Biden warns against ‘surge of antisemitism’ at Holocaust event

<span>Joe Biden reaffirmed his commitment to Israel despite ongoing protests across US campuses over Israel’s war on Gaza.</span><span>Composite: AP, Anadolu via Getty Images</span>
Joe Biden reaffirmed his commitment to Israel despite ongoing protests across US campuses over Israel’s war on Gaza.Composite: AP, Anadolu via Getty Images

Joe Biden warned against a “ferocious surge of antisemitism in America” at a Holocaust event Tuesday, as student protests against Israel’s military strikes on Gaza and the resulting humanitarian crisis continued to roil campuses across the US.

Addressing a bipartisan Holocaust remembrance event at the US Capitol, the president reasserted his “ironclad” commitment to the “security of Israel and its right to exist as an independent Jewish state … even when we disagree”. Hatred towards Jews didn’t end with the Holocaust, he said – it was “brought to life on October 7 2023” when Hamas unleashed its attack on Israel killing 1,200 people.

“Now here we are not 75 years later, but just seven-and-a-half months later, people are already forgetting that Hamas unleashed this terror … I have not forgotten, and we will not forget.”

Biden’s forceful evocation of the shadows of the Holocaust and the scourge of antisemitism was made at a volatile moment when Israel’s retaliatory military operation in Gaza has killed more than 34,000 Palestinians, according to local health authorities, and brought 2.3 million people to the edge of starvation. Demonstrations against the war and calls for a ceasefire has led to turmoil at scores of US universities and colleges – and opened fissures within Biden’s Democratic party that could imperil his re-election hopes in November.

Related: Police let violent mobs attack UCLA students. This is what lawlessness looks like | Judith Levine

The president, who has generally avoided commenting on the campus protests since they erupted at Columbia University in New York three weeks earlier, acknowledged that his remembrance speech fell “on difficult times”. He also said that he understood that “people have strong beliefs and deep convictions”, adding that the US respected free speech.

But he went on to decry antisemitic posters and “slogans calling for the annihilation of Israel” on college campuses. “Jewish students [have been] blocked, harassed, attacked while walking to class,” Biden said.

He concluded that there is “no place on any campus in America or any place in America for antisemitism or hate speech or threats of violence of any kind.

“Violent attacks destroying property is not peaceful protest – it’s against the law,” he said.

Student protesters strongly pushed back at the implication that hatred motivated the pro-Palestinian encampments. A group of more than 750 Jewish students from 140 campuses issued a joint letter on Tuesday calling for a ceasefire in Gaza and rejecting Biden’s equation of the protests with antisemitism.

“As Jewish students, we wholeheartedly reject the claim that these encampments are antisemitic and that they are an inherent threat to Jewish student safety,” the letter said.

Hours before the president delivered his speech, police in riot gear cleared a protest encampment at the University of Chicago. The action began at about 4.30am in the Quad where hundreds of students had been living in tents for more than a week.

The encampment was completely dismantled within about three hours, but about 400 protesters later reassembled outside the university’s administrative building. They chanted “Free, free, Palestine”, and they staged a standoff with police.

In a statement, the university’s president, Paul Alivisatos, said that protesters had been given a chance to voluntarily dismantle the encampment, and he stressed there had been no arrests. But he said negotiations with encampment representatives had broken down because of the “intractable and inflexible aspects of their demands”.

At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, protesters regained access to the encampment there after police had removed them and erected fencing around the area on Monday. Dozens of protesters remained at the site, the Associated Press reported, as they continued to press demands that MIT breaks its research ties to the Israeli military.

Tensions are rising on campuses as institutions approach their traditional graduation ceremonies, with many school governments attempting to clear the encampments to make way for the celebrations. On Monday, Columbia University announced that it was cancelling its campus-wide commencement ceremony, following the example of the University of Southern California.

At Harvard university, the interim president Alan Garber threatened those participating in the pro-Palestinian encampment with “involuntary leave”. He said such a move could jeopardize the students’ access to housing, campus buildings and exams.