education consternation

House turns its eyes toward George Washington University encampment, K-12 antisemitism

Sen. Steve Daines, the chair of the NRSC, suggested that the college encampments could ‘turn into a political issue’ for Democrats in the upcoming election

George Washington University Students continue pro-Palestinian demonstrations at George Washington University in Washington DC, United States on May 07, 2024.

On the heels of two blockbuster hearings with university presidents, and amid an expansive ongoing investigation into college campus antisemitism, the House was set to turn its attention on Wednesday to the city of Washington, D.C.’s response to the anti-Israel protest encampment on The George Washington University’s campus, as well as K-12 schools.

Rep. James Comer’s (R-KY), who chairs the House Oversight Committee, scheduled a hearing on the D.C. government’s handling of the GW encampment, which was finally taken down on Wednesday morning after repeated public requests from GW’s administration. The Oversight Committee called D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and Pamela Smith, the district’s chief of police, to testify.

Around 3 a.m. on Wednesday, D.C. police began clearing the encampment and made arrests, according to authorities. The D.C. police department said in a statement that “a gradual escalation in the volatility of the protest” led to the police action.

Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT), the chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, visited the encampment on Tuesday, becoming the first Senate GOP leader to do so. He told Jewish Insider that what he saw on the school’s campus was “shocking” and “reprehensible.”

Daines seemed particularly struck by the protesters’ vandalism of a statue of the school’s namesake, with stickers reading “from the river to the sea,” “genocide” spray-painted in red and draped in a keffiyeh. The statue sits in the center of the encampment with tents, he said, “in every direction as far as you could see.”

The Montana senator also met with GW’s Hillel director and Jewish students, who discussed their experiences and “the fear they have of even walking around their campus.”

Daines emphasized the need for “moral clarity at this moment in our history — this is not about whether you’re a Republican, or Democrat or Independent. This is about confronting the hate and the evil of antisemitism.”

He said that political leaders across the spectrum need to offer “full-throated condemnation,” that Congress should consider cutting off federal funding to universities where antisemitism is running rampant and that Bowser needs to take action.

Bowser, brushing off congressional pressure, suggested last week that the lawmakers should focus on activity in their own states and districts.

“I haven’t ever turned down requests for help,” Bowser said. “We are in constant communication with GW officials and have been throughout to be supportive, to hear their concerns and for them to understand how to work directly with the District government.”

Republicans have seized on the encampments as a potential political wedge issue in this November’s election.

“This should not be a partisan issue. And sadly it seems it’s mostly the Republicans who are condemning the actions of these encampments,” Daines, who leads Senate Republicans’ campaign arm, alleged. “I wish there were strong bipartisan condemnation, but if we don’t see the bipartisan condemnation, I think it will turn into a political issue.”

“I think that may be in part why you see some of the Democrats holding back a bit: because they do have a political problem with their base,” he added.

Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC), a potential GOP vice presidential candidate, spoke on the Senate floor yesterday to condemn antisemitic protests on college campuses as well as administrators who have failed to respond.

“It is time for the United States Senate to stand unanimously, not behind our Jewish students but in front of them. Let us be the wall that protects them,” Scott said. He sought unanimous consent to pass a resolution on campus antisemitism, which was blocked by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT).

Separately, the House Education and the Workforce Committee’s subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education is holding a hearing today with the leaders of the public school systems in New York City, Berkeley, Calif., and Montgomery County, Md., on antisemitism in their districts. An attorney from the American Civil Liberties Union is also set to testify.

Rep. Aaron Bean (R-FL), the subcommittee chair, told JI on Monday that Jewish students, faculty and employees “don’t feel safe right now” and that he plans to press the leaders on what they’re doing to ensure Jewish students’ safety.

“What we’re seeing is there’s been no consequences,” Bean said. “We have to hold people accountable, and right now our biggest power is shining the spotlight.”

He said that some have claimed that ongoing antisemitic incidents on college campuses have their origins in primary and secondary education, where “these kids are being taught to hate, the teachers are teaching the hate — so let’s go to the roots and see where the trail leads.”

New York City’s Origins High School (a Brooklyn public school), the City of New York and the New York City Department of Education face a lawsuit alleging that they’ve failed to respond to ongoing antisemitism against teachers at Origins. 

Berkeley’s school district faces a Department of Education civil rights investigation over allegations of ongoing bullying and harassment against Jewish students by both peers and teachers.

Bean suggested that lawmakers could consider “financial penalties and disincentives” for schools that aren’t doing enough to combat antisemitism, although Bean acknowledged that public school funding comes primarily from state, rather than federal, tax dollars.

In testimony on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona appeared to suggest that he supported the decision by some college administrators to negotiate with anti-Israel protesters on their campuses.

“I think it’s critically important that college leaders engage in communication and model by discussing with students how to get to a peaceful resolution,” Cardona said, adding that “they should preserve safety on campus and make sure that students are able to go to class without fear.”

He said later that university leaders are responsible for deciding how to handle encampments and other issues, but that “acts of intimidation or violence toward Jewish students, or any students for that matter, are not tolerated.” Cardona said students in encampments should leave if instructed to do so by their universities.

He affirmed that he is willing to revoke funding from schools that don’t address campus antisemitism, in violation of the Civil Rights Act, but described such a move as the last resort if a school refused to take action, and said the “goal is to change behaviors and make a campus safe for all all students and address the underlying issues.”

Cardona declined to offer specific responses to various demands and chants used by campus protesters.

Cardona also pushed for additional funding for the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, highlighting the influx of new cases since Oct. 7 and the office’s overstretched staff.

Republicans repeatedly pressed Cardona on whether students participating in the encampments would be excluded from the administration’s student loan forgiveness efforts; Cardona declined to say that they would be.

Various GOP lawmakers have introduced legislation on the subject in recent weeks.

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