Nearly seven months after the Israel-Hamas war began, the demonstrations convulsing college campuses nationwide are exposing fresh tensions within the Democratic Party over how to balance free speech protections and support for Gazans with concerns that some Jewish Americans are raising about antisemitism.

From New York and Los Angeles to Atlanta and Austin, a surge in student activism has manifested in protest encampments and other demonstrations, drawing significant police crackdowns and sometimes appearing to attract outside agitators. The protests also have emerged as the latest flashpoint in the internal Democratic debate over the war.

As scenes of campus turmoil play out across the country in the final days of the school year, the moment also carries political risk for a party that has harnessed promises of stability and normalcy to win critical recent elections, and faces a challenging battle for control of the government in the fall.

“The real question is, can the Democrats again portray themselves as the steady hand at the helm?” said Dan Sena, a veteran Democratic strategist. “Things that create national chaos like this make that harder to do.”

Mr. Sena and other Democrats have argued that Americans have good reason to associate their opponents with chaos: Former President Donald J. Trump faces multiple criminal cases; the narrow, fractious House Republican majority has its own divisions concerning Israel and free speech; some Republicans have urged National Guard deployments to college campuses; and for years, Republicans have faced criticism over antisemitism in their own ranks.

But since the Hamas-led attack on Israel on Oct. 7, and the Israeli military response that has killed more than 30,000 people, according to local authorities, the fight over American policy toward Israel has been especially pronounced on the left.


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