Campus Protests: Republicans Accuse University Leaders of ‘Giving In’ to Antisemitism (2024)

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Jacey Fortin

Five takeaways from the latest hearing on campus antisemitism.

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The leaders of three universities denied that their campuses have become “hotbeds of antisemitism,” as one House Republican described them in a congressional hearing on Thursday. But they acknowledged missteps in the handling of the pro-Palestinian demonstrations that have engulfed American universities in recent months, and said that some acts of hostility toward Jewish students need to be addressed.

The hearing grew heated at times, especially as Republicans accused the leaders of Northwestern and Rutgers of “giving in” to demonstrators. But for the most part, the presidents of the two schools, as well as the chancellor of the University of California, Los Angeles, appeared to fare better than other university leaders who have testified before the same committee since the Oct. 7 Hamas-led attack on Israel.

Although they got caught up in some testy exchanges and seemed to dodge a few questions, the leaders appeared to have navigated their testimony on Thursday without many significant missteps. Their responses were at times considered, and at other times combative. They pointed to the challenges of balancing student safety with free speech — especially at Rutgers and U.C.L.A., which are both public universities that must abide by the First Amendment — and they condemned episodes of antisemitism on campus.

Here are five takeaways from the hearing.

Republicans expressed outrage over agreements with protesters at Rutgers and Northwestern.

The presidents of Rutgers and Northwestern said that the goal of striking deals with pro-Palestinian protesters had been to end the encampments and restore safety for all students, including Jewish students who found the demonstrations threatening.

Coming to agreements with the demonstrators had made that possible, they said — and noted that they had done it without committing to divesting from Israel, as students had demanded.

“We had to get the encampment down,” said Michael Schill, the president of Northwestern University, adding that he had sought to avoid police intervention on campus — a decision that many of his peers have made, leading to nearly 3,000 arrests at universities since April 18.

Mr. Schill pushed back on the notion that he had rewarded students who engaged in antisemitic conduct. “We agreed to none of their demands,” he added.

Jonathan Holloway, the president of Rutgers, also defended coming to an agreement with pro-Palestinian demonstrators and rejected harsh characterizations of them from some Republicans on the committee.

“They were not, as some have characterized them, terrorists,” he said. “They were our students.”

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The encampment was breaking our rules. There was antisemitic behavior that was making our Jewish students feel unsafe. I knew we had to take down the encampment, and get it down quickly and permanently. We did not give in to any of the protesters’ demands, and the commitments we made are consistent with our values. Importantly, I rejected the main student demand for divestment and will not ever recommend that Northwestern use its resources for political purposes.

Campus Protests: Republicans Accuse University Leaders of ‘Giving In’ to Antisemitism (2)

A Democrat zeroed in on U.C.L.A.

Republicans spent much less time focused on Gene D. Block, the chancellor of the University of California, Los Angeles, where more than 200 pro-Palestinian demonstrators were arrested — but only after a violent attack on their encampment by pro-Israel counterprotesters, none of whom have yet been publicly identified or apprehended.

The most pointed questions of Dr. Block came from Representative Ilhan Omar, Democrat of Minnesota, whose own daughter was suspended by Barnard College for participating in the protests at Columbia University. She asked about the “appalling” images from U.C.L.A. and said the counterprotesters had “attacked students you were responsible for.”

Early in the hearing, Dr. Block acknowledged that he had made mistakes in dealing with the encampment, which was removed after the attack. He added that U.C.L.A. had taken decisive action in recent weeks to keep people on campus safe, including creating a new security office reporting to the chancellor.

“Are any of these people in jail?” Ms. Omar said of the counterprotesters. “It’s been over a month.”

Dr. Block said that the Los Angeles Police Department was working to identify perpetrators of the violence, and that he had tried to get the police there as quickly as possible. Ms. Omar pointed out that there were videos of university security standing by as the attacks unfolded for several hours.

“You should be ashamed for allowing such violence to happen,” she added.

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“The recent images from U.C.L.A. are appalling. You could have prevented this when you saw an angry mob on campus on the night of April 30, but you did not. Instead, you, the U.C.L.A. leadership and law enforcement stood by for hours as the mob of agitators gathered near the encampment with the clear intention to cause violence. And because of your inaction, they acted on the intention and brutally attacked students you were responsible for. How did you fail these students at many critical points where you could have intervened?” “So, thank you for the question. But I really — I’m sorry, but I reject the premise. These students —” “How do you reject the premise? Are these pictures lying? Are these pictures — are any of these people in jail?” “Can I finish my statement?” “No, are any of these people in jail? Are any of these people arrested?” “L.A.P.D. is working on trying to identify the people who were assailants that evening. We are committed to finding out the people —” “It’s been over a month.”

Campus Protests: Republicans Accuse University Leaders of ‘Giving In’ to Antisemitism (3)

Previous congressional hearings have been more fraught than this one.

This was the fourth in a series of fiery congressional hearings on campus antisemitism in recent months. The university leaders who testified on Thursday appeared to have learned from the previous hearings, which prompted upheaval at several colleges.

In December, a line of questioning from Representative Elise Stefanik, Republican of New York, helped push the presidents of Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania out of their jobs, after they appeared to offer evasive answers about whether students who called for genocide would be punished.

Ms. Stefanik’s questions on Thursday were more specific to the events that had happened at the three leaders’ universities, allowing them to challenge her characterizations of what had happened on campus.

Eric Burlison, Republican of Missouri, asked whether leaders believed that phrases like, “From the river to the sea,” and, “Intifada, revolution,” which have been used at some campus protests, were antisemitic. Mr. Schill and Dr. Holloway agreed, to a point.

