Democratic leaders and grassroots activists expect their rally to have the same charged atmosphere that has taken over college campuses, community protests and even the U.S. Capitol complex in the weeks following Hamas’ surprise attack on Israel and the subsequent bombing of Gaza. Tensions escalated Wednesday evening after Capitol Police clashed with pro-Palestinian protesters outside the Democratic National Committee, leading to a chaotic melee.
Behind the immediate anxieties of the weekend lies a more existential anguish. The surge in anti-Semitic and Islamophobic incidents has pushed loyal Democrats to reexamine their relationships with the party and their longtime political allies. While some key elements of the party’s multiracial coalition are grateful for the outspoken support for Israel from top Democratic leaders such as President Joe Biden and Gov. Gavin Newsom, others have been deeply disappointed. Generational and ideological fissures could have tangible effects on next year’s elections, including the presidential race and the California Senate race.
“The division on this issue is really fundamental,” said Rep. Alex Lee (D-San Jose), who at 28 is the state’s youngest lawmaker. “It’s about prioritizing taxpayer dollars, the philosophy of war and the military-industrial complex. This is very deep and that’s why so many people are very attached to this one.
The fissures among rank-and-file Democrats are less visible among most California elected officials, who are aligned with Israel and in sync with the Biden administration’s vocal support for the country’s right to defend itself. The president rejected the call for a ceasefire, which his supporters say is necessary to prevent further carnage, although he pressured Israel to briefly halt its military operations for humanitarians.
Even without Biden’s help, some lawmakers expressed support for Israel in deeply personal terms. Rep. Al Muratsuchi (D-Torrance) tweeted photos from a trip he and other lawmakers took in 2018 to the Israel-Gaza border, where they visited Nahal Oz, a kibbutz that was attacked on October 7.
“They can tell firsthand stories about being there, about how people have these safes and bomb shelters,” said Marc Levine, a former Democratic Assembly member from Sonoma County and now regional director of the Anti-Defamation League.
Immediately after the attack, polls found that Americans strongly supported Israel. A Quinnipiac survey showed that sympathy for the Jewish state, which the survey institute began tracking more than 20 years ago, was at an unprecedented level. But a marked shift has occurred as the war in Gaza continues, with a growing number of Americans saying Israel’s military response has been too brutal. A majority now supports a ceasefire, according to a recent Reuters/Ipsos survey.
Younger Americans — who generally align closely with Democrats — have been particularly critical of Israel and Biden’s handling of the conflict. Perhaps the most visible signs of the generational divide are on college campuses, where California students have led widespread protests not only against early Hamas attacks but also against Israel’s ongoing ground invasion of Gaza and against the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Many protests have been peaceful. But California universities have reported threats of violence and harassment against students for supporting Israelis or Palestinians, most recently in a letter from UC leaders last week. Gov. Gavin Newsom intervened in the conflicts Monday, calling on public college leaders to more decisively enforce campus security policies to combat anti-Semitic and Islamophobic targeting of students because of their beliefs.
The Democratic National Committee was evacuated on Wednesday after protesters calling for a ceasefire blocked the doors. A violent scuffle ensued, with Capitol Police and protesters blaming each other for the assault.
Lee, the 28-year-old congressman from San Jose, said his generation’s opposition to military intervention was shaped by the disasters of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“For many people, all we remember about the War on Terror is that it failed,” he said.
The fault lines are also ideological. Moody Zahriya, a Palestinian-American activist and former chairman of the party’s Arab-American caucus, credited the party’s left flank with championing the Palestinian cause, even though Democratic politicians have not done so.
“They are the ones who expressed very clearly that we can only be progressive on the right of Palestinians to emancipation and freedom,” Zahriya said. As more Democrats identify as progressives, “it’s really important to show that the majority of progressives in California are not totally aligned politically with the Democrats elected to the Capitol.”
