Education Secretary Cardona declines to say if ‘from river to sea’ chant is antisemitic

Touting his department’s work against anti-Jewish hate, Cardona said he believes antisemitism can include anti-Zionist statements

Colin Myers/Claflin University/HBCU via Getty Images

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said on Tuesday that calls for genocide are “not tolerable” but stopped short of saying whether the phrase “from the river, to the sea, Palestine will be free” should be considered antisemitic by university administrators.

“If there are students who are feeling that statements by students are being referred to genocide, or they’re feeling unsafe on campus, it is a responsibility of a university leader to get involved,” Cardona told reporters at a Tuesday briefing. “This is an opportunity for leadership to bring people together to talk about it and to set clear lines on how you communicate while not making students feel threatened or unsafe on campus.”

When pressed to say whether the “from the river, to the sea” phrase can be construed as an antisemitic call for genocide, Cardona declined to weigh in.

“That’s why I say we investigate each case, and it’s difficult for me to make a statement here about that. If students are feeling unsafe with that, it’s the responsibility of leadership to act,” said Cardona. “I believe antisemitism can include anti-Zionist statements,” he said, and “we take that into account when looking at cases.”

Late on Tuesday, Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC), the chair of the House Education and Workforce Committee, called on Cardona to resign because of his comments, saying “there is no excusing Secretary Cardona’s cowardly evasion of the antisemitic character of the phrase ‘from the river, to the sea.’”

A department spokesperson on Wednesday sent Jewish Insider a statement offering further context on Cardona’s views about the phrase.

“Secretary Cardona has been consistent that calls for genocide must never be tolerated, that antisemitism can include anti-Zionist statements, and that university leaders have a responsibility to act when students feel unsafe on campus,” the spokesperson said. “He and the Department are acutely aware that many find the chant threatening and antisemitic. Students should never feel unsafe on campuses.”

Another senior department official at the Tuesday meeting pointed out that speech is only “a component of the kinds of harms that we can see.” 

“Students are sometimes surrounded, students are sometimes barricaded, students are sometimes attacked. We are seeing harassment of a variety of stripes,” the official continued.

Speaking to reporters from Jewish media outlets, Cardona touted the Department of Education’s work to combat antisemitism and other forms of hate at American schools and universities since the Oct. 7 terror attacks in Israel. 

“The words of the students really echoed in my mind when they communicated that antisemitism in some parts of our country has become normalized,” said Cardona, a former Connecticut teacher and school administrator. “At the Department of Education, this became an all-hands-on-deck moment. After the attacks, the terrorist attacks, we really recognized that we had to step up.” 

The department has opened 60 investigations into allegations of discrimination on the basis of “shared ancestry,” a category that includes antisemitic, anti-Arab and Islamophobic discrimination, since October. It has not yet reached settlements in any of the cases and acknowledged that resolutions for the cases are months, if not years, away.

The Office of Civil Rights, which investigates the allegations, is severely understaffed, Cardona said. He wrote to House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) requesting additional funding in November.

“We need to make sure we have the tools to do our jobs to enforce civil rights systems,” Cardona said. He highlighted other work the department has done since October to address rising antisemitism — including holding webinars for university administrators and leaders in K-12 school districts, visiting campuses to meet students affected by antisemitism and making it easier for students to file complaints alleging antisemitism discrimination.

Many of these steps were described as addressing both antisemitism and Islamophobia. The department has opened roughly twice as many investigations into antisemitic discrimination as the number of investigations into Islamophobic discrimination. Some Jewish community advocates have taken issue with the frequent grouping of the two in public language from Biden administration officials. 

“I recognize and I acknowledge that some people have expressed that to me to say, ‘Look, this is what we’re dealing with, and this is a unique thing.’ And when I speak to Jewish leaders, many of them are saying, ‘Look, even before October 7, it was on the rise.’ So it’s not to not acknowledge the challenge of antisemitism,” said Cardona, who claimed that antisemitism and Islamophobia are often grouped together to make it easier for people looking for resources on department websites.

“We do have a strategy to counter antisemitism, and that is focused on antisemitism. So I respect the sentiment of those folks, and I think I want to be very clear that the way we do it, the way I’ve set it up on our website, I can’t speak for everyone else, is to make sure that these materials that are — many of them — are for both groups … [and] are quickly and easily accessible, and no other reason,” said Cardona.

Antisemitism is increasing not just on college and university campuses, but also at K-12 schools in the U.S., where it takes a different form, said Cardona.

“What I heard from younger students is, ‘I have to hide who I am,’” said Cardona. “They might hide the sticker of the Israeli flag on their computer, or they might tuck in the Star of David, where before they didn’t. That, to me, as an educator, as an educational leader, is very concerning. When students can’t be who they are unapologetically because of the conditions on campus, that to me is an unsafe learning environment, if you can’t be yourself.” 

This story was updated on Feb. 7 at 3:42 p.m. 

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