Mr. Schill said that the phrases had become “dog whistles for antisemitism.” And Dr. Holloway said that the phrases were antisemitic when they “incite violence, threaten or harass.”

Dr. Block said more definitively that he believed that they were antisemitic, though he said surveys suggested that many people would not agree. It was a considered — though not legalistic — approach that appeared to leave the leader largely politically unscathed.

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“Would you acknowledge that ‘From the river to the sea” and ‘Intifada revolution,’ these phrases are antisemitic calls for the destruction of Israel and the slaughter of Jews? Mr. Schill?” “I believe that over time those statements have become dog whistles for antisemitism.” “Mr. Holloway?” “I think any time those phrases, such like that is used to incite violence and threaten, harass is a violation of conduct and is antisemitic.” “Chancellor Block?” “I also think they’re antisemitic, although surveys show, interesting, many, many people do not.”

Campus Protests: Republicans Accuse University Leaders of ‘Giving In’ to Antisemitism (4)

Asked about discipline, university leaders stressed the importance of due process.

Early on, Representative Virginia Foxx, a North Carolina Republican who chairs the House Education and the Workforce Committee, asked all three university presidents how many students had been suspended or expelled for antisemitism since Oct. 7.

Mr. Schill said no Northwestern students had been suspended or expelled. Dr. Holloway said that four people had been suspended at Rutgers, and that the university had imposed some discipline on 19 others. Dr. Block said that U.C.L.A. is evaluating more than 100 reports of antisemitism and Islamophobia.

But as in similar hearings over the past few months, the university leaders said that reports of antisemitism had to be investigated and substantiated before universities could act.

In pointed questioning, Ms. Stefanik asked Mr. Schill about several instances of reported attacks on Jewish students on his campus. Mr. Schill responded that the allegations were being investigated. “We believe, at Northwestern, in due process,” he said — something he repeated later when asked about the actions of several faculty members.

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“Isn’t it true that a Jewish Northwestern student was assaulted?” “There are allegations that a Jewish student was assaulted. We are investigating those allegations.” “Isn’t it true that a Jewish student was verbally harassed and stalked to Hillel?” “There are allegations of that sort, and we are investigating them.” “Isn’t it true that a Jewish student wearing a yarmulke was spat on?” “All of these are allegations that are being investigated.” “How long are these investigations going to occur?” “Well, if you remember, the encampment was up just a few weeks ago. So we believe at Northwestern in due process. We believe in investigations. We believe —” “So when are the investigations going to be finalized?” “I’m not going to be able to tell you that.”

Campus Protests: Republicans Accuse University Leaders of ‘Giving In’ to Antisemitism (5)

Some of the broadest questions forced university leaders to demur.

Some questions forced the administrators to take a detour into broader issues, including domestic and global politics.

Rep. Burgess Owens, Republican of Utah, pressed Mr. Schill on how much funding Northwestern has received from Qatar, whose government has poured millions of dollars into the Gaza Strip for years, helping to prop up the Hamas government there. Those payments have been tolerated and encouraged by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel.

Mr. Schill said that this was not his area of expertise. But he did say that the university would look into the relationship between its journalism department and Al Jazeera, the influential Arab news network owned by Qatar.

Bob Good, Republican of Virginia, asked Dr. Holloway whether Israel’s government is genocidal. Dr. Holloway said that he did not have an opinion “in terms of that phrase,” but added that he did believe Israel that has “a right to exist and protect itself.”

Mr. Good also asked him whether “MAGA Republicans” were a threat to American Jews.

“I’m not in a position to answer that question, sir,” Dr. Holloway said.

A correction was made on

May 23, 2024

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An earlier version of this article misspelled the last name of the former University of Pennsylvania president. It is Elizabeth Magill, not Elizabeth McGill.

How we handle corrections

May 23, 2024, 5:23 p.m. ET

May 23, 2024, 5:23 p.m. ET

Shawn Hubler

A University of California strike over campus protests will expand to U.C. Davis and U.C.L.A.

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A union for academic workers in the University of California system announced on Thursday that an ongoing strike challenging the system’s handling of pro-Palestinian demonstrations would extend to two more campuses, U.C.L.A. and U.C. Davis, starting next Tuesday.

The announcement came on the same day that U.C.L.A.’s chancellor, Gene D. Block, testified before Congress about his handling of a violent attack on an encampment there last month by counterprotesters.

The walkout first started this week at U.C. Santa Cruz, involving about 2,000 teaching assistants, tutors and researchers, and it has threatened to complicate coursework and spring finals for the 20,000 students enrolled there. The Santa Cruz, Davis and Los Angeles campuses all end their spring quarters in mid-June.

The union, U.A.W. 4811, part of the United Auto Workers, represents about 48,000 graduate students and other academic workers across the U.C. system, which encompasses 10 campuses and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Among other grievances, the workers have charged that the university’s response to recent campus protests over the Israel-Hamas war has created an unsafe work environment, and has amounted to an unlawful and unilateral change in its policies on free speech.

The union has claimed that disciplinary proceedings against students and employees involved in the protests have barred some from campus and others from university housing. Rafael Jaime, the U.A.W. president, said the strike had been authorized through June 30.

University of California officials have said that the strike is an unlawful attempt to pressure the system to concede to a political agenda, and officials have filed for an injunction with the state Public Employment Relations Board to immediately end the walkout.

On Thursday, Dr. Block acknowledged to the House committee that he had made mistakes in dealing with the encampment at U.C.L.A. last month, and added that the university had created a new security office reporting to the chancellor. The police response to the counterprotester attack late last month is now under investigation, and the campus police chief was removed from his post this week.

