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Ahead of congressional testimony, Gene Block faces scrutiny from UCLA community

The United States Capitol Building is pictured. Chancellor Gene Block will testify before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce in Washington, D.C. on Thursday about his administration’s handling of protests on campus and his response to lawmakers’ efforts to investigate the university. (Daily Bruin file photo)

By Shaanth Kodialam

May 22, 2024 9:59 p.m.

WASHINGTON — Chancellor Gene Block’s upcoming congressional testimony has stirred debate about his administration’s recent handling of protests on campus and his response to lawmakers’ efforts to investigate the university.

Block – the first UC chancellor to be summoned for recent congressional hearings on campus antisemitism – is set to testify Thursday morning in front of the Republican-led House of Representatives’ Committee on Education and the Workforce, alongside the presidents of Rutgers University and Northwestern University.

Committee Chair Rep. Virginia Foxx, a Republican from North Carolina, requested in a May 15 letter documents involving Block’s response and communications surrounding the recent Palestine solidarity encampment as well as disciplinary records relating to antisemitic incidents on campus. She told reporters in late April that Congress would not tolerate “spineless” leaders who did not address antisemitism on campus.

The deadline to meet the request was Tuesday, and the administration has vowed to comply with the committee’s requests, according to a statement from Mary Osako, vice chancellor of strategic communications. Representatives for the committee and Block did not immediately respond to questions about whether UCLA has since fulfilled the records requests.

“I will speak honestly, and personally, about the challenges UCLA faces and the impact of this pernicious form of hate,” said Block in a Monday email to the campus, his first time publicly acknowledging the hearing. “I will continue to insist that antisemitism – as well as Islamophobia, anti-Arab hate and any form of bigotry, hostility or discrimination – is antithetical to our values, corrosive to our community and not to be tolerated.”

Since the attack on the encampment and subsequent police sweep, Block has appointed an independent expert under a new Office of Campus Safety to conduct an internal investigation of the police response to the encampment. UCPD Chief John Thomas told the Bruin on Tuesday night that he was “temporarily reassigned” from his duties as chief, and Block has expressed support for another independent review ordered by the UC Office of the President.

[Related: UCLA Police Chief John Thomas ‘temporarily reassigned’ from duties]

UCLA faculty said striking the right balance between protecting the right to protest and addressing the committee’s concerns could prove to be challenging for Block, especially since he is facing criticism from multiple campus communities.

Previous hearings by the committee have managed to derail the careers of university leaders. The University of Pennsylvania’s president resigned in December amid criticism over her responses to questions about student protesters, whom some lawmakers said were calling for the genocide of Jewish students. Harvard University’s president also resigned in January following criticisms of her response to similar questions and allegations of plagiarism.

Some Jewish leaders on campus said the upcoming hearing is a welcome acknowledgement of unchecked antisemitism they say has gone unaddressed for too long by the administration.

“At least now you know you’re on, hopefully, some path to a better future, because now you have a start to healing,” said Nir Hoftman, a professor of anesthesiology and a member of the Jewish Faculty Resilience Group.

He added that members of Congress have been in contact with the Jewish faculty group to discuss incidents of concern. Some incidents in Foxx’s letter included controversial issues that went viral on social media, such as students being denied entry or movement through campus near the encampment if they refused to denounce support for Zionism. The Los Angeles Times spoke with some Jewish students who corroborated this claim.

Hoftman himself is also listed in one incident, which cites a physical assault he experienced. He told The Bruin a group of protesters with keffiyehs had cornered and tackled him after he was walking back to the site of the encampment from a news interview. The incident was reported on Fox News.

Other concerns in the letter include disputes at the medical school over diversity, equity and inclusion curriculum that have been the subject of critical media coverage in Fox News and the Washington Free Beacon.

“I don’t feel good about the fact that our medical school has been hijacked, that the university has become a cesspool of anti-Jewish hate,” he added. “But now that the diagnosis has been made, the Congress is the treatment.”

Organizers with the encampment have argued that the hearing pushes a false narrative linking them with campus antisemitism.

Several news organizations, including CNN and The Guardian, have documented the presence of far-right activists and extremists at the April 30 mob attack on the encampment. Some faculty in support of the encampment said the hearing’s focus has ignored the violence inflicted upon Jewish, Muslim and Arab students who were in the encampment.

“They’re the ones who are literally putting their bodies on the line in certain moments to confront either riot police or the Zionist mob that attacked our students on the 30th of April,” said Saree Makdisi, a professor of English and member of UCLA’s Faculty for Justice in Palestine chapter. “The entire framing of this set of congressional hearings is distorted basically from the ground up.”

Makdisi said he is concerned that many of the incidents are selectively chosen and distort the true picture of the environment on campus while conflating anti-Zionism and antisemitism. He said he had reservations about the accuracy of some allegations in Foxx’s letter.

One incident in the letter, for example, detailed a Jewish woman allegedly being kicked, beaten and sent to the ER by anti-Israel activists. The woman told the LA Times that she was pushed to the ground by another demonstrator as she attempted to retrieve her flag.

Organizers also deny discriminating against any particular community when it came to access to the encampment. Vincent Doehr, a spokesperson for the now-demolished encampment and a political science doctoral student, said no students were blocked from class because of the camp and added that entry to the protest site itself was denied if individuals did not agree to “non-threatening or harassment rules.”

Block will not just be vulnerable to potential questions from lawmakers about the encampment, though.

Several incidents listed in Foxx’s document request extend back to comments and actions of members of the student government, such a resolution calling upon university leaders to give academic leniency to students in need, in particular Palestinian and Muslim students, and to abolish the UCLA’s Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for Israel Studies.

David Myers, the Sady and Ludwig Kahn Chair in Jewish History at UCLA, said the hearing was a “set-up” part of “the strategy of cultural conservatives.”

However, there have been incidents of antisemitism on campus that must be thoroughly investigated, he said, such as a pig caricature outside of a UC Regents meeting. Myers added that he believes a small minority of the protests have engaged in antisemitism. Foxx’s letter cites a van parked on campus with a swastika inside the Star of David, captured in a video posted to Instagram.

“That should be an important message of the chancellor, that we have no tolerance for antisemitism,” Myers said. “But I think it’s also important for the chancellor to say that the administration is concerned with the well-being of all members of the university community.”

Hoftman said the JFRG was not aiming to report incidents of discomfort or hurt feelings, but rather serious issues that merit accountability. He added that he is hopeful the hearings will begin to address his community’s concerns, but also hopes that deeper work will ultimately need to be done.

“There should be a civil discourse,” he said of debates on university campuses. “‘Most of all, we know what the laws are and they need to be enforced.”

The hearing, entitled “Calling for Accountability: Stopping Antisemitic College Chaos” is set to begin at 6:45 a.m. PDT on Thursday.

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Shaanth Kodialam | News senior staff
Kodialam is a News senior staff reporter for the Bruin. They were previously the 2022-2023 features and student life editor and a 2021-2022 News reporter for national news and higher education and features and student life. They are a third-year communication and geography student.
Kodialam is a News senior staff reporter for the Bruin. They were previously the 2022-2023 features and student life editor and a 2021-2022 News reporter for national news and higher education and features and student life. They are a third-year communication and geography student.
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