Hill hearings

Lankford: Sanders intends to hold hearing ‘not just on antisemitism,’ with focus on Islamophobia  

Lankford and Rosen have been pressing the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee chair to address rising antisemitism at American universities

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Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill on May 1, 2024 in Washington, DC.

LOS ANGELES — As the House Education and Workforce Committee prepares to hold its third major hearing on campus antisemitism later this month, the corresponding Senate committee — chaired by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) — has yet to hold any special hearings about rising antisemitism at American universities. 

Sens. James Lankford (R-OK) and Jacky Rosen (D-NV), the co-chairs of the Senate Bipartisan Task Force for Combating Antisemitism, have been asking Sanders to call a hearing on the matter. As of last week, they hadn’t heard back from the Vermont progressive.

But in a conversation with Jewish Insider on Monday at the Milken Institute Global Conference, Lankford said that Sanders has now weighed in on the matter, telling Lankford that he intends to call a hearing with a focus that is “broader and not just on antisemitism. He wants to really focus on increasing Islamophobia, and a very different direction on it.”  

“I have no issue with trying to be able to say no one should be discriminated against, but we want to  be really clear what’s actually happening,” Lankford added. He and Rosen have sought stronger Senate action on campus antisemitism for two or three years, he said, so the issue is deeper than just the current spike.

“No one really took it seriously at that point. They are now. People do see it now,” said Lankford. “This is a bigger issue than what we thought was happening on campus. So we’re trying to just be really clear that this is not a knee jerk to October the seventh. This has grown for a while and we feel it’s important to be able to set that context.” 

Lankford declined to say if he expects Sanders to come around to his view on the issue. But he pointed out that even a Senate hearing would not fix the problem of inaction by university administrators. 

“Ultimately, I’m trying to figure out, how do we actually get administrations — how do we get people to engage, to enforce their own code of conduct on their own campus, just to be consistent? That’s doable. Many campuses have done that,” said Lankford. “We’re going to protect free speech, but we’re not going to allow people to be intimidated on their own campus.” (A Sanders spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.) 

Lankford called for the Senate to take up the Antisemitism Awareness Act that passed the House with bipartisan support next week, but he said he has not yet spoken to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) about when the Senate might consider the legislation. The bill’s adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism drew some pushback from both the right — among Christians who falsely claimed that the bill would criminalize statements that the Jews are responsible for Jesus’s death — and the left, where anti-Israel voices worry that the law would impinge on their ability to criticize Israel. 

“It starts this whole big stir that the IHRA definition is suddenly going to outlaw the Bible and the New Testament is going to cause people to be arrested,” Lankford said. “The IHRA definition in the Antisemitism Awareness Act doesn’t take away free speech. It notifies a campus if you’re discriminating in this way, then that’s discrimination, the same as it would be for a Black student or Hispanic students or whatever it may be. That’s discrimination. Your federal funding would be at risk, as it would be or any other type of discrimination on your campus. So just don’t discriminate.”

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