More than 200 pro-Palestinian demonstrators were arrested after the April 30 attack. When grilled by Representative Ilhan Omar, Democrat of Minnesota, on whether any of the counterprotesters had been apprehended, Dr. Block said on Thursday that the Los Angeles Police Department was working to identify them.

Just as the U.C.L.A. chancellor was testifying, a small group of pro-Palestinian protesters formed a new encampment, barricading an area on campus known as the Kerckhoff Patio with umbrellas, tables and slabs of wood. Some protesters who were standing outside of the encampment carried signs that said “U.A.W. rank and file workers for Palestine.” By Thursday afternoon, they appeared to have abandoned the encampment.

Grace Whitaker contributed reporting.

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May 23, 2024, 4:35 p.m. ET

May 23, 2024, 4:35 p.m. ET

Jonathan Wolfe

Reporting from the U.C.L.A. campus

Protesters now appear to have abandoned the encampment as the police moved in. It was not clear if any arrests had been made. Demonstrators marched to a different part of campus, about 200 yards away, to continue the protest, which has swelled to about 300 people.

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Campus Protests: Republicans Accuse University Leaders of ‘Giving In’ to Antisemitism (8)

May 23, 2024, 4:14 p.m. ET

May 23, 2024, 4:14 p.m. ET

Grace Whitaker

Reporting from the U.C.L.A. campus

A line of police officers in riot gear has entered the U.C.L.A. encampment that sprang up just hours ago. At one point, there appeared to be about 20 people in the encampment, but dozens if not hundreds of more protesters outside. It’s unclear how many protesters remain inside the barricaded area.

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Campus Protests: Republicans Accuse University Leaders of ‘Giving In’ to Antisemitism (9)

May 23, 2024, 4:13 p.m. ET

May 23, 2024, 4:13 p.m. ET

Jonathan Wolfe,Grace Whitaker and Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs

Jonathan Wolfe and Grace Whitaker reported from Los Angeles, and Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs from New York.

As U.C.L.A.’s chancellor faced Congress, students formed a new encampment.

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Pro-Palestinian demonstrators at the University of California, Los Angeles, briefly formed a new encampment and then took over a campus building on Thursday before police officers in riot gear moved in to disband the efforts.

The protests, which drew hundreds of people, came on the same day that the U.C.L.A. chancellor was grilled in a hearing on Capitol Hill over his handling of a similar encampment last month.

By the afternoon, about 70 protesters had entered Dodd Hall, an academic building, sealing off doors with computer cables and jackets. One protester, speaking into a megaphone, asked anyone not affiliated with U.C.L.A. to leave and acknowledged the ad hoc nature of the protest: “We’re building this plane as we fly it.”

But just a few hours after the protesters had gotten inside, police officers in riot gear barged in and cleared the building — a contrast to what Republicans lawmakers criticized as a slow response to the demonstrations in late April.

Protesters had initially set up a small encampment earlier on Thursday in an area known as the Kerckhoff Patio, but quickly abandoned it after officers wearing helmets and carrying batons moved in. The protesters then fled to an area by Murphy Hall, amassing about 300 people at one point, and then some eventually moved into Dodd Hall.

In recent weeks, student activists have been calling on the university to divest from companies that they view as enabling Israel’s war in Gaza. Their demonstration in April was one of the most high-profile campus protests this year. More than 200 protesters were arrested after a group of pro-Israel counterprotesters attacked the encampment. None of the counterprotesters have been apprehended.

Thursday’s protests were short-lived and relatively calm, as the police moved in quickly and students fled. The university said that it was not aware of the police making any arrests.

In a statement, university officials said that the demonstrators were “disrupting campus operations” because they had blocked off a part of campus.

“Demonstrators have been informed that if they do not disperse, they will face arrest and possible disciplinary action, as well as an order to stay away from campus for seven days,” the officials wrote, adding that the order would apply to anyone, regardless of university affiliation.

Thursday’s actions came as U.C.L.A.’s chancellor, Gene D. Block, and the leaders of Northwestern and Rutgers testified before a Republican-led House committee about allegations of antisemitism on their campuses. Dr. Block defended his university’s response to the April encampment, but also said that he was concerned about the rise of antisemitism on campuses across the country.

“With the benefit of hindsight, we should have been prepared to immediately remove the encampment if and when the safety of our community was put at risk,” said Dr. Block, who is set to step down as chancellor at the end of July.

He faced tough questioning from Representative Ilhan Omar, Democrat of Minnesota, who demanded to know why none of the counterprotesters who attacked the pro-Palestinian camp last month had been arrested. Dr. Block said that the university was investigating the attack.

The U.C.L.A. chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine said the hearing was “a textbook example of political theater” that conflated “calls for Palestinian liberation with antisemitism” in an effort to curb pro-Palestinian movements. It condemned what it described as a “McCarthyist” effort to censor protesters.

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Campus Protests: Republicans Accuse University Leaders of ‘Giving In’ to Antisemitism (10)

May 23, 2024, 3:58 p.m. ET

May 23, 2024, 3:58 p.m. ET

Grace Whitaker

Reporting from the U.C.L.A. campus

More police officers in riot gear — now from the Los Angeles Police Department — have arrived at the newly formed pro-Palestinian encampment at U.C.L.A. and are declaring the assembly unlawful over a loudspeaker. So far, the police seem focused on stopping more people from joining the camp, but the number of officers here indicates that they may also be preparing to enter and clear the area.

