WASHINGTON — Jewish students and faculty members implored lawmakers on Wednesday to condemn antisemitic incidents and push back against hateful language on college campuses as Congress grapples with flared tensions related to the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas.
There has been a documented increase in threats against Jewish, Palestinian, Muslim, Middle Eastern and South Asian people, and groups on both sides say universities have not been productive spaces for debates on these political issues.
“Jewish students are being physically threatened and have legitimate cause to fear for their safety on campuses across the country,” said Rep. Jerry Nadler said during the House Judiciary Committee hearing. “There’s no excuse for that kind of violence at any school, against any student.”
The veteran Manhattan Democrat, who is Jewish, is making his call for more protections for Jewish students two weeks after Patrick Dai, a student at Cornell University, posted a series of antisemitic comments online, including a threat to “shoot up” a dining hall frequented by Jewish students. Dai, whose according to his family has dealt with mental illness, has been arrested and federally charged for posting the threats online.
Cornell student Amanda Silberstein, who serves on Chabad Cornell’s board, said she believes the increased tensions following Hamas’ Oct. 7 attacks on southern Israel contributed to Dai’s decision to post hate speech online.
“It’s evident that the sentiment created on campus by professors and students alike, of pervasive and just widespread antisemitism and anti-Israel rhetoric has created such an atmosphere that has enabled [Dai] to make these comments,” Silberstein said.
Silberstein said social media has “been fueling the fire” on campus by allowing students to falsely think they can hide behind a “veil of anonymity” without fear of repercussions.
“Your words have consequences,” she said. “All students should take that to heart.”
After the arrest, Cornell observed Nov. 3 as a “Community Day” to help students process the stress.
Nationally, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has reported 54 cases of antisemitic incidents on college campuses since Oct. 7.
“As a Cornell alum and a father of three children, I can guarantee you that if this is how this university is going to approach antisemitism, my children will not be attending Cornell,” said Rep. Wesley Hunt, a Texas Republican.
Students from other schools, including the state University of Buffalo and the University of Iowa, also testified about the atmosphere on college campuses.
Democratic lawmakers expressed concerns about how far their Republican colleagues were willing to go to prevent all forms of discrimination.
In March, President Joe Biden requested a 27 percent increase in funding for the Office of Civil Rights to protect equal access to education by enforcing civil rights legislation. As Republican lawmakers finalize a budget proposal for fiscal year 2024, Democrats said they are anticipating to see those funds slashed.
“If my Republican colleagues were serious about this issue, they would fully fund that request,” Nadler said. “Their promises about antisemitism and their actions disconnect in other ways as well.”
On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights released a letter, reminding schools of their legal obligations under Title VI to provide all students a learning environment free from discrimination based on race, color or national origin.
Witnesses and lawmakers at the hearing also clashed over the difference between free speech and statements promoting violence.
Public universities operate under broad First Amendment protections for students and faculty. For example, they can protest and hand out flyers as long as the speech does not escalate into targeted harassment or threats, according to the ACLU.
Silberstein raised the issue of the phrase “from the river to the sea” commonly chanted at rallies by pro-Palestinian activists in a reference to the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea — an area that includes Israel as well as the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The expression in its entirety is “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free”; it has been flagged as antisemitic by the ADL, which describes it as a call for the “dismantling of the Jewish state.”
Silberstein contended that calling for such actions amount to the “genocide of the Jewish people,” a characterization that was has been challenged. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., a Palestinian-American lawmaker, was formally censured by her House colleagues on Tuesday night after using the phrase, which she described as “an aspirational call for freedom, human rights, and peaceful coexistence, not death, destruction, or hate.”
In a tense exchange, Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., and Silberstein discussed the relationship between conduct and speech. Silberstein said action often follows words, citing Dai’s comments after marchers on Cornell’s campus had chanted “from the river to the sea.”
McClintock asked Silberstein whether the legality of speech advocating violence depends “on your viewpoint.”
“Who’s to decide, though, whose viewpoint is legal and illegal?” McClintock said. “In a free society, we put all those viewpoints (out in public) and let the people make the judgment themselves.”
The committee hearing itself was frequently interrupted by Palestinian supporters. Ten protesters were arrested for crowding or obstructing a public building, media reports said.
At the start of the hearing, pro-Palestine protesters waited in the back of the room — some with duct tape over their mouths with the word “Gaza” written on it. The protesters interrupted opening remarks, holding up posters with messages like “Free speech includes Palestinians” and “Stop silencing Palestinian students.”
Students who supported Palestinians said they have feared for their safety and losing out on employment opportunities. On college campuses, pro-Palestinian students often speak to reporters solely on the condition of anonymity over worries about “doxxing,” or having their personal information exposed online. Anonymous online blacklists such as Canary Mission compile names and pictures of those organizers deem to be critical of Israel — and some of those profiled have been questioned by the FBI.
Following pressure on college administrators to investigate campus chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine, the ACLU last week penned an open letter in opposition to what it described as universities backpedaling on free speech. Republican lawmakers — who in the past have loudly protested what they see as the squelching of conservative voices on campus — have introduced legislation barring federal funding to schools they say promote antisemitism, citing SJP activities as an example.
The House’s vote to censure Tlaib was also raised during the hearing, by protesters and lawmakers alike.
“It’s ironic that we’re holding this hearing today about censorship and speech on campus, but last night MAGA Republicans and others censured the only Palestinian voice in the House of Representatives because they didn’t like what she had to say,” said Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga.
Johnson was joined by other Democratic lawmakers in the room as he said Tlaib didn’t advocate for violence but merely stated a different point of view, similar to what he believes is happening on college campuses.
“We’re not setting a very good example here in Congress,” Johnson said.