News & Politics

Campus protests foment fault lines between Democratic lawmakers in PA

Pro-Palestinian protests on college campuses have further exposed officials’ thoughts on the Israel-Hamas conflict

U.S. Rep. Summer Lee (left) and U.S. Sen. John Fetterman (right).

U.S. Rep. Summer Lee (left) and U.S. Sen. John Fetterman (right). Commonwealth Media Services; Nathan Howard / Getty Images

As campuses across the commonwealth show solidarity – and court controversy and a host of related legal issues – with the tent encampments at Columbia University and University of California, Berkeley, elected officials across the ideological spectrum have expressed their thoughts on the protests, student safety and the allegations of antisemitism and abuse of force by police. 

Protests have taken place at institutions throughout the state, from the University of Pennsylvania and University of Pittsburgh, to smaller colleges such as Swarthmore and Dickinson.

Two national figures – U.S. Sen. John Fetterman and U.S. Rep. Summer Lee – have found themselves on opposite sides of the issue that’s increasingly becoming both part of the nation’s political discourse and a source of party division. 

Fetterman, who has been outspoken about Israel’s right to defend itself following the Oct. 7 attacks, has been one of Congress’ most vocal opponents of the protests and alleged antisemitism taking place on campuses. In an interview with NewsNation on Sunday, Fetterman said he believes that “It’s a great American value to protest, but I don’t believe living in a pup tent for Hamas is really helpful.”

“I want to be clear, there is a germ of antisemitism in these protests, and sometimes it flares up. And again, including one of the leaders in Columbia who said some just awful things, talking about ‘Well, they’re lucky we’re not killing Zionists’ and things like that, and he defends himself by saying, ‘Well, those were taken out of context,’” Fetterman said Sunday, stating that Hamas can end the violence by releasing remaining hostages. “And if you are going to protest, why aren’t we protesting … I can’t end that war, Joe Biden can’t end that war, Netanyahu can’t end that war, but Hamas could end it right now, immediately. They could release the last hostages, and they could surrender.”

Fetterman remains one of the few Democratic lawmakers speaking out against the protests. Lee, a first-term member of Congress, faced a Democratic primary challenger this year in Bhavini Patel, who made Lee’s advocacy for a ceasefire a key focus of her campaign. Patel received more than $600,000 in fundraising from a conservative super PAC that claimed she would be a “strong partner to our president,” as a reference to President Joe Biden and his support of Israel. 

Lee was also one of just 37 House Democrats who voted against providing $14.3 billion in military aid to Israel earlier this month. As the Israel-Hamas conflict hovered over the campaign, Lee was victorious – defeating Patel in a landslide, all but ensuring her reelection in her bright blue Allegheny County district. 

Following her primary win last Tuesday, Lee said the race was about more than one issue, and voters clarified that message. 

“There were so many people who wanted to make this (race) a referendum on just one issue. And there were a lot of people who wanted to convince us that we could not be pro-peace and win in this district,” Lee told supporters Tuesday night. “(But) for everybody who wants us to continue the politics of the past ... we are saying, ‘Come and join us. Our movement is expansive enough and big enough for each and every one of us ... It says the movement shows we can ‘build peace from Pittsburgh to Palestine.’”

Monday marks the fifth day of the encampment on Penn’s campus in West Philadelphia. Over the weekend, university faculty joined with Philadelphia elected representatives, some of whom joined the student protests, to urge Penn administrators to respect the rights and protect the safety of students engaged in peaceful protest.

Local lawmakers, including City Councilmembers Jamie Gauthier, Kendra Brooks and Nicolas O’Rourke; state Reps. Tarik Khan, Rick Krajewski and Chris Rabb; and state Sen. Nikil Saval – all progressive Democrats – released a statement Saturday calling out escalating police violence against students and faculty on campuses. 

“Our rights to assemble and to freedom of expression have been crucial tools to build our most important social justice movements, including the Civil Rights movement, the movement to end the Vietnam War, and Occupy Wall Street,” officials said in the statement. “Generation after generation, in times of crisis, students have been at the forefront of movements for peace and justice. As millions of Palestinians face immense loss and violence, our students are leading the nation once again. Penn’s administrators should feel proud that their students are engaged in this thoughtful, caring, and essential work.”

Much like Lee experienced during her primary campaign, the Senate race between Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Casey and Republican nominee Dave McCormick is likely to have the Israel-Hamas conflict take center stage throughout discussions between candidates and voters. 

Casey – the commonwealth’s longest-serving senator – told reporters on Friday that he’s urged Congress to act on legislation to create a “workable definition of antisemitism.” He encouraged Republicans who have spoken out against the protests to join him in supporting the Antisemitism Awareness Act and call for additional funding for the Office of Civil Rights to investigate incidents occurring on campuses. 

“It’s (school leaders’) responsibility to make any antisemitism, Islamophobia and racism unacceptable, and I think you can achieve that goal and still be a place or a setting where the First Amendment is protected,” Casey told reporters Friday. “We can have robust debate and also prevent racism and antisemitism or any other pernicious activity from taking place. But these schools have to have a policy in place – and if your policy isn’t tough enough, or needs to be updated, you should get to work.”

Meanwhile, his opponent has escalated criticism of Democrats over the Israel-Hamas war throughout the last few months. McCormick, a former hedge fund CEO, previously told reporters that the fight against Hamas is between “the West versus evil.”

Over the weekend, McCormick posted a photo in front of an encampment on X, saying “It’s sad to see so many students in our community who don’t know the difference between right and wrong.”

“The antisemitism sweeping college campuses across our nation is deeply disturbing and we need leaders who have the strength to stand up and say so,” McCormick said. 

As Casey and McCormick square off in a race that could potentially decide control of the U.S. Senate, plenty of eyes will remain on Pennsylvania and politicians’ response to ongoing protests and arrests. 

When asked about Democrats’ ability to attract young voters, many of whom have expressed frustration with Biden’s response to the conflict, Casey said there will be a “pretty clear choice” for them in November. 

“I think when they get to decide what’s at stake going forward on rights and which side you’re on, I think I’m pretty clear in my race (which side I’m on),” Casey said Friday. “I think the more we have conversations with young people about issues that they’re most focused on, in addition to their concerns about what’s happening in Gaza in the Middle East, the better we’re going to do.”