Campus Protests: Republicans Accuse University Leaders of ‘Giving In’ to Antisemitism (11)

May 23, 2024, 3:06 p.m. ET

May 23, 2024, 3:06 p.m. ET

Grace Whitaker

Reporting from the U.C.L.A. campus

While U.C.L.A.’s chancellor was testifying before Congress on Thursday, students set up a new pro-Palestinian encampment on the campus, barricading a patio with umbrellas, tables and crates. It consisted of only a handful of tents and roughly 20 people, but was a sign that protests may continue at the university, where the academic year runs through mid-June.

Campus Protests: Republicans Accuse University Leaders of ‘Giving In’ to Antisemitism (12)

May 23, 2024, 3:07 p.m. ET

May 23, 2024, 3:07 p.m. ET

Grace Whitaker

Reporting from the U.C.L.A. campus

By midday, it appeared U.C.L.A. might take a hard line against the new demonstration: Police officers from the nearby Santa Monica Police Department, wearing helmets and carrying batons, were called to the edge of the new encampment. And the university cut off access to the patio where the protest had taken root, as well as to several buildings around it.

May 23, 2024, 2:10 p.m. ET

May 23, 2024, 2:10 p.m. ET

Kayla Guo

Reporting from the Capitol

What business does Congress have questioning university presidents anyway?

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Republicans have used a recent spate of congressional hearings on antisemitism to attack academia and progressive campus culture — some of the right’s favorite targets — and capitalize politically on the searing debate over Israel’s offensive in Gaza, which has bitterly divided Democrats.

But underneath all the political theater is a concrete legislative mandate and an implicit threat by Republican lawmakers. The House Committee on Education and the Workforce is charged with overseeing the Department of Education, including evaluating whether it is enforcing anti-discrimination laws, and the billions of dollars in federal funding that goes to educational institutions.

That means the committee can demand answers from the leaders of those institutions, dangling the specter of being cut off from federal funding if they do not comply. Republicans have been explicit about their willingness to take such action if they deem a university’s policies and responses to behavior on campuses to be unacceptable.

“Taxpayer dollars have no business funding universities without principles that align with the principles of this country,” Representative Virginia Foxx, Republican of North Carolina and chairwoman of the committee, said in her opening statement on Thursday. “Each of you refused to enforce your own rules, preserve campus safety and protect Jewish students.”

Education and free speech advocates argued that the hearings amounted to efforts by Congress to browbeat universities into aligning with partisan and politicized standards.

“It is very dangerous for any legislature, state or federal, to legislate about campus curriculum, campus activities, campus disciplinary codes,” said Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education. “I get very nervous whenever any government attempts to demand a certain kind of behavior from an institution, aside from the very basics of health, safety, protecting the freedom of speech and protecting students from danger.”

The hearings are part of a broader effort by House Republicans to condemn the pro-Palestinian protests that have cascaded throughout universities across the country. Those, too, have been an effort to use the issue as a political cudgel against the left, by pushing for sweeping remedies and condemning opponents who do not support them as antisemitic.

The House this month overwhelmingly passed legislation that aims to clamp down on antisemitic speech by enshrining a definition of antisemitism into federal law and instructing the Education Department to consider it when investigating allegations of discrimination against Jews on campuses. That could result in colleges losing federal funds if they fail to curb a broad range of statements covered by the definition, which includes “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination” and claiming that Israel’s existence is a “racist endeavor.”

The Senate has not taken up the measure.

Ben Wizner, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, noted that public universities are bound by the First Amendment. But he added that it was “inappropriate for Congress to be trying to pressure private universities through the purse to impose ideological speech restraints.”

Democrats also highlighted what they called Republicans’ selective focus on hate speech.

Representative Bobby Scott of Virginia, the top Democrat on the education panel, noted on Thursday that Republicans declined to hold a hearing after the violent white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017, during which hundreds of white supremacists marched through the city carrying torches and chanting, “Jews will not replace us.”

“Here we are, for the fifth time in six months, holding another hearing to complain about the problem of antisemitism, but no work is being done to find a meaningful solution to address animus on college campuses,” Mr. Scott said. “By fueling culture wars, as I believe these hearings have done, we are setting an example for others to feed into and continue to escalate the tensions on college campuses.”

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May 23, 2024, 1:40 p.m. ET

May 23, 2024, 1:40 p.m. ET

Eliza Fawcett

At the Newark campus of Rutgers University, a pro-Palestinian encampment of dozens of tents remains standing on a main campus walkway, outside the School of Law. Palestinian flags fly throughout the encampment and some tents are painted with messages like “Their blood is on your hands” and “Divest from killer companies.”

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May 23, 2024, 1:40 p.m. ET

May 23, 2024, 1:40 p.m. ET

Eliza Fawcett

A small group of pro-Palestinian protesters clustered near a tent of food and water and listened to President Jonathan Holloway respond to congressional questioning over a speaker system.

Campus Protests: Republicans Accuse University Leaders of ‘Giving In’ to Antisemitism (16)

May 23, 2024, 1:36 p.m. ET

May 23, 2024, 1:36 p.m. ET

Robert Chiarito

Some student protesters have been watching the hearing from their campuses. At Northwestern, some who watched said their fight would not end until the university complies with all their demands and said they are prepared to continue into the summer.

“We know divestment is a long struggle and has been a long struggle for decades on this campus so we are not surprised that they say they will not divest,” said Jordan Muhammad, a fourth year student at Northwestern and a student leader with Students for Justice in Palestine. Isabel Butera, a junior and member of Jewish Voice for Peace, said she was “appalled” by Northwestern president Michael Schill’s testimony on Thursday.

