House Republicans assail university head for negotiated end to Gaza protest

<span>From left, Northwestern president Michael Schill and Rutgers president Jonathan Holloway in Washington on 23 May 2024.</span><span>Photograph: Amanda Andrade-Rhoades/Reuters</span>
From left, Northwestern president Michael Schill and Rutgers president Jonathan Holloway in Washington on 23 May 2024.Photograph: Amanda Andrade-Rhoades/Reuters

Members of a Republican-led congressional committee confronted another set of university heads on Thursday over their approach to pro-Palestinian protests in the latest hearings on Capitol Hill on a reported increase of campus antisemitism.

Republicans on the House of Representatives’ education and workforce committee repeatedly clashed fiercely with Michael Schill, president of Northwestern University in Illinois, over his decision to negotiate an end to a tented protest community rather than call in police, as has happened on other campuses.

In a sometimes fiery three-hour session, Schill – who opened his testimony by declaring that he was the Jewish descendant of Holocaust survivors – became the lightning rod in a hearing also featuring the chiefs of Rutgers University and the University of California, Los Angeles.

All three institutions witnessed the appearance of encampments in April similar to one set up on the grounds of Columbia University in New York by students protesting Israel’s military offensive in Gaza and related financial ties with their universities.

Schill and Jonathan Holloway, president of Rutgers in New Jersey, drew Republican ire for adopting a softly-softly approach by persuading protesters to dismantle their sites through agreements that some members depicted as appeasement.

The UCLA encampment was dismantled by police after it was violently attacked by pro-Israeli counter-protesters on 30 April. Gene Block, that university’s chancellor – although criticised for deploying police too late and failing to act when pro-Palestinian protesters blocked the movement of students they accused of being Zionist, as detailed by the Los Angeles Times – attracted less rough treatment from GOP members.

A new pro-Palestinian encampment appeared on the UCLA campus as Bock testified on Thursday. Over two dozens officers descended on the campus, but it was unclear if any arrests were made.

But Block was strongly denounced by Ilhan Omar, the leftwing Democratic congresswoman from Minnesota, who told him that he “should be ashamed” for failing to protect protesters from violent attack.

“You should be ashamed for letting a peaceful protest gathering get hijacked by an angry mob,” she said.

Thursday’s session was the full committee’s third hearing on a trend of campus protests that have been subject to accusations of antisemitism and intimidation alleged to have arisen after October’s attack by Hamas on Israel, which produced a devastating Israeli military retaliation.

An initial hearing last December led to the resignation of two university presidents, Elizabeth Magill of the University of Pennsylvania and Claudine Gay of Harvard, for giving answers deemed too legalistic.

A second hearing last month on developments at Columbia University brought assurances of action from its president, Minouche Shafik, who immediately afterwards called in police to remove an encampment on the main campus lawn. But her actions triggered an upsurge of similar tented protests at campuses across the US that became the partial focus of Thursday’s hearing.

The committee’s Republican chair, Virginia Foxx of North Carolina, set a confrontational tone by quoting from Ernest Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises, where a character describes going bankrupt – gradually, then suddenly.

“These three little words paved the road that led to today’s hearing,” she said. “Over the course of years – decades, even – universities gradually nurtured a campus culture of radicalism in which antisemitism grew and became tolerated by administrators.

“Each of you should be ashamed of your decisions that allowed antisemitic encampments to endanger Jewish students.”

Schill, saying that antisemitism and supporting Israel were not “abstract” or “theoretical” for him, admitted that his university’s rules and policies had fallen short and the university had not been ready for the students’ response to the 7 October attack and its aftermath.

But he was targeted by Republican members who questioned his compromise with protesters and suggested he had tolerated antisemitism.

He showed visible irritation with Elise Stefanik, the representative from New York, after she told him “I’m asking the questions here” and held up a placard emblazoned with an “F” to signify that the Anti-Defamation League had pronounced Northwestern’s policy on antisemitism a failure.

Answering Burgess Owens, a Republican representative from Utah, who used another placard designed as a cheque for $600m to depict funding the university receives from Qatar – a Gulf kingdom that also finances Hamas – Schill said: “I’m really offended by you telling me what my views are.”

Jim Banks, a GOP representative from Indiana, told Schill that “your performance here has been an embarrassment to your school”, adding that Northwestern University had become “a joke”.

Responding to Brandon Williams of New York, all three heads said they had been taken by surprise by the encampments’ appearance and did not know who was behind them. Williams called this an “astonishing admission”.

Several Democratic members questioned the hearing’s premise and the sincerity of Republicans in tackling antisemitism, accusing them of silence when it came from their own side.

“The first amendment protects both popular and agreeable speech, and speech that people can reasonably disagree with, including sometimes hateful words but again and painting with a broad brush,” said the committee’s ranking Democrat, Bobby Scott of Virginia. “The [Republican] majority has attempted to remove any distinction between hate speech and genuine political protest.”

Suzanne Bonamici of Oregon highlighted what she depicted as Republican hypocrisy. She said: “Just a few days ago, the true social account of Donald Trump included an outrageous video with Nazi-like language about a unified reich. Did any of my colleagues on this committee call that out?”