Under fire from Congress, Northwestern’s Jewish president forcefully defends encampment deal
Michael Schill, President of Northwestern University, testifies at a hearing called “Calling for Accountability: Stopping Antisemitic College Chaos” before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce on Capitol Hill on May 23, 2024 in Washington, DC. University leaders are being asked to testify by House Republicans about how colleges have responded to pro-Palestinian protests and allegations of antisemitism on their campuses. Photo: Michael A. McCoy/Getty Images

By Andrew Lapin
May 23, 2024

(JTA) — At one point in his congressional testimony on campus antisemitism, Northwestern University President Michael Schill found himself sparring with Rep. Elise Stefanik over a purported conversation he had with the school’s Hillel director. 

“Isn’t it true that you asked the Hillel director whether it was possible to hire an anti-Zionist head of Hillel/rabbi?” asked Stefanik, the firebrand New York Republican who has taken center stage at previous hearings on the topic.

“I absolutely did not. I would never hire anyone based upon their views of being Zionist or anti-Zionist. That’s not what I do,” Schill responded.

“That’s not according to the whistleblowers who have come forward to this committee,” Stefanik retorted. 

The exchange was one of many explosive moments in the latest hearing on campus antisemitism on Thursday, which hinged largely on whether Northwestern and other universities were right to make agreements with pro-Palestinian protesters that ended encampments on their campuses. Northwestern’s agreement with protesters prompted the bulk of the day’s questioning, and Schill stood by the deal. 

“By engaging students with dialogue instead of force, we modeled the behavior we want to apply going forward,” Schill, who is Jewish, said during the Republican-led House Committee on Education and the Workforce hearing. 

At the hearing, Schill joined Rutgers University President Jonathan Holloway and University of California, Los Angeles Chancellor Gene Block, who is also Jewish. All were called to account for how colleges have responded to a groundswell of protest around the ongoing Israel-Hamas war. (A fourth participant, Phi Beta Kappa Society CEO Frederick Lawrence, provided analysis.) 

It was the third time since the outbreak of the war on Oct. 7 that university presidents have been called before Congress to testify on campus antisemitism. The first such hearing, in December, led to the resignations of two Ivy League presidents, while a follow-up in April with the president of Columbia University touched off a nationwide pro-Palestinian encampment movement that has bedeviled schools and, Jewish students and groups say, created a hostile and antisemitic atmosphere. 

Now, the heads of three schools whose encampments had been cleared were asked to defend their approaches to the issue. Two of the witnesses, Schill and Holloway, cleared their schools’ encampments peacefully by agreeing to review the schools’ financial holdings in Israel and to take on additional Palestinian students and faculty. Those terms upset several Jewish groups as well as Republicans on the committee.

Dr. Gene Block, Chancellor, University of California, Los Angeles arrives at a hearing called “Calling for Accountability: Stopping Antisemitic College Chaos” before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce on Capitol Hill on May 23, 2024 in Washington, DC. University leaders are being asked to testify by House Republicans about how colleges have responded to pro-Palestinian protests and allegations of antisemitism on their campuses. Photo: Michael A. McCoy/Getty Images

Block, meanwhile, sent police in to clear UCLA’s encampment — but only after several days of rising tensions during which Jewish students were harassed and a pro-Israel mob attacked pro-Palestinian protesters, resulting in injuries. Since then, the University of California’s graduate student union has gone on strike over what it said was UCLA’s handling of its encampment, prompting an ongoing legal battle. The school has also reassigned its head of campus security; a new encampment went up Thursday as Block was testifying.

In defending the Rutgers agreement, Holloway advocated “dialogue as a first option instead of police action,” saying during his opening remarks, “We had seen what transpired at other universities,” where thousands of students have been arrested in recent weeks. 

Schill added that getting rid of the encampment was the best way to address the safety concerns of Jewish students. He described various antisemitic flyers protesters had distributed, including one targeting him. But he came under the harshest scrutiny at the hearing, as Republicans sought to make an example of his deal with Northwestern’s encampment. Some openly called for his resignation over it. 

The Northwestern deal has proven the most contentious of any of the more than a dozen similar agreements colleges have since struck. It led to the dissolution of the school’s advisory committee on antisemitism after the Jewish members resigned in protest, as well as calls from leaders of major Jewish organizations for Schill’s resignation.

“Mr. Schill, you cut a disgraceful deal with the encampment that prompted seven Jewish members of your own antisemitism advisory committee to resign in protest,” North Carolina Rep. Virginia Foxx, the committee chair, admonished during her opening remarks. During her closing remarks, Foxx further attacked Schill for what she said was “the condescension and contempt you’ve shown for the committee and towards your own Jewish students today.” 

Some Republicans echoed harsh criticisms of Schill, with Stefanik referencing the Anti-Defamation League’s “F” rating of Northwestern’s approach to antisemitism. (Jews at several schools have criticized the ADL’s report-card project.) California Rep. Kevin Kiley said he agreed with the ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt’s call for Schill’s resignation. 

“I would associate myself with the comments of the ADL,” Kiley said, calling Schill “the easiest case that we have dealt with. You agreed to the demands of those who are trying to change university policy in an antisemitic way.”

But Schill, a free-speech legal scholar who assumed the campus presidency in 2022, pushed back on the questions — delivering a more pugnacious performance than the other university presidents called before Congress. He shot back at questioners who accused him of granting a “sweetheart deal” with the protesters, and made a show of defending his character in general.