May 23, 2024, 1:19 p.m. ET

May 23, 2024, 1:19 p.m. ET

Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs

Overall the leaders of U.C.L.A., Rutgers and Northwestern fared far better than other university leaders to testify before this committee. Although they got caught up in several testy exchanges and seemed to dodge a few questions, they appeared confident and seemed to navigate the last few hours of testimony without making any significant false steps. Still, it remains to be seen how faculty, staff and students at these universities — as well as the people these leaders report to — view their responses.

May 23, 2024, 1:11 p.m. ET

May 23, 2024, 1:11 p.m. ET

Sharon Otterman

Rep. Foxx concludes by criticizing President Schill for not suspending any students yet, and giving misleading answers. She blasts President Holloway for saying he will not close and defund a Rutgers center that takes anti-Israel views. And she criticizes Chancellor Block for standing by as Jewish students were blocked from parts of campus. She talks in a slow, calm voice. “Today’s hearing is the beginning, and not the end of this committee’s investigation of your institutions,” she says.

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May 23, 2024, 1:04 p.m. ET

May 23, 2024, 1:04 p.m. ET

Anemona Hartocollis

The hearing has ended.

May 23, 2024, 12:51 p.m. ET

May 23, 2024, 12:51 p.m. ET

Sharon Otterman

When Representative Burlison asks if the leaders believe phrases like “From the River to the Sea” and “Intifada, Revolution” are antisemitic, Schill and Holloway agree, to a point. Schill says they have become “dog whistles for antisemitism.” Holloway says that when those phrases “incite violence, threaten or harass” they are antisemitic. Block says more clearly that he believes they are.

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“Would you acknowledge that ‘From the river to the sea” and ‘Intifada revolution,’ these phrases are antisemitic calls for the destruction of Israel and the slaughter of Jews? Mr. Schill?” “I believe that over time those statements have become dog whistles for antisemitism.” “Mr. Holloway?” “I think any time those phrases, such like that is used to incite violence and threaten, harass is a violation of conduct and is antisemitic.” “Chancellor Block?” “I also think they’re antisemitic, although surveys show, interesting, many, many people do not.”

Campus Protests: Republicans Accuse University Leaders of ‘Giving In’ to Antisemitism (21)

May 23, 2024, 12:49 p.m. ET

May 23, 2024, 12:49 p.m. ET

Sharon Otterman

We are three hours into this hearing, and no one has yet asked the question that so tripped up the presidents of Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania at the first hearing: “Does your code of conduct prohibit calls for the genocide of Jews?”

May 23, 2024, 12:50 p.m. ET

May 23, 2024, 12:50 p.m. ET

Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs

Instead, Representative Eric Burlison, Republican of Missouri asks all three university presidents about whether they believe Israel is a genocidal state. All three say no. (Earlier, when only Rutgers’ president was asked that question, he declined to answer, saying he did not have an opinion on that phrase. Now, he answers decisively.)

May 23, 2024, 12:45 p.m. ET

May 23, 2024, 12:45 p.m. ET

Kayla Guo

Reporting from Washington

How the First Amendment adds a wrinkle to this antisemitism hearing.

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The college presidents testifying on Thursday about antisemitism on their campuses are just the latest few to be hauled before the Republican-led House Committee on Education and the Workforce. But two of them are facing a unique set of questions because of a key difference from previous witnesses: their institutions are public, and thus bound by the First Amendment.

Jonathan Holloway, the president of Rutgers University, the state university of New Jersey, and Gene Block, the chancellor of the University of California, Los Angeles, are among the witnesses testifying before the panel.

Republicans have used previous hearings to savage the leaders of private universities, which set their own standards around speech and protests, accusing them of fostering an environment in which antisemitism has flourished by failing to punish anti-Israel statements and symbols.

But public universities are funded by the government and must abide by the First Amendment to the Constitution, which declares that there shall be no law “abridging the freedom of speech” or “the right of the people peaceably to assemble.”

That requirement raises a thorny question at the heart of the protests, colleges’ responses and the issue of free speech on campuses: To what extent is antisemitic speech protected by the First Amendment?

The nuances of the answer could complicate the college leaders’ testimony and House Republicans’ attempts to ensnare them as they did the presidents of Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania, who offered lawyerly responses on whether their campus policies required disciplining students who called for the genocide of Jews or the elimination of Israel.

Though private universities tend to embrace free expression and notions of academic freedom and the marketplace of ideas, their policies are usually narrowly focused, and they are not legally bound by the Constitution or case law related to the First Amendment.

Public universities, however, are subject to the sometimes murkier directions of the Constitution.

One framework laid out in case law involving the First Amendment is the notion of “time, place and manner.” That doctrine permits the government, at times, to regulate the logistics around speech and protest in pursuit of public safety and order.

The other crucial test is “imminent lawless action.”

If a statement — for instance, an antisemitic chant — is intended to prompt “imminent lawless action,” it is not protected by the First Amendment. But if the speech fails to meet that standard, even if it is repugnant or discomforting, it may not be subject to government restrictions.

And while the line between speech and conduct is not always clear — and some campus protesters considered their encampments to be a form of speech — the courts have held that certain regulations, including those on overnight camping, can meet the time, place and manner test, even on public property. Federal civil rights law also bars some threatening behavior.

At U.C.L.A., police arrested more than 200 pro-Palestinian protesters and cleared out an encampment last month that university officials had declared illegal. That came after violent counterprotesters attacked the encampment and clashed with demonstrators for hours with little to no police intervention.

