UCLA Chancellor Gene Block heads to D.C. for grilling on campus antisemitism

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UCLA Chancellor Gene Block will testify before a Republican-led House committee Thursday, where he is expected to face aggressive questioning about antisemitism on his campus and how a pro-Palestinian encampment ended in violence.

His appearance comes as UCLA, among the nation’s most prestigious public universities, has been roiled by months of tense protests over the Israel-Hamas war, including a violent mob attack three weeks ago on a pro-Palestinian encampment.

The testimony — which will take place just over two months before Block steps down as chancellor — will be the first time the head of a California university addresses the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. The group has grilled university presidents and K-12 school leaders on a national stage since the fall, contributing to the resignations of the presidents of Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania.

Setting the tone for questioning, chair Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) said in a Monday statement that the “committee has a clear message for mealy-mouthed, spineless college leaders: Congress will not tolerate your dereliction of your duty to your Jewish students. No stone must go unturned while buildings are being defaced, campus greens are being captured, or graduations are being ruined.”

In a campus-wide letter distributed Monday, Block said he would “speak honestly, and personally, about the challenges UCLA faces and the impact of this pernicious form of hate” during the testimony. “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.”

Thursday’s testimony will represent a key moment in Block’s 17-year career at UCLA and comes a week after he survived a “no confidence” vote by the university’s Academic Senate but saw half of voting faculty representatives endorse censuring him for his response to pro-Palestinian protesters.

The House committee is investigating how UCLA handled the encampment that was dismantled May 2 by police who arrested more than 200 people, in addition to allegations of antisemitism that have grown on the Westwood campus since the Oct. 7, when Hamas militants attacked Israel and the nation launched its retaliatory war in Gaza.

The committee, made up of 44 representatives — 24 of them Republicans — has three Californians, Republican Rep. Michelle Steel and Democratic Reps. Mark Takano and Mark DeSaulnier. The panel describes itself on its website as “promoting access to high-quality education for students” and opposing “one-size-fits-all government-run schools.”

During an explosive Dec. 5 committee hearing on antisemitism, the presidents of Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology faced pressure after giving evasive responses to whether “calling for the genocide of Jews” was a violation of student conduct rules, including saying in their answers that it depended on “context.” Presidents and school administrators facing elected officials since then have fared better on similar questions.

Block will be joined by the leaders of Northwestern and Rutgers universities, where presidents recently signed off on agreements with protesters to end encampments but did not agree to their main demands: to divest from weapons companies and ties to Israel and to boycott academic partnerships with Israeli universities. Block has not made any agreements with pro-Palestinian activists.

The presidents of Yale and Michigan, who were previously slated to testify alongside Block at the hearing, titled “Calling for Accountability: Stopping Antisemitic College Chaos,” will be called to appear for transcribed interviews. The head of the Berkeley public school district testified earlier this month in during a similar hearing aimed at K-12 schools.

Foxx has admonished UCLA and the other universities for making what she sees as “shocking concessions to the unlawful antisemitic encampments on their campuses” and criticized UCLA leadership for failing to have police prepared to intervene April 30 when the mob attacked the pro-Palestinian camp.

UC released a statement Tuesday describing UCLA’s free speech and anti-discrimination policies.

“While free speech is protected on UCLA’s campus — and at all other public universities — that right is not absolute. We also have legal obligations under the federal law to protect students from discrimination and harassment,” said Charles F. Robinson, general counsel and senior vice president. “Our policies do not allow for anyone to intimidate, harass or stop someone from moving freely about our campus. UCLA follows the University of California’s Anti-Discrimination Policy, which prohibits harassment and discrimination based on an individual’s actual or perceived protected category. The protected categories include religion and national origin [shared Jewish ancestry].”

Critics say the hearings are an attempt by House Republicans to use campus unrest for political gain during an election year. They also point out that while reports of campus antisemitic incidents have grown significantly since Oct. 7, there have been no similar hearings on the anti-Muslim and anti-Arab hatred that has also shot up.

