Mere hours after Hamas rampaged through southern Israel on Oct. 7, Mayer Schmukler encountered a shocking sight down the street from his home in Crown Heights, a Brooklyn neighbourhood with a large Hasidic population. Standing on the corner outside a deli, a man was cheering the gunmen on: “You don’t have to be Hamas to shoot up Jews,” the man shouted.
The following week, near the synagogue he attends, Mr. Schmukler, a 58-year-old software company owner, saw another man walk up behind a congregant and punch him in the face before escaping by subway.
“Evil is showing its ugly face,” Mr. Schmukler said as he stood on the National Mall in Washington at the March for Israel last week, where tens of thousands turned out to support the Jewish state in its war with Hamas. “All the dirt is now seen.”
The hateful episodes in Crown Heights are one facet of the vast division that has swept across the U.S. since Oct. 7. Confrontations on university campuses have turned increasingly ugly. Splits within the Democratic Party have threatened to damage President Joe Biden’s re-election prospects next year. Duelling protests have gripped Washington and other cities.
While the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has long caused acrimony among Americans, these fissures now seem wider than ever.
A day after the March for Israel, several hundred pro-Palestinian protesters blockaded the doors to the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters near the U.S. Capitol. Linking arms and singing Which Side Are You On?, they called for Israel to end its siege of the Gaza Strip.
Videos and photos of the scene show police officers shoving protesters, throwing them down a set of stairs and firing pepper spray. Capitol Police said six officers were hurt and one protester was arrested for punching an officer in the face. Members of Congress who were inside for a fundraiser were rushed out of the building by police.
Jeremy Cohan, who attended the protest, said the sheer enormity of the violence in the Middle East is driving more people than in years past to take to the streets.
“A greater and greater sector of American society is being politicized around this. It’s brutal and it’s horrifying, and people are seeing the death toll – the horrors of the initial Hamas attack and the horrors of the Israeli response,” said Mr. Cohan, co-chair of the New York chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America.
Other pro-Palestinian protests shut down part of the San Francisco Bay Bridge during last week’s Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation summit and saw tens of thousands of demonstrators march on the White House earlier this month.
At universities, tensions have repeatedly boiled over. An attempt by a pro-Palestinian protester to set fire to an Israeli flag at Tulane University in New Orleans led to a melee in the middle of a street. During a confrontation at the University of Texas at Austin, one man was captured on video calling the attendees of a pro-Palestinian event “terrorists” and saying he would soon be “killing Arabs” in Israel.
In the Ivy League, schools have struggled to figure out how to respond. After Harvard took no action against pro-Palestinian groups that blamed Israel for Hamas’s massacres, donors threatened to stop funding the school. When Columbia banned its chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace, students accused administrators of stifling freedom of speech.
Ubiquitous social media videos show pro-Palestinian students tearing down posters of Israeli hostages held by Hamas.
“Students tell me how scary it is on campuses. People who were once their friends won’t talk to them,” said Mindy Orlofsky, 23, an Israeli-American who works for a Jewish student organization in Manhattan.
The country’s fissures run straight through Mr. Biden’s party. The President has rushed military aid to Israel and is asking Congress to authorize more than US$14-billion more. He has pressed Israel to allow humanitarian aid into Gaza and to respect the laws of war but has dismissed calls from the left of his own party for a ceasefire.
While most polling shows a majority of U.S. voters sympathize more with Israelis than with Palestinians, support for Palestinians has been rising among young people. Support for Mr. Biden, meanwhile, has dropped among Muslim and Arab Americans, who make up sizable communities in key swing states such as Michigan and Pennsylvania. They voted mostly for Mr. Biden the last time around and could thwart his re-election in 2024 by sitting the vote out.
“I think you’re going to see a lot of activists and organizations telling voters in our community ‘leave the presidential and Senate ballots blank next year,’ ” said Amer Zahr, a Palestinian-American political organizer in Dearborn, Mich. “In 2020, we went for the lesser of two evils and we see where that got us on our most important issue.”
Support for a ceasefire within Congress has steadily grown over the past month, with 24 members of the House of Representatives signing a letter last week urging one. Most Democratic legislators, however, have remained behind Mr. Biden.
“I am not in a place to be considering a ceasefire,” Democratic Pennsylvania Senator John Fetterman, who has been one of Israel’s staunchest supporters on his party’s left, said in an interview. “Hamas needs to be destroyed if you ever want peace.”
Dov Waxman, an expert on U.S.-Israel relations at the University of California, Los Angeles, said the intensity of the current protests has been driven at least in part by social media and the ready availability of video from the front lines. Algorithms on TikTok and other apps are designed to prioritize content that provokes the strongest reactions and direct people to more of what they have already seen.
“It’s feeding into the kind of polarization which was already happening in general, and now we’re seeing it play out on this issue,” he said.
Some of that polarization was on view at the March for Israel itself.
In one speech, CNN anchor Van Jones appealed for an end to the fighting. “No more rockets from Gaza, no more bombs falling down on the people of Gaza,” he said.
Attendee Amiel Lindenbaum, a 53-year-old Florida travel agent who had dressed as Moses for the occasion, said it was “misguided” to consider a ceasefire. “Evil has to be rooted out,” he said. “It’s about Western values.”