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Biden can’t escape protests over his backing for Israel, even in church

By Edward-Isaac Dovere, CNN

Charleston, South Carolina (CNN) — At most only a few dozen ever come, but they’re following President Joe Biden almost everywhere.

On Friday near Valley Forge, Pennsylvania – as the president was inside giving a searing speech warning that American democracy might collapse if he doesn’t beat Donald Trump – a group of pro-Palestinian protestors stood on a patch of grass outside ticking through rhyming chants like, “Hey hey, ho ho, genocide Joe has got to go!”

On Monday at the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, Biden was in the middle of remembering the nine congregants gunned down by a White supremacist in 2015 – quoting the Bible about truth and light being a path out of the darkness – when three people (two White, one Black) stood in a middle pew chanting, “Ceasefire now!”

“If you really care about the lives lost here, then you should honor the lives lost and call for a ceasefire in Palestine!” one of the women called out.

A speech meant to tie the legacy of White supremacy after the Civil War to Trump by calling 2020 election denialism “the Second Lost Cause” and promote his record of achievements for Black Americans suddenly had to detour into international diplomacy and one of the thorniest issues he has faced in office.

Biden campaign aides weren’t surprised. They figured this would be coming. They know this will keep coming, whether outside the White House or interrupting fundraising events or just dogging him along the trail. Indeed, before the president arrived, the pastor of the church – anticipating protests himself – had admonished the crowd that he expected people to be respectful of the space. Junior operatives working the event had already clocked these particular protesters over an hour before they stood up.

While Biden aides downplay the protests’ significance, what many leading Democrats fear is that those couple of seconds are another window into collapsed support for the president on his own side that could well provide the margins to add up to his defeat. Between younger voters, Arab Americans and a significant portion of the party’s most progressive wing, the protests have been following him from vigils outside the White House, protests outside his events around the country and even anonymous letters from staffers calling on the president to endorse a ceasefire and resignations.

Biden aides believe all this adds up to more reasons to hope for a speedier end to the fighting between Israel and Hamas in Gaza — in addition to the humanitarian ones the president alluded to as he responded to the interruption.

“I understand the passion and I’ve been quietly working – been quietly working with the Israeli government to reduce – significantly get out of Gaza,” Biden said as the protesters were led out.

But the response inside Mother Emanuel AME Church also showed how much support Biden has among the non-protesters: as the activists were led out, hundreds of people started chanting “Four more years!” When they finished, a woman called out to Biden, “You’re an understanding person – they don’t realize that. You’re a good man.”

One woman in attendance, who had been in the church on the day that the massacre happened, told reporters afterward that the moment immediately brought her back to that trauma. Black leaders there and beyond complained that both the church and the slain congregants’ memories were being tarnished.

Florida state Sen. Shev Jones – who is co-chair for the Biden campaign in the state – said progressives need to think about what they are doing as they go at the president.

“A church where we were honoring the memories of nine souls that were lost from White supremacy is not the time or the place for a protest,” Jones told CNN.

Jones urged them to get serious about the larger stakes of the election that the president was trying to lay out, and not let their disappointment get them to the point of saying they don’t see why to stick with him against Trump.

“It’s easy to say that when you currently have the ability to make a choice. I want them to say that when they’re not able to make a choice at all,” Jones said.

Now three months since the Hamas attacks, the pressure on Biden brought by the Israel-Hamas war is only growing. In addition to attacks from progressives, he is also dealing with an Israeli government clearly now resisting his pressure, an international community quickly losing patience and even senior aides who have told him almost from the beginning that the politics were bad for him in backing Israel.

He believes, as he said from the days after the October 7 attack and his trip to Israel shortly after, that this is an issue of right and wrong – and has stuck by that even as civilian deaths keep mounting in Gaza and support has curdled in many corners.

That stubborn conviction has been met by progressive activists who feel their only chance to influence Biden’s Israel policy is to make him feel political pain at home. As the war has gone on, they’ve only dug in further, continuing to push the idea that their position is the only one that makes sense for the truly progressive. Hundreds have shutdown major roads in New York, Chicago and beyond. Justice Democrats, the group best known for backing Squad-aligned House Democrats, has laid off much of its staff, but has kept sending out emails – and rather than being about climate change or other past priorities, they are now largely criticizing the pro-Israel group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

People inside Biden’s camp are so on edge and hyper-aware on this issue that aides in the campaign headquarters believe they have already identified most of their colleagues who signed anonymous letter last week also calling for Biden to back a ceasefire.

Biden aides point to polls that have continued to show strong backing for supporting Israel, even acknowledging in less guarded moments that this has been one of the more popular issues for a president whose approval rating has been stuck around 40%. One Quinnipiac poll from just before Christmas showed that 69% of voters think supporting Israel is in the national interest of the United States, versus 23% who did not.

“As long as they do so peacefully, all Americans have a constitutional right to express their views,” said White House spokesman Andrew Bates when asked about demonstrations at and around official events. “That’s true of the almost 300,000 Americans demonstrating on the National Mall in agreement with President Biden’s support of Israel’s obligation to defend itself, and the groups that have protested at White House events.”

That statement touches on what the Biden orbit likes to invoke the “quiet majority” – the many millions of voters whom they say are nowhere near as engaged as what they see as ultra-online, ultra-tribalist Democrats and Republicans who tend to get the most attention.

They believe those less visible voters for the most part agree with Biden’s center-left, lower volume approach. To the Biden team, how the president handles both the protesters themselves and the larger issue they’re protesting gives him another chance to demonstrate the kind of president he wants to be seen as, and to sharpen the contrast to Trump, aides told CNN.

Biden is approaching the issue as “a human being and a statesman – not a politician,” said Michael Tyler, the communications director for the campaign who was in the church on Monday.

“You saw him hear folks out with a different point of view with respect and decency. Put that up against Donald Trump and MAGA Republicans who’ve time and again, exploited Americans’ differences for political gain, going so far as to erase our own history, ban books, or attack Americans for their identity if they don’t like them,” Tyler said. “That’s the difference and the choice next November.”

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