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Bernie Sanders declined to call hearing on campus antisemitism, GOP senator claims

At a committee roundtable on antisemitism Thursday, Sen. Tim Kaine lamented there wasn’t also attention to anti-Muslim and anti-Arab bigotry

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Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) questions Monica Bertagnolli during her confirmation hearing on October 18, 2023 in Washington, D.C.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who chairs the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, declined a Republican request to hold a full-committee hearing on the explosion of antisemitism on college campuses, the committee’s ranking member, Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-LA), told Jewish Insider yesterday.

Committee Republicans had sent a letter to Sanders last week requesting a hearing on the subject; they instead called their own roundtable on Thursday, which was attended by some Democrats.

“We asked that there be a formal hearing. Senator Sanders chose not to. Obviously there is interest on the Democratic side of the aisle but he just decided this was not one of his priorities,” Cassidy told JI. 

Sanders, for his part, said in a letter to Senate leadership on Wednesday that he is concerned about the growth in antisemitic, Islamophobic and racist incidents on college campuses since Oct. 7.

“These acts of hatred are unacceptable and have no place in this country,” Sanders said. He requested emergency supplemental funding for the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. Sanders said in a statement that he met with the official who leads OCR, and also requested a classified briefing on the rise in hate crimes, both on campus and nationally.

During the roundtable yesterday, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) said he was “a little bit sad about the setup of the discussion,” suggesting that the Republicans were ignoring the difficulties being faced by Muslim and Arab students.

“I’m hearing about the 400% increase in antisemitism since Oct. 7 on my [state’s] campuses,” Kaine said. “But I’m also hearing from students who are Arab American or Muslim American or Palestinian American or who express any support for Palestinians — that they’re being targeted too… They’re afraid for their safety, they’re afraid for their livelihood and we’re not including them in this discussion.”

Kaine added that such students also have concerns about having “their face put up on a poster because of something they said, they may have a job offer withdrawn because of something they said.”

The roundtable, which featured testimony from two Jewish students, a professor of American Jewish history, the George Washington University Chabad director and Kenneth Marcus, the founder of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, touched on various aspects of Jewish students’ experiences on campus since Oct. 7. 

It followed a hearing on Wednesday in the House Judiciary Committee, which touched on both antisemitism and anti-conservative activity on campuses. 

“The Biden administration has a responsibility to prohibit discrimination in programs or activities at institutions receiving federal funds,” Cassidy said at the roundtable. “It is our responsibility to understand the true severity of this trend and to ensure that the department holds these taxpayer-funded institutions accountable for properly handling these events.”

Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) lamented a “lack of moral clarity” about the Hamas attack from college administrators, as well as others including public officials and commentators.

“I don’t know why someone would not make a statement initially — right out of the gate — that what Hamas did was engage in a terrorist act, and they are a terrorist organization,” Casey continued. Antisemitism, he noted, was already on the rise for years before Oct. 7, “and now the job ahead of us is much bigger.”

During the Senate roundtable and House hearing, the lawmakers and witnesses discussed potential steps for tackling rising campus antisemitism, including more funding for the Office of Civil Rights — which was met with skepticism from some Republicans — and greater communication to campus communities about the Department of Education’s role in investigating antisemitic discrimination.

Marcus called for passing the Antisemitism Awareness Act. The bill seeks to codify the Trump administration’s executive order instructing the Department of Education to treat antisemitism on college campuses as a violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act and utilize the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism in assessing cases.

The legislation was first introduced in the Senate in 2016 — led by Sens. Tim Scott (R-SC) and Casey — when it passed by unanimous consent. The senators reintroduced it in 2018 and 2019, prior to the Trump administration’s announcement. 

It was reintroduced last month by Scott and other Senate Republicans, with a bipartisan companion bill in the House. No Senate Democrats have cosponsored the bill so far.

“Senator Casey introduced the Antisemitism Awareness Act for three consecutive Congresses. In 2019, President Trump issued an executive order that Senator Casey believes fully addressed, and even expanded on, the issues he was attempting to address with his bill,” a Casey spokesperson told JI last month.

Other Senate Democrats who were original cosponsors of previous versions of the bill said they hadn’t been contacted about sponsoring the bill before it was reintroduced.

An individual familiar with the situation told JI that Scott’s office had reached out to some Senate Democrats before introducing the bill — and that outside groups did so as well — but didn’t hear back or were rebuffed.

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