Democratic leaders and grassroots activists expect their gathering to have the same charged atmosphere that has overtaken college campuses, community demonstrations, and even the U.S. Capitol complex in the weeks after Hamas’ surprise attack on Israel and the subsequent bombardment of Gaza. Tensions escalated Wednesday night after Capitol Police clashed with pro-Palestinian demonstrators outside of the Democratic National Committee, leading to a chaotic melee.
Underneath the immediate anxieties of the weekend lies a more existential angst. The spike in antisemitic and Islamophobic incidents has caused stalwart Democrats to reexamine their relationship with the party and longtime political allies. While some key parts of the party’s multiracial coalition are grateful for emphatic 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 California’s marquee Senate contest.
“The divide on this issue is really fundamental,” said Assemblymember Alex Lee (D-San Jose), who, at 28, is the state’s youngest legislator. “It’s about the prioritization of taxpayer dollars, the philosophy of war and the military industrial complex. That runs very deep and that’s why so many people feel very strongly about this one.”
The fissures among rank-and-file Democrats are less visible among most California elected officials, who are aligned with Israel and synced with the Biden administration’s vocal support of the country’s right to defend itself. The president has rejected calling for a cease-fire, which advocates say is necessary to prevent further carnage, though he has pressured Israel for brief pauses of military operations for humanitarian purposes.
Even without cues from Biden, some legislators have expressed their support for Israel in deeply personal terms. Assemblymember Al Muratsuchi (D-Torrance) tweeted photos of a 2018 trip he and other lawmakers took to the Israel-Gaza border, where they visited Nahal Oz, a kibbutz that was attacked on Oct. 7.
“They can tell first-hand stories about being there — how people have these safe rooms and bomb shelters,” said Marc Levine, a former Sonoma County Democratic assemblymember who is now a regional director of the Anti-Defamation League.
In the immediate aftermath of the attack, polls found Americans strongly backed Israel. One Quinnipiac survey showed sympathy for the Jewish state, which the pollster first started tracking more than 20 years ago, was at an all-time high. But there has been a marked shift as the war in Gaza continues, with a growing number of Americans saying Israel’s military response has been too heavy-handed. A majority now support a cease-fire, according to a recent survey by Reuters/Ipsos.
Younger Americans — who typically align closely with Democrats — have been especially critical of both Israel and Biden’s handling of the conflict. Perhaps the most visible signs of the generational split are on college campuses, where California students have led scores of protests against not just Hamas’ initial attacks but also Israel’s ongoing ground invasion of Gaza and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.
Many protests have been peaceful. But California universities have reported threats of violence and harassment against students over their support for Israelis or Palestinians, most recently in a letter from UC leaders last week. Gov. Gavin Newsom stepped into the disputes Monday by calling on public college leaders to more decisively enforce campus safety policies to curb antisemitic and Islamophobic targeting of students over their beliefs.
On Wednesday, the Democratic National Committee was evacuated after protesters calling for a cease-fire blocked the doors. A violent scuffle ensued, with Capitol Police and demonstrators blaming each other for the aggression.
Lee, the 28-year-old state lawmaker from San Jose, said his generation’s opposition to military intervention was shaped by the catastrophes of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
“For a lot of people, all we remember of the war on terror is its failure,” he said.
The fault lines are also ideological. Moody Zahriya, a Palestinian American activist and former chair of the state party’s Arab American caucus, credited the party’s left flank with championing the Palestinian cause, even when Democratic politicians have not.
“They’re the ones who have expressed very clearly that you can’t be a progressive except on the Palestinians’ right to emancipation and freedom,” Zahriya said. With more and more Democrats self-identifying as progressives, “it’s really important to show that the majority of progressives in California are not totally politically aligned with the Democrats that are elected in the Capitol.”
Zahriya said he feels at odds with the leaders of his party, most of whom have not supported a ceasefire, though his degree of frustration varies. While he is disappointed by Newsom and his hastily scheduled visit to Israel last month, he gives the governor credit for 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, particularly after the president said he had “no confidence” in the death toll numbers put out by the Hamas-run government in Gaza.
“Gavin Newsom’s perspective or his opinion didn’t negate the Palestinian voice or existence,” 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 potential of withheld votes would not likely affect the outcome in deep-blue states like California but could be significant in Michigan, a swing state with a large Arab American population.
The conflict could also cause ripples in California’s race for U.S. Senate. It has factored heavily into Rep. Barbara Lee’s campaign ever since she called for a cessation in military action the day after the Hamas attack.
Lee’s early call for a cease-fire has since prominently factored into her campaign for Senate, where she lags behind 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 cease-fire, and it gives her an opportunity to remind voters of her lone opposition to war in Afghanistan more than 20 years ago — a stance that made her a progressive darling.
The three representatives will be in Sacramento for the convention, where Democrats will be doling out coveted endorsements. It takes 60 percent of votes to secure the party’s backing and with three candidates in the race, it will be difficult to clear that threshold. The candidates, who will be out and about in the event hall hoping to charm the delegates, are expecting spirited encounters with convention-goers about the issue. All of the campaigns said the ruckus at the DNC has not changed their plans to attend.
The state party’s handling of the conflict has already fomented progressive frustration.
Progressive caucus Chair Fatima Iqbal-Zubair said she was blocked from using official party channels to disseminate a statement that condemned both the Hamas assault and Israeli abuses. Iqbal-Zubair faulted an official platform that she said is overly shaped by insiders aligned with party leaders.
“If our party can’t stand up for basic human rights, even when we’re being very even-handed, who are we as a party?” Iqbal-Zubair said.
A spokesperson said party communication — including those from caucuses — must be in line with its platform.
The war will loom over most of the weekend’s proceedings, even as state party rules will likely quell any fight about a formal resolution over the issue on the convention floor. That’s because no proposed language was introduced by the required deadline: 30 days ahead of the event.
But delegates expect tension over the Israel-Hamas conflict will likely spill into the convention hall in the form of protests and heated outbursts. Several protests and vigils on both sides are also expected to be held outside, near the state Capitol.
Party activists are famously farther to the left as a group than Democratic voters. But the anticipated friction at the convention reflects a broader unsettledness throughout the state.
A spate of unnerving crimes has put communities throughout California on edge. In Los Angeles, there have been a number of high-profile incidents, including a demonstration where a Jewish man died after an altercation with a pro-Palestinian demonstrator. 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 has left Gabriel, the Los Angeles-area lawmaker, feeling deeply unnerved, noting his son’s Jewish preschool now has armed security and metal detectors. More hurtful, he said, was seeing people he once considered political allies react callously about the victims of the Hamas’ attack. But while he grapples with questions of the safety of Jews in his community, he said he has no doubts about his place in the Democratic Party.
“I must have been 10 years old before I figured out that being Jewish and being a Democrat were separate things,” Gabriel said. “They were so centrally linked in my upbringing. … There is absolutely zero percent chance I’m going to step away from this party and cede control of this party to people who have views that are opposed to ours.”
He has that in common with Zahriya, who still says the Democratic Party is the best political home for Palestinian Americans and their allies.
“There’s no space in the Republican Party for them,” he said. “At least in the Democratic Party, we’re able to have discourse. Maybe not support from officials, but at least have discourse and talk about our struggle.”
Blake Jones, Jeremy B. White and Dustin Gardiner contributed to this report.