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Bruins in Paris

Gene Block faces scrutiny over protest response in Congress antisemitism hearing

Gene Block testifies before the House Education and the Workforce Committee about antisemitism and his administration’s handling of recent protests. (Shaanth Kodialam/Daily Bruin senior staff)

By Shaanth Kodialam

May 23, 2024 12:04 p.m.

Correction: The original version of this article stated that Chancellor Gene Block referenced a caricature of him posted on the encampment that he said evoked antisemitic tropes. In fact, he was referencing a caricature of him that was displayed at an art show.

This post was updated May 25 at 6:29 p.m.

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Neither an unapologetic condemnation of campus antisemitism nor an acknowledgment that he should’ve cleared UCLA’s encampment sooner appeared to save Chancellor Gene Block from strong – and, at times, aggressive – questioning from federal lawmakers Thursday.

What started as a relatively calm showing for the outgoing chancellor, the grandson of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, quickly turned into a barrage of questioning that led Block to concur with fellow university leaders that Israel is not a genocidal state and that the phrase “From the river, to the sea, Palestine will be free,” can be seen as antisemitic. At the same time, Block, who began his role in 2007, walked a fine line by acknowledging disagreement with that position and denied that UCLA has become a “hotbed” of antisemitism.

“I am fully aware that many of our Jewish students have had to confront rhetoric and images on campus that any reasonable person would find repugnant,” Block told the majority-Republican House Committee on Education and the Workforce, referencing a caricature of him at an art show that he said evoked antisemitic tropes. “Trust me, I understand their pain. I’ve lived it myself.”

Flanked by the presidents of Northwestern University and Rutgers University and the former president of Brandeis University, Block received some of the harshest feedback on his leadership from some Democratic lawmakers on the committee. Other university leaders found themselves largely criticized by Republican congressional representatives for making agreements with pro-Palestine encampments demanding divestment, but Block began his testimony by stating the encampment should’ve been cleared sooner.

The hearing is a response to the national headlines UCLA and campuses across the country have garnered for a wave of pro-Palestine encampment protests demanding institutions to divest from Israel, among other demands. UCLA had one of the most violent scenes in the nation on campus April 30, when a mob of masked counter-protesters attacked the now-demolished Palestine solidarity encampment. A day later, police conducted a sweep of the encampment in which around 200 people were arrested.

During the hearing, pro-Palestine protesters established what Students for Justice in Palestine at UCLA referred to as a “second encampment” on the patio of Kerckhoff Hall, three weeks after the first was swept. Protesters – some of whom condemned the hearing on social media – later voluntarily dispersed and started a sit-in at Dodd Hall, which also ended as police arrived in the early evening. No arrests were made.

[Related link: Pro-Palestine protesters set up encampment on Kerckhoff patio]

Faculty had mixed feelings on the hearing following the attack and subsequent police sweep of the encampment, with some saying it was a necessary move to combat campus antisemitism, while others believed it was a right-wing attack on academic freedom and a criticism of Israel. The exchanges Block had with members of Congress highlighted how specific incidents from college campuses, captured through information provided confidentially to the committee and viral social media posts, made their way to Washington and disturbed some leaders across the political spectrum. 

“You cleared the encampment only after a violent riot erupted,” Rep. Virginia Foxx, committee chair and a Republican from North Carolina, told Block in her opening remarks.

She did not afterward or before mention that a group of counter-protesters began to attack the encampment before violence broke out.

“For days, you stood by as Jews were assaulted and illegal checkpoints blocked access to campus in broad daylight,” she added. “Your actions were too little, too late.”

Other Republican lawmakers grilled Block on his handling of faculty who allegedly offered extra credit for participation in protest, a viral video of protesters blocking a Jewish student’s access to a pathway on campus and allegations that some protesters stalked Jewish community members.

Some Democratic lawmakers sought information on programs addressing antisemitism, but one of the fiercest exchanges was with Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Democrat from Minnesota, who repeatedly pressed Block to explain how assailants attacked pro-Palestine students April 30.

“You should be ashamed for letting a peaceful protest gathering get hijacked by an angry mob,” Omar told Block, at times showing Block pictures she had of the violent mob attack at UCLA. “You should be ashamed for allowing such violence to take place on your campus, which will now be weaponized by Republicans in this committee.”

Block didn’t offer many specifics when pressed by the committee on disciplinary action against antisemitism, but he said around 100 investigations into students are ongoing regarding antisemitism and Islamophobia. Rep. Michelle Steel, a Republican serving Orange County, California, also appeared to take issue with Block’s lack of specifics. He said he was unaware of reports she mentioned that professors allegedly offered extra credit for participation in the encampment. 

A May 15 letter sent by Foxx to university officials requesting documents surrounding UCLA’s handling of the encampment includes mention of incidents in which a professor allegedly provided excused absences for attending the encampment. It was not immediately clear if Block or Steel were discussing these incidents. 

Block and the UC’s legal counsel have affirmed their commitment to free speech and the First Amendment. In a message to the campus community Thursday morning, Block wrote in an email that there has been a “recent rise in incidents of legally protected, but hateful speech,” and he echoed that sentiment in the hearing. 

Foxx vowed to continue the committee’s investigation into universities at the end of the hearing.

Outside the committee room, a group of around 40 faculty, graduate students and union leaders in higher education from the universities waited to testify. Among those listening from outside the doors was John Branstetter, a political science lecturer at UCLA. The coalition arrived early in the morning, he said, but only around six of them managed to make it in – some of the seats were reserved or taken for those attending with the university leaders. 

“If the federal government, the Republican Party, is going to be in the business of policing what professors can say, what classes can be taught, we’re headed down a really bad path,” said Branstetter, who later spoke at a press conference with lawmakers and other leaders in higher education. “A university where you can’t speak freely is not a university anymore.”

Over the past weeks, Block has largely withstood official public rebukes regarding his handling of the encampment and protests during the ongoing Israel-Hamas war. A vote of no confidence and move to censure Block narrowly failed in the Academic Senate on May 15. During the hearing, Block said that, while he is retiring, the university will be discussing respectful protest and rules of conduct with students over the summer. 

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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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