Pro-Palestinian protesters push back as University of Chicago police officers reposition a barricade keeping protesters from the university’s quad while the student encampment is dismantled Tuesday, May 7, 2024, in Chicago.

Pro-Palestinian protesters push back as University of Chicago police officers reposition a barricade keeping protesters from the university’s quad while the student encampment is dismantled Tuesday, May 7, 2024, in Chicago. ()

It’s complicated.

Student protests are taking over college campuses across the nation. The turmoil over the Israel-Hamas war has inspired youthful fervor that is reminiscent of the anti-war protests of the 1960s.

The Middle East saga has infected America’s domestic political milieu in significant and new ways. Since 1948, when the state of Israel was founded, a consensus has existed among Democrats and Republicans that the United States and Israel are, and will always be, joined at the hip. The United States lavishly has bestowed its military, economic and political backing on a tiny state with oversize ambitions and enemies.

The American Israel lobby has been exceedingly effective at getting all measure of the support it needed. Overwhelming support. Now, that largesse is fraying. For instance, there is the emergence of a motivated and organized Palestinian and Muslim American population. According to the Pew Research Center, there were 3.45 million Muslims living in United States in 2017, about 1.5% of the population (the most recent data available). They are raising their voices against Israel and shouting, “No!”

There is the “progressive” left. Anti-Israeli sentiment has been brewing on that front for a long time. There is nothing new about the chants of “Israel, the colonialist and imperialist lackey!” circulating through the crowds and their rallies and conferences. The invasion of Gaza and the concomitant killing of civilians has only ramped up the outrage.

We all know who started this vicious war. The suffering of Oct. 7 is unacceptable. Yet, we cannot turn a blind eye to the suffering of the innocent in Gaza. People want to see the horrendous killing stop. That would not seem so unreasonable, but in the Middle East, it is a tall order.

Lastly, the Israelis who are marching in their own land in protest of their government’s actions give credence to that case that we must bring this war to a halt and free the hostages.

The campus protests are a barometer. The students’ tent encampments are grabbing international headlines and bubbling up in a big way. That’s a bad sign for Israel. Politicians of all stripes are struggling to come to grips with the moment.

The students’ demands for disinvestment and transparency are an effective and valid strategy. But the furor has generated deep divides and couldn’t come at a worse time for the Democrats and President Joe Biden, ahead of the November election. Muslim voters have traditionally provided reliable support in swing states such as Michigan.

American Jews have been the bedrock of the Democratic electorate, providing votes and financial support.

Those protesters are crucial to fueling the turnout machine in states such as Wisconsin, Arizona, Michigan and Pennsylvania. If young voters stay home in November because they are turned off by the war and heavy-handed handling of the issue, the Democratic Party will suffer mightily.

Biden and Co. have a lot to lose in this drama. Play your cards carefully, Joe, and wrangle a cease-fire to get through this perilous period. If that fails, the unrest and anger over Gaza will simmer, steam and come to a boil just in time for nomination festivities at the Democratic National Convention in August — 1968 redux.

Antisemitism may not be the big political issue by the fall election, at least where Biden is concerned. No one can seriously accuse Biden of that shibboleth.

Meanwhile, Republicans are gleeful — and wary. Gleeful, because the potential for Democratic fissures is impressive. This crisis is alienating three of the Democrats’ important constituent groups — young people, Muslims and Jews. If they fall away or stay home in November, hello, President Donald Trump.

Wary, as the GOP must decide how to play this new and different issue, a delicate task. House Speaker Mike Johnson recently visited Columbia University and met with Jewish students on the New York City campus. He and Republican colleagues are denouncing the unrest. “Columbia is out of control,” he declared last week.

A shrewd move.

Trump, on the other hand, is a broken record. He hammers away on his well-worn mantras: immigration, crime and the “extreme radical left.” Managing this fiery issue requires finesse, hardly a Trump strong point. He’s so busy whining on social media about his ongoing trial that he hardly has time to figure out what’s next.

It won’t be easy, but Biden needs a cease-fire in Gaza, while Trump and the GOP will pour accelerant on the fire.

It’s about a lot more than tents.

Laura Washington is a political commentator and longtime Chicago journalist.

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