Cordell Cox has volunteered for a Democrat in every presidential race since Barack Obama’s 2008 run. Next year, he might sit it out.
Cox, a 33-year-old in Michigan, said he’ll probably still cast a ballot for President Biden if he’s the Democratic nominee. But, Cox said, he won’t work to increase turnout and fears that some of his friends will choose a third-party candidate or decline to vote altogether.
To them, Biden’s handling of the violence in Israel and Gaza has been unacceptable. As the White House advocates for sending $14 billion in aid to Israel, Cox and his like-minded friends commiserate in a group text about their shared belief that, as Cox said in an interview, “we should stop sending money and bombs to other countries while we can’t fix the water crisis in Flint, [Mich.,] or feed our homeless.”
That sentiment reflects a surge of pro-Palestinian feelings on the part of progressives, especially younger ones, that could jeopardize the fragile alliance Biden has carefully nurtured with the left over the past three years. From climate change to student loans to labor activism, Biden’s policies and rhetoric have won over many liberals who have long been suspicious of him, and several prominent progressive leaders vowed last summer to back Biden for another term.
But in recent days, former staffers to congressional Democrats have criticized Biden’s refusal to call for a cease-fire in Gaza. Hundreds of demonstrators were arrested after protesting at the White House and the Capitol making the same demand. A State Department official and a staff member for Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) resigned. Crowd members booed a Muslim White House official who spoke at the funeral of a Palestinian American boy killed in what authorities say was a hate crime.
Former president Barack Obama released a statement on Monday that defended those on the left worried about the plight of Palestinians, writing, “it is possible for people of good will to champion Palestinian rights and oppose certain Israeli government policies in the West Bank and Gaza without being anti-semitic.”
The growing schism over Israel is especially evident as the war has been front-and-center in Biden’s public appearances since Oct. 7, when Hamas militants crossed the border and killed at least 1,400 Israelis, prompting Israel to respond with airstrikes. The debate threatens to complicate Biden’s bid for another term, especially since some younger Democrats are already expressing hesitation or anxiety about his candidacy.
With the election a year away, the war could well fade into the background by the time Americans cast their ballots. But in interviews, progressive voters and younger activists said they will not forget Biden’s full-throated support of Israel, and Arab and Muslim groups have also expressed anger about U.S. backing for Israel’s airstrikes on Gaza, which Palestinian officials say have killed about 5,800 people.
“You can want Israel to be safe, you can condemn what Hamas did — and you can not want Palestinian civilians to be killed,” said a Democratic aide who signed a letter supporting a cease-fire, speaking on the condition of anonymity out of fear of a backlash. “All of those things aren’t in conflict. They aren’t morally in conflict. Yet the dynamic on the Hill has reached this place where those are in conflict and you have to pick a side.”
Josiah Wampfler, who worked for Sen. Bernie Sanders’s 2020 presidential campaign, said he reluctantly voted for Biden in the general election that year. A videographer in Wisconsin, Wampfler said he was pleasantly surprised by Biden’s foreign policy in office — until the president’s response to the Israel-Gaza violence, which he called “atrocious.”
Wampfler said he probably would still vote for Biden next year, especially if former president Donald Trump is the Republican nominee, but that he understands that others with his viewpoint might not. “To see the blatant destruction that is happening right now and to see my president fully supporting it … it’s unconscionable,” Wampfler said.
Biden’s initial reaction to the Hamas attacks was to call them “sheer evil” and emphasize that Israel had a right to defend itself against the militant group. Since then, he has also emphasized that Israel should abide by international law, urged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not to be “consumed by rage,” and repeatedly pushed for humanitarian aid to flow into Gaza.
“We can’t ignore the humanity of innocent Palestinians who only want to live in peace and have an opportunity,” Biden said Thursday in an Oval Office address, drawing a distinction between Hamas and innocent Palestinians.
Asked about the dissent, White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre said Biden supports Americans’ right to speak out if they feel the administration is missing the mark. “As it relates to protests, peaceful protests, people have the right to do that,” she said Monday.