A spokesman for the committee did not respond to a request to interview Foxx. A UCLA spokesman also did not respond to a request to interview Block.

Foxx previously directed Block, UC President Michael V. Drake and Rich Leib, chair of the UC Board of Regents, to produce all documents, communications and security videos related to alleged antisemitic incidents at UCLA since Oct. 7. She gave them until Tuesday afternoon to share those documents, as well as texts and other communications from staff, police and the regents.

In a letter last week demanding the documents, Foxx described what she saw as an antisemitic trope: an image of Block, who is Jewish, displayed at the encampment that “featured him with horns and red eyes.”

Before the protests began, Block was widely praised for expanding enrollment, diversity, philanthropy and research funding to get the university through a financial crisis and the global pandemic. The last controversy Block faced was in 2019 when The Times revealed that years earlier, UCLA had been aware of allegations of parents pledging donations to its athletic programs in exchange for their children being admitted to the university.

But after the encampment attack overnight on April 30 and a hours-long delay in the police response to quell the melee, he has faced condemnation from some elected officials, faculty, students and staff. While his biggest critics at UCLA have been from the left, he’s more likely to face opposition at the hearing from the right, following a pattern in previous hearings.

Pro-Palestinian UCLA faculty have expressed frustration that their chancellor has flown to Washington, D.C., while the campus remains unsettled.

“UCLA is the center of the fire across American universities, yet he’s focusing on the hearing,” said Yogita Goyal, a professor of English and African American studies and a voting member of the Academic Senate who said she opposes Block’s leadership. “Congress should not dictate what happens on our campus.”

Graeme Blair, an associate professor of political science who is part of UCLA Faculty for Justice in Palestine, said he hoped Block would use the hearing to “push back against the narrative of the committee, which is focused on antisemitism to the exclusion of anti-Palestinian hate … the dominant force on our campus leading to violent harm to our students.”

“UCLA’s response to the encampment on campus failed to protect students against anti-Palestinian violence, but it has a chance now to come clean and start to make changes,” Blair said.

Inna Faliks, a professor of piano who is Jewish, said she “hoped the hearing would help” but that it was “hard to tell” if previous ones had made a dent.

Faliks, a voting member of the Academic Senate, charged the UCLA encampment with being “pro-Hamas” because of slogans found on campus, such as graffiti by the Powell library that said “Death 2 Zionism,” and checkpoints that would not let Zionists through. Faliks said the environment “made Jewish students, faculty and staff feel horrible.”

Judea Pearl, an Israeli American professor of computer science, said that he, too, felt the sting of antisemitism on campus but thought the issue was too often brushed aside by activists who described themselves as anti-Zionist but not antisemitic.

“There is a zionophobia on campus. But Zionism is not a bad thing,” said Pearl. “It is good to partner with Israeli universities, for example. We need their research because it’s good research.”

Pearl disapproved of Block’s handling of the encampment, he said, because it was not cleared more quickly after going up April 25. He also said that a tense pro-Israel counter-protest before the attack has been overshadowed by the night of violence.

“Unfortunately, this hearing is being done by Republicans. I wish it was done by Democrats who actually care about higher education,” Pearl said. “But it’s better than doing nothing.”

In addition to the hearing, UCLA is preparing for a possible strike by graduate student workers. The union representing such workers across the University of California’s 10 campuses voted last week to authorize a strike in response to the arrests and use of force in dismantling the pro-Palestinian encampments at UCLA and elsewhere. The strike began Monday at UC Santa Cruz.

Gene McAdoo, a doctoral student in the UCLA School of Education and Information Studies who is part of the union and joined the pro-Palestinian encampment, said he thought Block would “get it really bad.”

“I don’t think he will come out of that in one piece,” McAdoo said. “He’s been getting pressure from the left to resign, but after this it might be coming from all sides.”

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