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Gaza Conflict Upends California Democratic Party Convention


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SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The conflict in Gaza pervaded a California Democratic Party convention in Sacramento on Saturday as speakers and demonstrators pressed party leaders to demand a cease-fire, a progressive stance that has divided Democrats.

Pro-Palestinian protesters disrupted on-stage interviews with Reps. Katie Porter and Adam Schiff and technology executive Lexi Reese, three of the U.S. Senate candidates seeking the party endorsement, as they ultimately cut the forum short. Rep. Barbara Lee, the sole major candidate to support a cease-fire, was the only one of the three representatives not to be shouted down by the party faithful.

The actions underscored how Israel’s counteroffensive in Gaza has become a deeply fraught issue for Democrats, dividing many grassroots voters from leaders — including President Joe Biden and top congressional prospects — who have resisted calls for a cease-fire. Activists said they would vote next year based on how Democrats respond to a war that has killed thousands of Palestinians in the weeks since Israel launched its counteroffensive to an Oct. 7 assault by Hamas militants.

“We’re the people electing the people sitting in those seats right now,” said Veronica Boulos, a Sacramento State University student who is active in party politics and helped organize the demonstration. “We’re going to make sure in November that they represent us and they hear us.”

No race will reflect those tensions more than the contest for an open U.S. Senate seat that was held by the late Sen. Dianne Feinstein. The conflict in Gaza has permeated the race: Schiff and Porter have rejected calls for a cease-fire, but Lee has demanded it in an affirmation of her progressive status.

Democrats will hold a convention vote this weekend on a Senate pick, although it is unlikely that Schiff, Porter or Lee will garner 60 percent of the tally, the endorsement threshold.

Porter and Schiff have aligned themselves with the Biden administration’s position, which has evolved to support humanitarian pauses to get aid to civilians in Gaza but does not back a cease-fire. Despite growing pressure from the left, including at their home-state convention, neither has called on Israel to halt its military operation.

“It’s our continual obligation to emphasize the right of Israel to defend itself, but also the necessity to make every effort to protect innocent civilians. … And I think the administration is pressing Israel to do exactly that,” Schiff told POLITICO in an interview. “I support the administration’s efforts along those lines.”

Schiff demurred on whether he thought the Israeli government was doing enough to minimize harm to Palestinian civilians and said the administration “would have a much better sense of that.”

For Lee, the Israel-Hamas war has given her fresh reason to remind Democrats of her signature progressive credential: that she stood alone in opposing the war in Afghanistan following 9/11. Her call for a cease-fire sets her apart from her competitors, who have outpaced her in polls and fundraising.

Convention delegate Barisha Spriggs said she chose to support Lee over Porter in large part because of their differing stances on the conflict. Spriggs said she became disillusioned with Porter after learning she did not back a cease-fire, which “made me realize she’s not progressive.”

“Barbara Lee is the only candidate calling for a cease-fire,” Spriggs said. “That’s a stance on the right side of history.”

Around 100 demonstrators held a sit-in in front of the entrance to the convention hall where the Senate hopefuls were addressing delegates in advance of the endorsement vote, repeatedly disrupting speakers before streaming into the main convention area. Aside from scattered jostling with security, the protest as of mid-afternoon was peaceful. The interruptions led to multiple gentle rebukes from California Democratic Party Chair Rusty Hicks, who then attempted to counter “cease-fire now!” chants with the party’s mantra of “organize to win.”

Protesters chanted Gov. Gavin Newsom’s name, although the governor was not attending the convention. Newsom visited Israel shortly after the Oct. 7 attacks and has not called for a cease-fire.

Naomi Goldman, a Democrats for Israel California board member, said she was “incredibly disappointed” that there did not appear to be any consequences for the disruptors, some of whom were chanting “from the river to the sea.” While Palestinian activists say the phrase is a call for freedom and equality, many Jews say it is a call for the destruction of Israel.

Goldman, who wore a T-shirt that said “Nice Jewish Girl” to represent her community, noted the Democratic party often speaks out against hate speech targeting other racial, ethnic or religious groups. “But I did not see any of that come out in the last six weeks in support of the Jewish community, even here in California,” she said.

Some of the day’s first speakers set the tone. Delegates cheered and chanted “cease-fire now!” after Dr. Sara Deen, a Muslim leader from Southern California, called for a halt to Israel’s military operation from the main stage of a party convention in Sacramento. Deen was joined by Rabbi Steven B. Jacobs, who condemned abuses by both Hamas and the Israeli government.

“We stand together acknowledging the thousands of Palestinians and Israelis dead in Israel and Gaza and the occupation,” Jacobs said, condemning Israeli hostages held by Hamas and “Palestinian political prisoners held without charges in Israel.”

The speech did not reflect an official party position. California Democratic Party spokesperson Shery Yang said that speakers prepare their own remarks. The state party is not expected to consider a change to its official position on Israel, which calls for a “secure and democratic Jewish state with recognized borders” and “independence, sovereignty, and dignity” for Palestinians.

The party had anticipated disturbances at the convention and put in place stricter-than-usual security measures. The precautions reflected some attendees’ uneasiness in advance of the convention, particularly in light of high-profile antisemitic and Islamophobic incidents at prior demonstrations in the state. Hicks told reporters that the party had fortified protections in recognition of “a tense moment” around the country.

But he downplayed the risk of Democrats withholding their votes because of how the party has handled the bombardment of Gaza.

“There’s a long way between here and Election Day in November of 2024,” Hicks said.



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