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Congress, White House weigh in on campus threats tied to Israel-Hamas war

Education Department moves to update student complaint process under the Civil Rights Act

Rep. Josh Gottheimer, seen speaking at an Oct. 12 vigil for victims of the Hamas attack on Israel, has called for disciplinary action against people behind projecting “Glory to our Martyrs” on a building at George Washington University.
Rep. Josh Gottheimer, seen speaking at an Oct. 12 vigil for victims of the Hamas attack on Israel, has called for disciplinary action against people behind projecting “Glory to our Martyrs” on a building at George Washington University. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The Biden administration is taking steps to attack antisemitism on college campuses amid rising reports of anti-Jewish incidents, including threats against Jewish students at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. 

On Tuesday, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul announced that a “person of interest” connected with the Cornell threats was in New York State Police custody for questioning.

The Anti-Defamation League says it is tracking a worldwide spike in antisemitic incidents since the Oct. 7 attack on Israeli civilians by Hamas and the retaliation by the Israeli military, including aerial bombing and a ground invasion into Gaza. The ADL’s Center on Extremism said reports of anti-Jewish harassment, vandalism and assault in the U.S. have increased by 388 percent over the same period last year. 

At Cornell, a series of threats against Jewish students were posted on an online forum, including one that threatened violence at the university’s Center for Jewish Living and kosher dining hall, The Cornell Daily Sun reported

Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Monday that the White House  is “closely monitoring” the threats. “To the students at Cornell, and on campuses across the country … we’re thinking of you and we’re going to do everything we can … to counter antisemitism,’’ she said.

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer said he was “sickened and frightened” by the incident at Cornell. “Unfortunately, it was not an isolated occurrence,” the New York Democrat said, citing the Anti-Defamation League’s report.

The violence in the Middle East has inflamed tensions on other campuses as well. Last week, pro-Palestinian activists projected the message “Glory to our Martyrs” on George Washington University’s library in Washington, drawing anger from Jewish leaders, including members of Congress. At Stanford University, an instructor was suspended after telling Jewish students to stand in a corner, according to an account in the Forward.

The Council on American Islamic Relations, the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization, said last week that it had received 774 complaints since Oct. 7. Among the incidents was the killing earlier this month of a 6-year-old Palestinian-American boy, Wadea Alfayoumi, in Illinois. After the boy’s murder, President Joe Biden called his family to express his condolences. 

“We remain committed to speaking out against anti-Palestinian, anti-Arab and anti-Muslim hate and violence,” Biden said last week.

Other anti-Islamic incidents cited by the group include a Muslim student from Michigan who was barred from school because she refused to answer questions about her participation in a pro-Palestinian protest and a Muslim woman in Maryland who was verbally accosted.

CAIR said it was fielding the largest wave of anti-Muslim incidents since December of 2015, when then-candidate Donald Trump announced his intent to ban Muslim immigrants to the United States.

Federal response

The Department of Homeland Security and Justice Department are working to address Islamophobia and antisemitism on college campuses, the White House said, including engaging with state, local and campus law enforcement.  

The Department of Education is updating the intake process for discrimination complaints under Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act to specifically state that antisemitism and other forms of discrimination are prohibited. The change will make it easier for students and others who experience anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim bias to file complaints, the White House said. 

Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona and second gentleman Douglas Emhoff met Monday with leaders of more than a dozen Jewish organizations to discuss “the extremely disturbing pattern of antisemitic threats of violence in schools and college campuses,” according to a summary of the gathering provided by the Education Department.

Cardona and Biden’s domestic policy adviser, Neera Tanden, are scheduled to hold a roundtable with Jewish students at an undisclosed university later this week.

Bipartisan resolutions condemning antisemitism have been introduced in both chambers of Congress, and many members have spoken out.

“College presidents and administrations across the nation must denounce antisemitism and take disciplinary action against those spreading antisemitic messages, including faculty,” Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J., said on the social media platform X, formerly Twitter. 

Gottheimer and Rep. Mike Lawler, R-N.Y., are backing legislation that would require the Education Department to use the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism when enforcing federal anti-discrimination laws.

“The crisis of campus antisemitism — long overlooked — is beginning to command the attention of leaders from the president on down,” Rep. Ritchie Torres, D-N.Y., posted on X. “College must be a safe space for all students. Jewish students should never be an exception to the rule of safety for all.”

Another New York Democrat, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, also posted a statement denouncing antisemitism. “Now more than ever, we must emphasize the importance of separating people from governments. Antisemitism is disgusting and unacceptable. We have a responsibility to defend our Jewish brothers, sisters, and siblings from hatred. No movement of integrity should tolerate it. Ever.”

Daniel Hillburn contributed to this report.

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