On the other side of the country, students at Rutgers ended a three-day encampment after reaching a deal with university administrators.

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May 23, 2024, 12:38 p.m. ET

May 23, 2024, 12:38 p.m. ET

Anemona Hartocollis

In one of the more pointed exchanges, Representative Brandon Williams asked the three leaders: “Who’s behind these encampments?” Northwestern's president, Schill replied, “I don’t know.” The Rutgers president, Holloway, suggested they were outside forces. “I’m uncertain," said U.C.L.A.’s chancellor Block.

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“Who’s behind these encampments, in your opinion? Specifically groups on your campus, Mr. Schill?” “I don’t know.” “Wow, Mr. Holloway?” “I have a public university with a lot of outside organizations involved, and I know some were funding. I can’t, I’m unable to tell you which organizations.” “Mr. Block?” “I’m uncertain because there were quite a —” “This is absolutely shocking. You allowed these encampments to persist on your campus, but you don’t know who was behind them.”

Campus Protests: Republicans Accuse University Leaders of ‘Giving In’ to Antisemitism (26)

May 23, 2024, 12:35 p.m. ET

May 23, 2024, 12:35 p.m. ET

Sharon Otterman

Rutgers ended a protest encampment by deploying a carrot and a stick.

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Officials at Rutgers University in New Jersey gave an ultimatum to the hundreds of students who had set up a pro-Palestinian encampment on its New Brunswick campus: Either take down the tents by a deadline, or face trespassing charges and arrests by the police.

As the deadline, 4 p.m. on May 2, neared, law enforcement officers gathered at the outskirts of the quad where the encampment stood.

“They gave us 60 minutes to discuss whether or not we wanted to take a deal,” Aseel Abukwaik, a junior and organizer with the school’s Students for Justice in Palestine chapter, said of those moments. “It was extremely stressful.”

The group decided to accept, bringing a peaceful resolution to a four-day standoff.

Rutgers officials ended the encampment by deploying a carrot-and-stick approach. In their deal, administrators agreed to aspects of eight of the protesters’ 10 demands. Among them: The university will welcome 10 displaced Palestinian students to finish their educations at Rutgers; devise a plan for a new cultural center for Arab and Muslim students; and develop training sessions on anti-Muslim and anti-Palestinian racism for all Rutgers staff.

The university did not agree to the protesters’ main demands: divestment from Israel and an academic boycott of Tel Aviv University. But administrators did agree to discuss the divestment request.

The agreement brought harsh criticism from those who opposed negotiating with the pro-Palestinian protesters. Virginia Foxx, a Republican who is the chair of the House committee hosting Thursday’s hearing on campus antisemitism, described the deal, and the one at Northwestern University outside Chicago, as “shocking concessions to the unlawful antisemitic encampments on their campuses.”

Jonathan Holloway, the Rutgers president, said he received thousands of emails expressing dismay with his willingness to make a deal with the protesters. He defended his actions.

“I am confident in our decisions,” he told the school’s board of governors this month. “The result of our actions was a peaceful return to the normal course of business.”

The deal did not apply to another encampment, at the school’s Newark campus, which was ongoing as of May 20.

May 23, 2024, 12:29 p.m. ET

May 23, 2024, 12:29 p.m. ET

Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs

So far, lawmakers have spent little time asking questions about U.C.L.A., but Representative Omar uses her time to drill down on what has happened there. “Are any of these people in jail?” Omar asks U.C.L.A.’s chancellor, referring to the counterprotesters who attacked a pro-Palestinian student encampment. “It’s been over a month,” she adds. U.C.L.A. is leading an investigation into the counterprotesters but has made no arrests. The university did, however, call in the police to arrest more than 200 pro-Palestinian demonstrators, angering some who see a double-standard.

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“The recent images from U.C.L.A. are appalling. You could have prevented this when you saw an angry mob on campus on the night of April 30, but you did not. Instead, you, the U.C.L.A. leadership and law enforcement stood by for hours as the mob of agitators gathered near the encampment with the clear intention to cause violence. And because of your inaction, they acted on the intention and brutally attacked students you were responsible for. How did you fail these students at many critical points where you could have intervened?” “So, thank you for the question. But I really — I’m sorry, but I reject the premise. These students —” “How do you reject the premise? Are these pictures lying? Are these pictures — are any of these people in jail?” “Can I finish my statement?” “No, are any of these people in jail? Are any of these people arrested?” “L.A.P.D. is working on trying to identify the people who were assailants that evening. We are committed to finding out the people —” “It’s been over a month.”

Campus Protests: Republicans Accuse University Leaders of ‘Giving In’ to Antisemitism (29)

May 23, 2024, 12:31 p.m. ET

May 23, 2024, 12:31 p.m. ET

Sharon Otterman

Chancellor Block responds that the L.A.P.D. is working on identifying the perpetrators of the violence. He says “he tried” to get police there as quickly as possible. Omar points out that there are videos of U.C.L.A. police officers standing by as the violence unfolds. “You should be ashamed for allowing such violence to happen,” Omar says.

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May 23, 2024, 12:23 p.m. ET

May 23, 2024, 12:23 p.m. ET

Sharon Otterman

Rep. Ilhan Omar, one of the three Muslim members of Congress, is asking questions about the “appalling” images from U.C.L.A., when counterprotesters attacked the encampment. She mentions how rats were released into the encampment. “Instead you stood by for hours,” she said. “They attacked students you were responsible for.”

