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Schumer faces new pressure as campus protests flare in his home state

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An eruption of campus protests against Israel’s conduct of the war in Gaza has again put Chuck Schumer — the highest-ranking elected Jewish leader in U.S. history — in an unenviable spot.

The demonstrations first picked up steam at Columbia University, in the metropolitan heart of Schumer’s home state, but they’ve since spread across the country. And when Democrats returned to the Hill this week, his caucus’ vulnerable incumbents were peppered with questions about whether they would denounce the protests amid reported antisemitic incidents.

Just weeks after taking on political risk by urging Israel to hold elections to replace Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and criticizing the same Palestinian civilian casualties that protesters object to, Schumer publicly condemned the campus demonstrators.

It’s a delicate balance for the Democratic leader, who clearly felt a personal weight before speaking out against the Israeli government. As Sen. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) put it: “It’s a hard time, especially for him. It is for all of us.”

Schumer’s Democratic colleagues say he’s handling the burden well. And his No. 2 made clear that he’s not alone in having to draw tough lines against demonstrations that turn discriminatory while projecting respect for the broader right to protest.

“It’s a tough challenge. If you respect the Constitution, you want to say freedom of speech is fundamental in America,” said Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). “But there are lines you can’t cross. And when they cross the lines, they need to be held accountable.”

Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), one of the House’s most senior Jewish members, said that “I agree with” Schumer’s actions so far — suggesting that too much attention is being paid to the campus protests against Israel. “The news media is making this a huge thing. It is, in fact, a small thing.”

But that “small thing” isn’t going anywhere. Though the Columbia protests largely dissipated Tuesday night after at least 200 police entered campus to disperse protesters who had occupied a campus building. Many other universities are bracing for disruptions to their commencement ceremonies later this spring, and school administrations are continuing to struggle with the line between free speech and impermissible disruptions.

The tense images and video emerging from campus protests have catalyzed Republican-led efforts to pass legislation addressing antisemitism, including a proposal to strengthen Department of Education discrimination standards that overwhelmingly passed the House on Wednesday. Senate Republicans are already calling on Schumer to immediately take up the House legislation, but he would not commit to that on Wednesday.

“We haven’t seen what the House is sending us yet,” Schumer said.

Other Republicans urged him, even in lieu of the antisemitism bill, to make a formal show of opposition to the campus protests.

“I think he especially needs to show leadership,” said Sen. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.). “If nothing else, just a resolution saying this is the voice of the Senate, that we condemn these riots.”

Notably, Schumer’s fellow New Yorker and Democratic leader, House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, formally previewed his support for Wednesday’s bill before it passed.

And Schumer has gone farther in criticizing Israel in recent weeks than many would have expected of him just a few months ago. Even before his remarks calling for Netanyahu’s removal, he delivered a November speech on antisemitism that grew uncharacteristically personal about the intersection of his faith and politics during a troubling time.

After Schumer’s anti-Netanyahu speech, which drew him a rebuke from some Jewish American groups, Welch could be seen giving the majority leader a hug on the floor.

Nicholas Wu contributed to this report.