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In a tale of two protests, a stark divide among young voters on the Israel-Hamas war

Anti-war activists protest outside of the White House during a pro-Palestinian demonstration asking for a cease-fire in Gaza in Washington on Nov. 4.
Jose Luis Magana
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AP
Anti-war activists protest outside of the White House during a pro-Palestinian demonstration asking for a cease-fire in Gaza in Washington on Nov. 4.

Prachi Jhawar stands in a crowd of demonstrators in downtown Washington, just minutes from the White House. The 23-year-old is one of the thousands calling on President Biden to demand a cease-fire in Gaza and halt additional aid to Israel.

When Jhawar, who voted for Biden in 2020, thinks about him running for reelection in 2024, she says she's grim.

"We voted for him with the hope that he would protect human rights," Jhawar said. "Gen Z cares so much about human rights."

"To have our commander-in-chief not actually follow through with that and not support that is really disheartening," she continued.

Jhawar's comments come as a faction of progressive lawmakers and youth voter organizations are voicing anger and dissatisfaction with Biden's handling of the Israel-Hamas war.

"It just feels like he's not really listening to us," Jhawar added.

Over a week after pro-Palestinian demonstrators marched on Nov. 4 for a cease-fire, tens of thousands of people met on the National Mall in support of Israel.

"We want to continue to have generations of Jewish people stay alive and the Jewish faith stay alive," said 23-year-old Sheindl Spitzer-Tilchin, a Jewish student who attended the march on Nov. 14.

Spitzer-Tilchin, who is a Democrat and voted for Biden in 2020, says she is thankful for his response to the conflict.

"I appreciate him standing up for Israel and understanding how atrocious and how scary this can be for college students, families, everywhere in the world, not even just Israel," she says.

As the war rages on in the Middle East, young Americans are weighing in on how the White House's response may affect their own view of politics. Millennial and Gen Z voters have voted for Democratic candidates, but against the backdrop of the Israel-Hamas war, some political approval is shifting.

A march for a cease-fire: some are turning their backs on Biden

Protesters march from Freedom Plaza during the National March on Washington, calling for a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas
Win McNamee / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Protesters march from Freedom Plaza during the National March on Washington, calling for a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas

Laith Shalabi, a 22-year-old Palestinian American, is part of the crowd of demonstrators voicing support for a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas.

The White House and Israel have both opposed demands for a cease-fire. The U.S. and Israel argue that it couldgive Hamas time to regroup and prepare for new attacks against the country.

But when Shalabi thinks about 2024, his mind is made up. He's not voting for Biden.

"This was most definitely a deciding factor. He hasn't fulfilled a lot of his promises," he said, referring to Biden's handling of the conflict.

Now, Shalabi says he'll likely vote for a third-party candidate. Political experts say that Democrats sitting out the election or voting for another party in protest could actually help Republicans.

Pro-Palestinian protesters are angry about Biden's consistently strong levels of support for Israel and his commitment to send the country $14 billion in aid. This march comes almost a month after Israel launched a military offensive in Gaza following a Hamas-led attack on the country on Oct. 7, which killed around 1,200 people. Hamas also took more than 240 hostages.

Since then, the president has expressed increasing concern for the safety of the Palestinian people living in areas affected by Israeli military offensives. The Health Ministry in Gaza has reported more than 11,000 people have been killed there.

"I'm pretty against not voting at all, but I don't think that we should have to pick the lesser of two evils," said Teddi Shalabi, Laith Shalabi's cousin-in-law.

She's unsure who she'll vote for in 2024. But she says it definitely won't be Biden.

Elsewhere in the crowd is 27-year-old Sufia Alam, who hasn't fully made up her mind about 2024.

Alam, who is Indian American and Muslim, finds backing Biden painful now, especially given that Muslim voters have historically aligned with Democrats.

"[Biden] has a lot of work to do. He has lost the trust of Muslim Americans who have been largely, almost all of us, were raised to identify with this party," she said, "And the past month especially has been very, very isolating and gut-wrenching."

A march in support of Israel: applauding Biden's actions but want to see more from Democrats

Thousands of people attend the March for Israel on the National Mall on Nov. 14.
Alex Wong / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Thousands of people attend the March for Israel on the National Mall on Nov. 14.

On the National Mall, calls to "bring them home," referring to the hostages still held by Hamas militants, echo throughout the masses of people.

For Eitan Gitlan, 21, being at the march has an added weight. His childhood friend and former classmate was taken hostage.

"I felt like I needed to be here," Gitlan said, who is now the President of the Jewish organization, Hillel, at Muhlenberg College, "to both support my friends who are here and also to show support that this could be over."

Gitlan, a Democrat, is happy with Biden's response so far and took note of Democratic leaders attending the march, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y.. House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La. was also on stage and gave remarks.

But some attendees don't have that same confidence in the Democratic Party – despite being supportive of the president's handling of the situation.

"Honestly, right now, I'm broken," said Gitlan's friend, 21-year-old Josh Levin. "Because I feel like I don't really know what party I'm part of."

Though Levin has leaned toward the Democratic party, he says a lack of support from non-Jewish friends and people he grew up with has made him unsure of his own affiliation.

"I feel like the Jewish people have always stood by every other minority group," Levin, who is the grandson of a holocaust survivor, said, "And right now, it seems like people aren't standing by the Jewish people."

It's a sentiment echoed across the country in Jewish communities that identify as Democrats and have long supported progressive movements related to civil rights in the U.S.

"I feel like the far left doesn't support Israel. And Israel is an important part of who I am as a person," Levin said. "I don't know if I can really associate with that party anymore."

Leaving the protests and looking ahead to 2024

Levin isn't alone in feeling he doesn't belong to a party. Despite young Americans overwhelmingly voting for Democrats, far fewer actually identify as part of the party.

But as the Israel-Hamas war continues, Democrats are wrestling with how to maintain a tough balance: supporting Israel while also addressing the humanitarian concerns of the more progressive wing of their party.

While Biden's commitment to Israel has remained consistent, Americans' feelings toward the country's actions in Gaza are changing. Compared to the initial days after the Hamas attack, larger shares of Democrats and independents now say that the Israeli military response has been too much, according to the latest NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll.

Plus – younger generations are much more split on the issue compared to older generations, with 50% of Gen Z and millennials sympathizing more with the Palestinian people than Israel, according to the poll.

And there's a schism amongst all Democrats, regardless of age, the survey found that they sympathize evenly at 45% to 45%.

The issue could cause even deeper fissures within the Democratic party, which political experts say has long been ideologically united regardless of age.

"Older and younger Democrats are pretty much in accord with what they think is important and issues they favor," said Mike Hais, a Democratic researcher who has studied youth politics for decades.

Hais points to his own research that shows Democratic voters largely agree on the importance of major social issues, including safeguarding abortion, protecting LGBTQ rights and addressing climate change. But the issue of Israel and the Palestinian people could break that unity.

"This does have the potential of being an issue where there could be that kind of division," Hais explained. "I don't have evidence of it yet. I don't think it's gone far enough. But it is the first time I think I've seen the potential for a generation gap within the Democratic Party." he added.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elena Moore
Elena Moore is a production assistant for the NPR Politics Podcast. She also fills in as a reporter for the NewsDesk. Moore previously worked as a production assistant for Morning Edition. During the 2020 presidential campaign, she worked for the Washington Desk as an editorial assistant, doing both research and reporting. Before coming to NPR, Moore worked at NBC News. She is a graduate of The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and is originally and proudly from Brooklyn, N.Y.