May 23, 2024, 12:22 p.m. ET

May 23, 2024, 12:22 p.m. ET

Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs

Now questioning the university leaders is Representative Ilhan Omar, Democrat of Minnesota, whose own 21-year-old daughter joined a pro-Palestinian protest at Columbia (and was suspended from her college, Barnard, for doing so).

May 23, 2024, 12:20 p.m. ET

May 23, 2024, 12:20 p.m. ET

Sharon Otterman

Representative Ilhan Omar has defended pro-Palestinian students.

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Ever since Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota was sworn into Congress in 2019, she has been a lightning rod.

A Democrat and one of three Muslim members of Congress, Ms. Omar has been outspoken on police reform, racial justice and Israel, and has often drawn criticism for her left-leaning stances from Republicans and Democrats alike.

As a member of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, she was among the representatives who questioned Columbia University’s president, Nemat Shafik, during a hearing on accusations of antisemitism on that campus in April.

Ms. Omar asked Dr. Shafik why students had been evicted and suspended for their participation in a pro-Palestinian event and asked about an alleged chemical attack on protesters.

The next day, Dr. Shafik asked the police to clear an encampment on campus, and Ms. Omar’s daughter, Isra Hirsi, was among the protesters who were arrested and suspended. Ms. Hirsi is a student at Barnard College, and an organizer with the coalition that established the encampment.

After the Columbia protest encampment was rebuilt on another lawn, Ms. Omar visited to show solidarity. When she was asked about Jewish students who have faced antisemitism on campus, she sparked a controversy after remarking that all Jewish students should be kept safe, “whether they’re pro-genocide or anti-genocide.”

Speaker Mike Johnson, Republican of Louisiana, called her language “detestable,” but Ms. Omar stood firm. She pointed to reports about anti-Arab slogans yelled at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, writing in a social post: “This is the pro-genocide I was talking about, can you condemn this like I have condemned antisemitism and bigotry of all kind?”

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May 23, 2024, 12:09 p.m. ET

May 23, 2024, 12:09 p.m. ET

Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs

It’s surprising how little attention U.C.L.A. has gotten so far in this hearing, given the violence that took place there. Many students were seriously injured at U.C.L.A., including when pro-Israel counterprotesters attacked a pro-Palestinian encampment and the next day, when the police arrested more than 200 pro-Palestinian protesters. Still, many of the questions about student safety have been directed toward Northwestern and Rutgers.

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May 23, 2024, 12:08 p.m. ET

May 23, 2024, 12:08 p.m. ET

Sharon Otterman

U.C.L.A. has been criticized for letting violence break out on campus, and a tent encampment still remains on one Rutgers campus. But Republicans have so far been most focused on President Schill of Northwestern, saying that his decision come to an agreement was a capitulation to antisemitic activity on campus. “In my view, you are the easiest case we have dealt with, ” said Representative Kevin Kiley. The Rutgers agreement, which was similar, is getting much less attention. And Chancellor Block is defusing questions by saying he’s either not familiar with specific incidents or saying they are under investigation.

May 23, 2024, 11:58 a.m. ET

May 23, 2024, 11:58 a.m. ET

Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs

Representative Kevin Kiley, Republican of California, shows a video from last month of protesters at U.C.L.A. blocking a pro-Israel, Jewish student from walking near the encampment. Kiley asks each university leader if “blocking students from entering campus based on their race, religion or ethnicity” is an expellable offense at their universities. They all respond by saying, essentially, that it could be depending on the circ*mstances.

May 23, 2024, 11:56 a.m. ET

May 23, 2024, 11:56 a.m. ET

Ernesto Londoño

Northwestern University President Michael Schill said the school is in the process of revising its conduct code, but provided no details on how it would change. Mr. Schill called freedom of speech and academic freedom “core values” at Northwestern, but he added that they do “not allow discrimination, harassment or intimidation.”

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May 23, 2024, 11:53 a.m. ET

May 23, 2024, 11:53 a.m. ET

Jeremy W. Peters

With his probing questions, this freshman Republican has stood out in the hearings.

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Much of the spotlight has been on Representative Elise Stefanik during recent congressional hearings on antisemitism, but there is another Republican who has stood out for his probing of witnesses.

That’s Kevin Kiley, a 39-year-old freshman whose district comprises a 450-mile swath of California, from the mountains of Lake Tahoe to the flats of Death Valley.

A former high school English teacher, Mr. Kiley was elected to his seat in 2022. Before that, he served in the California Legislature, where he was a fierce critic of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. He leveraged his opposition to the governor and ran against him during an ill-fated attempt to recall him in 2021.

Mr. Kiley positioned himself as a moderate. He said he did not support Donald J. Trump in the 2016 Republican primaries, but instead John Kasich, the former Ohio governor.

In an interview with The New York Times before the recall election, Mr. Kiley said he was connecting with voters across the political spectrum for his focus on quality-of-life issues: housing affordability, homelessness, crime and underperforming schools. “There’s certainly a coalition out there that is seeking a new direction for the state,” he said.

He came in sixth place.

During the antisemitism hearings, Mr. Kiley has distinguished himself for his tough questioning of administrators. He has said he believes schools and universities have responded inadequately to threats reported by Jewish students.

At a hearing with public school district leaders on May 8, he pressed the superintendent in Berkeley, Calif., on whether the district had fired any employees for antisemitic conduct. She declined to answer.

And at a December hearing that precipitated the ousters of two Ivy League presidents, Mr. Kiley declared, “We need fundamental cultural change for the university campuses.”