“I really am offended by you telling me what my views are,” he retorted to Utah Rep. Burgess Owens at one point, during a back-and-forth about Northwestern’s connections to Qatar and the media outlet Al-Jazeera. Later, asked if he would commit to keeping any suspected violators of the school’s code of conduct off campus in the fall, Schill responded, “That is not how due process works.”

New York Republican U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik displays the Anti-Defamation League’s “F” campus report card grade for Northwestern as the presidents of that school, Rutgers, and UCLA testify before the committee in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington DC, United States on May 23, 2024. Photo: Celal Gunes/Anadolu via Getty Images

In addition to denying the conversation with the Hillel director, Schill rebutted claims by Republicans that his agreement with the encampment was inappropriate or provided too many concessions to protesters. He said several of the terms, including commitments to fund Palestinian students and scholars, were simply extensions of existing programs and added that he refused to consider any demands that the university divest from Israel. He described the decision to pursue a deal as the best of the options available to the university after ruling out other approaches, such as police intervention and ignoring the encampment altogether.

The Hillel director, Michael Simon, was a member of the antisemitism committee that Northwestern formed after Oct. 7 and that disbanded following the encampment deal. While Simon was one of seven Jewish members who signed a letter to Schill claiming that “we were not consulted by the University’s leadership and had no role in the agreement,” Schill testified under oath Thursday that, in fact, he had consulted with Simon on the deal. 

Reached by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Simon confirmed that he and Schill had discussed one part of the deal but that “the committee as a whole” was not consulted on it. He also said that Schill had mentioned an early student demand to hire an anti-Zionist rabbi, but that, contrary to Stefanik’s characterization of the conversation, Schill had already rejected the idea and “that was not on the table.”

Facing pushback from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, Schill also defended his decision not to involve the antisemitism committee in the agreement, though he committed to reconstituting the body. 

“That was never in the purview of that committee,” Schill said, adding, “That committee was designed to assess the extent of antisemitism on campus and then to propose educational and other ways to deal with it. It wasn’t to deal with an existing encampment.” Elsewhere he added that it would have been “impractical” to consult “Jewish and Israeli students” on the agreement. 

That answer did not satisfy Pennsylvania Democratic Rep. Susan Wild, who is Jewish. Wild responded, “It seems to me that you had a ready-made committee that could’ve been asked to weigh in on this, and obviously seven of the members of that committee felt the same because they stepped down.”

The other university leaders also faced questions. Progressive Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, a fierce critic of Israel, took Block to task for failing to respond more quickly to the pro-Israel activists’ violence at UCLA, though she did not directly reference the ideology of the attackers, instead describing them as a “mob of agitators gathered near the encampment with a clear intention to cause violence.” Omar told Block, “You should be ashamed for letting a peaceful protest gathering get hijacked by an angry mob.”  

Omar also described a pro-Israel counterprotest tactic that took place at UCLA: using a screen and loudspeaker to project filmed clips from Hamas’ Oct. 7 attacks directly at the encampments. She did not note that the material was from Oct. 7, instead describing it as “vile and disturbing footage.” She also took a quiet step toward referencing Jewish disagreement over the encampments by entering into the congressional record an open letter from Jewish UCLA faculty and staff without describing its contents. Omar may have been referring to a letter from some Jewish faculty criticizing Block for his handling of the encampment that asserted, “Critiques of Israel are not presumptively antisemitic.” 

Block said his school “should have been prepared” to remove its encampment sooner but did not specify that pro-Israel counter-protesters were to blame for the violence.

Jews were also at the center of the debate over the Rutgers encampment. Shortly before Thursday’s hearing, dueling open letters circulated: one pair from Rutgers Jewish faculty and students said the school had become “intimidating” for Jews because of the encampments, while the other, from Jewish faculty at Rutgers and other universities, praised the agreement by saying it was “in conformity with the fundamental mandate of the university: openness to dialogue and critical inquiry, the pursuit of knowledge, and mutual understanding. It also conforms to our commitments as Jews and as educators.”

Jewish critics of the university heads remained unmoved by their performance during the hearing. “Rather than holding perpetrators of antisemitic harassment & intimidation accountable–as he pledged he would–President Schill gave them a seat at the table and normalized their hatred against Jewish students,” the ADL wrote on Twitter, sharing a clip of Stefanik referencing their report cards.

A leading anti-Zionist Jewish group involved in the encampments, meanwhile, reserved its harshest critique for the fact the hearing was taking place at all.

“It is offensive and dangerous that right-wing Republicans are putting on a show hearing under the pretense of protecting Jewish safety when in fact the only thing they are protecting are the profits of weapons companies and ongoing U.S. complicity in Israeli war crimes,” Stefanie Fox, executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace, said in a statement. “Congress is using these hearings to distract from the very point of the principled anti-genocide student movement.”

During his opening remarks, Block drew attention to his Jewish background by noting that, in a previous job as provost of the University of Virginia, he watched “neo-Nazis rioting outside the synagogue in Charlottesville where my children were called to the Torah.” He was referring to a 2017 rally by white supremacists in which one counter-protester was killed.

The chancellor has not faced the same calls to resign that Schill has drawn, because he is retiring at the end of the current school year, which is in its final weeks. When asked what UCLA will be doing differently in the fall to help Jewish students, Block responded, “I will not be there this fall.”

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