Nixon. What hideous irony if history repeated itself again.

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