Ammar Moussa, a spokesman for Biden’s campaign, said the president has been unequivocal in opposing Islamophobia. Moussa also sought to contrast Biden’s handling of issues affecting Muslim and Palestinian communities with that of Trump, who leads in polls for the Republican presidential nomination.
As president, Trump banned travel from several predominantly Muslim countries. Last week, he proposed restrictions on immigration for Hamas sympathizers and critics of Israel. Trump has vowed that if elected, he would expand his travel ban and reject refugees from Gaza.
“As MAGA Republicans continue to run on an openly [Islamophobic] platform — including renewed support for Donald Trump’s Muslim ban — the stakes of next year’s election could not be more consequential,” Moussa said in a statement. “President Biden continues to work closely and proudly with leaders in the Muslim and Palestinian communities in America, to listen to them, stand up for them, and fight back against hate.”
But some activists argue that Biden and other Democratic leaders are making a political miscalculation if they assume young liberals will support them regardless of their position on Israel.
“I think that they are taking all that for granted, believing that those people will inevitably vote for President Biden over anything else,” said Usamah Andrabi, a spokesman for Justice Democrats, an organization that seeks to elect liberals to Congress. “When that is actually a failure of Democratic leadership, to not actually listen to those voters and see what they are demanding.”
Polling on Israel and the U.S. response to the current crisis reveals a significant generational divide. In a Quinnipiac University poll released this month, about half of voters ages 18 to 34 expressed disapproval of the United States sending weapons to Israel. In contrast, 59 percent of voters ages 35 to 49 said they approve, with even stronger support among older age groups.
In part, those figures reflect an evolution of attitudes on Israel, especially in the Democratic Party. Many Democrats of Biden’s generation — who witnessed Israel’s early days, when it was a vulnerable and left-leaning country founded in the aftermath of the Holocaust — view it as an indispensable haven for Jews. (“I think without Israel, there’s not a Jew in the world who’s secure,” Biden said on his recent trip to Israel.)
Younger Democrats, in contrast, know Israel as a powerful country that has severely restricted the lives of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, and visible solidarity with Palestinians has grown within the party. That is reflected in the 400 congressional staff members who anonymously signed a letter to their bosses appealing for a shift in the U.S. approach to the war.
The signatories asked the lawmakers to demand a cease-fire and cessation of hostilities, the safe return of nearly 200 Hamas-held hostages, and the provision of additional humanitarian aid to Gaza.
One Democratic aide who signed the letter said they feared that the White House and the Biden campaign were underestimating the “sea change” in public opinion toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Many young voters might sit out the election if they feel disappointed in Biden, said the aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of backlash.
“We’re worried the decisions are empowering Trump and making people leave the Democratic Party,” the aide said.
More than 250 people who worked on the 2020 presidential campaign of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) sent a separate letter to their former boss expressing disappointment that she had not advocated for a cease-fire. A smaller group of people who worked on the campaign of Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.) sent him a similar letter.
Progressive activist Max Berger, who worked on Warren’s campaign, said he signed the letter because elected Democrats’ response to the war has felt disconnected from many Democratic voters. He said he was disappointed that the White House castigated as “disgraceful” the statements of liberal Democratic lawmakers who called for a cease-fire without publicly supporting Israel.
“On the politics, I think they’re really messing this up,” said Berger, who co-founded IfNotNow, a group that organizes Jewish people to help “end U.S. support for Israel’s apartheid system.” He added that there are already many young voters that “Biden is already going to have trouble turning out in ’24 and really needs. He can’t afford to lose enthusiasm among marginal voters in that demographic.”
A spokesman for Warren, Alex Sarabia, pointed to a response she gave last week, when she said “I respect my former staffers, who are doing exactly what I have always encouraged them to do — stand up and fight for what they believe in.”
Marianela D’Aprile, a writer who previously volunteered with the Democratic Socialists of America, attributed the shift in opinion among younger Americans to a broader awareness of oppression in the United States. She said social media has made it particularly easy to see other people’s pain.
“I think that the kind of imagination leap that it might take for the average American to empathize and be kind of understanding of what’s going on with people and what’s happening to people in Gaza, that leap is a lot smaller than it was maybe 20 years ago,” D’Aprile said.