Texas lawmakers listen to antisemitism concerns amid university tensions over the Israel-Hamas war
The Texas Senate Subcommittee on Higher Education held a hearing on antisemitism, free speech and compliance with the state’s DEI ban on May 14, 2024. Credit: Leila Saidane for The Texas Tribune

By Sneha Dey, The Texas Tribune
May 14, 2024

Texas lawmakers listen to antisemitism concerns amid university tensions over the Israel-Hamas war” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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Texas senators are taking testimony Tuesday on some of the most explosive issues rattling the state’s universities ahead of next year’s legislative session, when lawmakers are expected to propose new policies on antisemitism, free speech and compliance with the state’s ban on diversity, equity and inclusion programs.

The Texas Senate higher education subcommittee’s hearing started with a Jewish student from the University of Texas at Austin describing verbal attacks and a pervasive fear for his safety since pro-Palestinian demonstrations broke out across his campus this spring. Levi Fox, the UT-Austin student, said one history professor told him and a group Jewish students “they’ll come after you and put you in the oven.”

“I have seen firsthand Jewish students taking off yarmulke or hiding their Stars of David that are hanging around their neck or skipping Hillel Shabbat because it’s been a tough week,’” Fox said. “It’s horrifying to see my friends be scared to be Jewish. I never thought I would see that.”

About 73% of Jewish college students across the country have experienced or witnessed antisemitism since the start of the 2023 school year, a report from the Anti-Defamation League said.

Universities cannot restrict hate speech under the First Amendment, free speech experts say. But Sen. Mayes Middleton questioned whether recent acts of antisemitism invite government intervention to look at the intersection of free speech and religious freedom.

“It is un-Texan and un-American to have to hide your faith,” the Galveston Republican said.

The hearing comes as tensions have flared on U.S. campuses amid the Israel-Hamas war. Israel launched its siege on Gaza after Hamas fighters attacked southern Israel on Oct. 7. During the attack, Hamas took about 250 people hostage and killed 1,200 Israelis. Since then, more than 34,000 Palestinians have been killed and nearly 77,000 people wounded, two-thirds of whom were women or children, according to the Gaza Ministry of Health.

Pro-Palestinian demonstrations across the country are calling for universities to divest from firms and weapons manufacturers that support Israel. Protests at UT-Austin last month resulted in violent clashes with police. More than 130 people were arrested in crackdowns where state troopers deployed tear gas and charged at protesters with horses.

State leaders have cheered the law enforcement response and university administrators have justified their approach to the massive rallies saying protesters intended to set up encampments, break university policies and follow the playbook of demonstrations in other parts of the country.

Free speech advocates wonder whether those fears were enough to crack down on protesters, raising questions about when speech is protected in Texas universities and who gets to enjoy those protections.

The hearing comes as Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, the leader of the Texas Senate, has signaled he wants the chamber to examine university policies to prevent antisemitism and protect free speech during next year’s legislative session.

Texas universities will also explain at Tuesday’s hearing how they have shifted operations to comply with the state’s DEI ban. The schools risk losing millions in state funding if they cannot prove compliance.

Lawmakers put an end to DEI programs and training when they passed Senate Bill 17 during the 2023 legislative session. Supporters argued that DEI programs and training have indoctrinated students with left-wing ideology and forced universities to make hires based on their support of diversity efforts rather than on merit and achievement.

In a March letter, state Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, the law’s author, had a litany of questions that the University of Texas System, the Texas A&M System, the University of Houston System and others were expected to answer ahead of the hearing.

Questions the schools had to answer included “How has your institution ensured that there are no DEI offices or officers on campus, or no individual or organization performing the duties of a DEI office or officer?” and “How has your institution worked to ensure that DEI training is not required for students, staff and faculty?”

This is a developing story; check back for details.

The Texas Tribune partners with Open Campus on higher education coverage.

Disclosure: University of Texas at Austin, University of Texas System and University of Houston have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2024/05/14/texas-senate-higher-education-dei-ban-antisemitism/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

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