May 23, 2024, 11:46 a.m. ET

May 23, 2024, 11:46 a.m. ET

Sharon Otterman

Representative Good also brings up several examples of anti-Israel advocacy on Rutgers campus. He gets Holloway to say that Rutgers should not be funding anti-Israel advocacy. However, Holloway also says he has no plans to close a center whose director takes a strong anti-Israel stance, implying it is a matter of free speech.

May 23, 2024, 11:44 a.m. ET

May 23, 2024, 11:44 a.m. ET

Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs

Rutgers’ president, Jonathan Holloway, refuses to answer when asked if Israel’s government is genocidal. “Sir, I don’t have an opinion on Israel’s — in terms of that phrase,” he says in response to Representative Bob Good, Republican of Virginia. He says he does believe Israel has “a right to exist and protect itself.”

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“The Rutgers Newark campus hosts a think tank called the Center for Security, Race and Rights, or C.S.R.R. In a post on X, C.S.R..R. called Israel’s government, ‘genocidal.’ Do you think Israel’s government’s genocidal?” “Sir, I don’t have an opinion on Israel’s — in terms of that phrase.” “You do not have an opinion as to whether or not Israel’s government is genocidal?” “No, sir. I think Israel has a right to exist and to protect itself.” “Do you think Israel’s government’s genocidal?” “I think Israel has a right to exist and to protect itself, sir.”

Campus Protests: Republicans Accuse University Leaders of ‘Giving In’ to Antisemitism (41)

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May 23, 2024, 11:41 a.m. ET

May 23, 2024, 11:41 a.m. ET

Anemona Hartocollis

The committee is revealing a fondness for visual aids. Representative Elise Stefanik held up a placard with a big bold F on it to illustrate her point about how the Antidefamation League had graded Northwestern on its campus antisemitism report card. A sign in the form of a giant $600 million check from “QATAR related sources” to Northwestern illustrated another line of questioning.

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May 23, 2024, 11:19 a.m. ET

May 23, 2024, 11:19 a.m. ET

Ernesto Londoño

Northwestern was among the first schools to reach an agreement with pro-Palestinian demonstrators.

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After demonstrators set up an encampment in late April on Northwestern’s central lawn, Michael Schill, the university’s president, huddled with top aides to assess their options.

Leaving the encampment risked allowing a divisive protest movement to escalate and disrupt classes, Mr. Schill said in an interview. He said he “strongly considered” following the lead of other college presidents who asked the police to dismantle encampments and arrest protesters who were violating school policies.

But Mr. Schill said he concluded that calling in the police would create a “game of Whac-a-Mole” at other universities, where tensions soared following arrests. So he summoned protest leaders for negotiations that led to an agreement — and a backlash.

Northwestern’s agreement included a promise to be more transparent about the university’s finances and to give students a say in how the school invests its money. Pro-Palestinian activists saw it as a first step to get the school to sever financial ties with companies that are profiting from Israel’s military campaign in Gaza, although university leaders did not commit to furthering that goal.

Northwestern also promised to establish positions for two Palestinian scholars affected by the conflict and to provide full scholarships for five Palestinian students.

Days later, Brown University and the University of Minnesota struck similar deals with protesters on their campuses, bringing an end to their encampments.

But Mr. Schill faced significant backlash from Jewish organizations on campus and beyond. Several members of a committee Mr. Schill established last year to prevent antisemitism resigned in protest, and the local chapter of Hillel, a Jewish student group, called the deal a concession to groups that had spread “virulent and intimidating antisemitism on campus.”

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May 23, 2024, 10:57 a.m. ET

May 23, 2024, 10:57 a.m. ET

Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs

The protest at U.C.L.A. culminated in a violent attack by counterprotesters. Here’s what happened.

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The protest at the University of California, Los Angeles, against Israel’s military campaign in Gaza was among the most high-profile demonstrations in recent weeks, resulting in the police making more arrests than on any other campus since mid-April.

After students set up an encampment on April 25, the campus saw several tense moments that culminated in an attack on the demonstrators and more than 200 arrests of protesters who refused to leave.

As the encampment grew, pro-Israel groups gathered to counter the pro-Palestinian message, and the two sides had several heated exchanges.

There were videos showing a pro-Israel, Jewish student being blocked by protesters from entering an area around the encampment, as well as one of a pro-Israel woman who said she lost consciousness after being shoved to the ground. (It was not clear from videos of that encounter how she fell.)

The university declared the encampment illegal on April 30, and hours later, a group of people attacked the pro-Palestinian protesters. Some people in the counterprotest wore clothing with pro-Israel slogans and played the Israeli national anthem. They tore away metal barricades, shot fireworks into the encampment, and punched, kicked and hit people with makeshift weapons.

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The police did not intervene in the melee for several hours. Eventually, officers with the Los Angeles Police Department and the California Highway Patrol got in between the two groups. The slow response is now the subject of an inquiry by a police consulting group hired by U.C.L.A.

The next night, the university called in the police to arrest protesters. None of the counterprotesters who attacked the encampment have been arrested, but the university is investigating the attack.

On May 5, the university chancellor, Gene Block, announced that he was creating a new Office of Campus Safety and naming a former Sacramento police chief to lead it. The university also temporarily reassigned its campus police chief this week.

Dr. Block has faced criticism that he allowed the encampment to flourish for too long and did not respond forcefully enough to allegations of antisemitism. Some have also said that the university did not effectively protect students from the counterprotesters’ attack and should not have sent the police to make arrests.

Dr. Block was the subject of two resolutions by the university’s academic senate that sought to rebuke him largely over his handling of the attack. The group voted against both resolutions on Friday.

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Campus Protests: Republicans Accuse University Leaders of ‘Giving In’ to Antisemitism (2024)

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