Zahriya said he feels at odds with his party leaders, most of whom have not supported a ceasefire, although his level of frustration varies. Although he is disappointed with Newsom and his hastily scheduled visit to Israel last month, he praises the governor for the work he has done to combat Islamophobia and other forms of discrimination. But Zahriya believes Biden is permanently damaged in the eyes of Arab American voters, especially after the president said he had “no confidence” in the death toll released by the Hamas-led government in Gaza.
“Gavin Newsom’s view or opinion did not negate the voice or existence of Palestinians,” Zahriya said. “I don’t think people realize the mistake that Joe Biden made with his comments.”
Some advocacy groups want to see Biden pay a political price and are encouraging Muslim and Arab Americans not to vote in next year’s presidential election. The possibility of abstentions would likely not affect the outcome in deeply blue states like California, but could be significant in Michigan, a swing state with a large Arab-American population.
The conflict could also impact the U.S. Senate race in California. This has played an important role in Rep. Barbara Lee’s campaign since she called for a cessation of military action in the aftermath of the Hamas attack.
Lee’s early call for a ceasefire has since factored heavily into her campaign for Senate, where she trails fellow California Reps. Adam Schiff and Katie Porter. It is one of the biggest disagreements she has with her Democratic rivals, who do not support a ceasefire, and it gives her an opportunity to remind voters of her sole opposition to the war in Afghanistan more than 20 years ago – a position that made him famous. she is a progressive sweetheart.
The three representatives will be in Sacramento for the convention, where Democrats will distribute the coveted endorsements. It takes 60 percent of the vote to gain party support and with three candidates in the running, it will be difficult to cross that threshold. The candidates, who will wander around the room to charm delegates, expect lively meetings with delegates on the subject. All campaigns said the ruckus at the DNC did not change their plans to attend.
The State party’s management of the conflict has already given rise to progressive frustration.
Progressive Caucus Chairwoman Fatima Iqbal-Zubair said she had no right to use official party channels to issue a statement condemning both the Hamas attack and Israeli abuses. Iqbal-Zubair criticized an official agenda that she said is too shaped by insiders aligned with party leaders.
“If our party cannot stand up for basic human rights, even though we are very impartial, who are we as a party? Iqbal-Zubair said.
A spokesperson said the party’s communications – including those from caucuses – must be consistent with its platform.
The war will loom over much of the weekend’s proceedings, although state party rules will likely stifle any fight for a formal resolution of the issue in Congress. In fact, no proposed language was introduced within the required time frame: 30 days before the event.
But delegates expect that tensions over the conflict between Israel and Hamas will likely spill over into the convention hall in the form of protests and passionate outbursts. Several protests and vigils from both sides are also expected to take place outside near the state Capitol.
Party activists are notably more left-leaning as a group than Democratic voters. But the expected friction at the convention reflects broader concern across the state.
A disturbing crime wave has communities across California on edge. In Los Angeles, there have been a number of high-profile incidents, including a protest in which a Jewish man died after an altercation with a pro-Palestinian protester. In Palo Alto, a Muslim student at Stanford University was injured in a hit-and-run that is being investigated as a hate crime.
The volatile atmosphere left Gabriel, the Los Angeles area lawmaker, deeply disturbed, noting that his son’s Jewish preschool now has armed security and metal detectors. What’s even more hurtful, he says, is seeing people he once considered political allies react insensitively toward the victims of the Hamas attack. But as he grapples with questions of the safety of Jews in his community, he says he has no doubt about his place in the Democratic Party.
“I had to be 10 years old before I understood that being Jewish and being a Democrat were separate things,” Gabriel said. “They were central to my education. … There is absolutely no chance that I will leave this party and cede control of this party to people whose views are opposed to ours.”
He has this in common with Zahriya, who continues to say that the Democratic Party is the best political home for Palestinian Americans and their allies.
“There is no place for them in the Republican Party,” he said. “At least in the Democratic Party we can have a discourse. Maybe not the support of the authorities, but at least have a speech and talk about our struggle.
Blake Jones, Jeremy B. White and Dustin Gardiner contributed to this report.