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President Joe Biden's response to the Israel-Hamas war has garnered mixed reactions from Penn students. Credit: Abhiram Juvvadi

In the 2020 presidential election, two results were clear on Penn's campus: Joe Biden won by an overwhelming margin, and students turned out in unprecedented numbers.

While Biden secured the state of Pennsylvania by around 1%, students at Penn were clear in their enthusiasm for Biden as the clear choice against President and 1968 Wharton graduate Donald Trump — citing the COVID-19 pandemic and their disapproval of Trump's leadership. Democratic students' votes were divided in the 2020 primary, but heading into the general election, discussion became less focused on what students agreed on — and more about how much they agreed on Biden for president.

Going into 2024, students said they were less certain about their general election voting choice — and if they will vote at all. Many are unhappy about the candidates themselves, but they also disagree about one issue in particular: Biden's policies pertaining to the Israel-Hamas war, a conflict that has led to unprecedented tensions on Penn's campus and which is now becoming a central issue in how students are approaching their picks for president.

Biden, a former Penn professor of presidential practice, has expressed support for Israel in the wake of the Oct. 7, 2023, Hamas attacks — in line with the United States' foreign policy in recent years. In recent months, Penn community members have expressed varying opinions on the war, ranging from calls for a permanent ceasefire — which Biden has stopped short of endorsing while working to end the violence — and expressing support for Israel's efforts.

“I’ve heard from a lot of my peers in the Middle Eastern community that they cannot bring themselves to vote for Biden, due to the way that he [has] handled Israel-Palestine," College senior Maya El-Sharif — who told the The Daily Pennsylvanian that she identifies as a conservative libertarian — said. 

The DP spoke with multiple Penn students and prospective voters across the aisle and across viewpoints on the Israel-Hamas war about their thoughts on Biden's stance. 

Despite the division on Penn's campus, many Democrats are pleased with Biden’s stance on the Israel-Hamas war. For example, College sophomore Eunho Jung said she plans to continue supporting Biden and his administration.

“[Biden] understands the strategic importance of maintaining a strong bond with Israel, the only democratic state in the Middle East, and working toward a two-state solution that will allow everyone in the region to live without fear,” Jung wrote in a statement to the DP. 

At the same time, Biden's policies have divided Muslim American voters, who supported Biden two-to-one during the 2020 presidential election. Engineering junior Abir Hossain — who is also a member of Penn's Muslim Students Association — suggested that this “clear favorability” was prompted by Trump’s 2017 travel ban for citizens of multiple countries, including several with large Muslim populations — leading some to refer to it as a "Muslim ban."

“There were semblances of what would seem like Biden [being] on our side … in terms of supporting [Muslims] and making sure we felt included in politics and that our voices could be heard,” Hossain said. 

College sophomore and MSA member David Williamson said that he disapproved of many of Biden’s policies — even before the Oct. 7, 2023 attacks — despite heavily supporting Biden during the 2020 election cycle.

“I didn't like [Biden] at all,” Williamson said. “Before, I thought he was doing a terrible job with the economy and … giving tons of military aid to foreign countries.” 

Although he isn’t sure who he will vote for in November, Williamson cited Biden’s “unconditional” aid for Israel, and his alleged “greenlighting the genocide of the Palestinian people” as contributing factors towards why he would not vote for Biden. 

“There’s no way I could, in good conscience, vote for him after everything that’s going on,” Williamson said. 

El-Sharif said that while Trump’s rhetoric in 2020 was “very damaging,” she also disagreed with many of Biden’s policies. 

“I think that most people did not think that the Biden administration was the administration of their choice if they were a Democrat,” El-Sharif said. 

Hossain also expressed discontent with Biden’s handling of the growing humanitarian crisis in Gaza, including the United States’ decision to halt funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. 

The halt came after Israel alleged that 12 UNRWA workers in Gaza aided in the Hamas attacks, as reported by the New York Times — leading the United Nations to fire the employees. The employees are subject to a criminal investigation, and a senior U.N. official called the allegations "extremely serious and horrific,” according to the Times.

 “Americans feel like their their worries are not being heard, because ever since October, there's been protests almost every day or every week in major cities around the country,” Hossain said. “And it still feels like Biden is ignoring a lot of those thoughts.” 

Biden's handling of the Israel-Hamas war — including an Oct. 18, 2023 visit to Israel — has impressed College first year Ireland Gorecki, a Republican.

“It said something when he actually traveled into a battleground during his election campaign. It made me feel cared about as an American,” Gorecki said. “It made me feel that we had a good leader in office when it came to this issue.” 

Despite her appreciation for Biden’s actions following the events of Oct. 7, 2023, Gorecki said she believed he could do more than what she described as “just showing up and taking a picture,” and that she would not change her vote based on the issue. 

“I am one of those Republicans who really doesn't like either candidate,” Gorecki said. “I'm simply voting for Trump because I don't like Biden more.” 

Some have looked towards or considered third-party candidates — such as independent candidate and left-wing intellectual Cornel West, who has called for a permanent ceasefire. El-Sharif, Hossain, and Williamson said that they have all considered a third-party candidate — but El-Sharif expressed concerns about “wasting your vote” in a two-party system. 

Hossain, a registered Democrat, said he was planning to either vote for a third-party candidate or abstain from voting for a presidential candidate even prior to the Israel-Hamas war. He cited a lack of enthusiasm for both Biden and Trump, even though he believed in the voting process.

El-Sharif said that — as a Palestinian American who has never votes on party lines — she held “very complex beliefs” on the issue of Israel and Palestine, and that she would not be voting based on the issue since she disagreed with both Trump’s and Biden’s stances. 

Hossain said he has had conversations with both Penn students and other college-aged students about how they will vote in November.

El-Sharif noted that she voted based on policy issues, and that discussion surrounding previous presidential races used to revolve around differences in policies between parties. In recent years, she said the discussion has changed, even if the Israel-Hamas war is on Penn voters' minds.

“I think that in 2020, and in the 2024 election, it’s not really so much about policy so much as it is like, ‘Who am I not voting for?’” El-Sharif said.