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Dan Walters

How the Israel-Hamas War Is Dividing California’s Democrats and Academics

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A security guard attempts to seize a Palestinian flag from protesters calling for a ceasefire of Israeli bombing in Gaza at the California Democratic Convention in Sacramento in November. (CalMatters File/Miguel Gutierrez Jr.)
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The deadly war in Gaza between Israel and Hamas, a militant Palestinian faction, has revealed deep social and political fissures in America and California is not immune.

Dan Walters with a serious expression

Dan Walters

CalMatters

Opinion

Although polls generally indicate that Americans support Israel’s incursion into Gaza after Hamas conducted a deadly attack in Israel on Oct. 7 – mirroring the Biden administration’s policy – the issue is more nuanced in California.

A recent Public Policy Institute of California poll found that 61% of California adults and 51% of voters say the U.S. should not take a side, but there’s a stark partisan division. Democrats are much more likely to favor neutrality with just 19% taking Israel’s side and 16% supporting Palestine. However, 59% of Republicans back Israel and just 4% Palestine.

The Democratic fragmentation was displayed when pro-Palestine demonstrators disrupted a recent state Democratic Party convention in Sacramento.

Similarly, when President Joe Biden attended a series of high-dollar campaign fundraising events in Southern California over the weekend, pro-Palestine demonstrators rallied outside the glitzy events, which were largely sponsored by prominent Jewish entertainment industry figures such as Steven Spielberg, Barbra Streisand and Rob Reiner.

On Monday, the California Legislature’s Jewish caucus issued a statement thanking Biden for “standing with Israel and with the Jewish community during this incredibly challenging moment…”

Simultaneously, however, Politico reported that some Democratic legislative staffers are circulating a letter urging legislative leaders and Gov. Gavin Newsom to support an immediate ceasefire and an international tribunal to investigate and prosecute war crimes in Gaza and Israel.

The internal Capitol effort emerged just a few days after Newsom cancelled the traditional public lighting of the Capitol’s Christmas tree, substituting a virtual ceremony and citing the potential for conflict at the event.

Newsom’s Actions Draw Criticism

Newsom’s action drew sharp criticism from pro-Palestine groups. “Governor Newsom decided to cancel the tree lighting ceremony rather than face the public that is enraged by his shameful silence on the genocide in Gaza,” Yassar Dahbour of the Sacramento Regional Coalition for Palestinian Rights said in a statement.

Underlying the political angst in California and elsewhere is a rhetorical conflict over whether opposition to Israel’s crusade to destroy Hamas in the aftermath of its surprise attack is simply a policy issue or reflects latent antisemitism, particularly among those on the nation’s political left.

Leaders of several Ivy League universities hemmed and hawed last week when asked whether “calling for the genocide of Jews” would violate their codes of campus conduct and now face a backlash that could cost them their positions.

One of the more ironic aspects of the increasingly shrill debates, occurring largely within Democratic Party and left-leaning academic circles, is what’s happening in the University of California.

On Nov. 15, UC President Michael Drake declared that UC will launch “programs focused on better understanding anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, how to recognize and combat extremism, and a viewpoint-neutral history of the Middle East.”

Faculty members who wanted to take pro-Palestine positions in their instruction denounced Drake’s statement, saying he was violating the principle of academic freedom by trying to dictate classroom content.

Drake then issued a “clarification” in which he said he was referring to “voluntary, extracurricular educational programming on our campuses, not classroom content.”

Those who complained about having their academic freedom violated over teaching Mideast history did not object when UC officials were demanding that to be considered, applicants for faculty positions had to demonstrate, by word and deed, that they agreed with the system’s policies on “diversity, equity and inclusion.”

Defining the principle of academic freedom, it would seem, hinges on the ideology of those who believe their rights are being abridged.

About the Author

Dan Walters has been a journalist for nearly 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He began his professional career in 1960, at age 16, at the Humboldt Times. CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more columns by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.

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Dan Walters has been a journalist for nearly 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He has written more than 9,000 columns about the state and its politics and is the founding editor of the “California Political Almanac.” Dan has also been a frequent guest on national television news shows, commenting on California issues and policies.

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