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Jewish Students Describe Facing Antisemitism on Campus to Members of Congress

Nine Jewish students from prominent universities told members of Congress on Thursday that they feel unsafe on campus, but that their complaints of antisemitism had been waved away by university administrations.

At a bipartisan round table organized by the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, the students described various episodes of antisemitism they had experienced on campus since the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas on Israel, accusing their schools of pandering to violent and disruptive protesters while minimizing the threat to Jewish students.

“I’ve been told over and over again that the university is taking these issues seriously, but always — no action,” said Noah Rubin, a student at the University of Pennsylvania.

The round table in Washington was led by Representative Virginia Foxx, a Republican from North Carolina. The 20 members of Congress, including Ms. Foxx, who participated were evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats.

The nine students — from Harvard, Penn, M.I.T., Columbia and five other universities — were picked by the House committee, and the Republican majority on the panel had a stronger hand in choosing them, according to an aide to Ms. Foxx. Committee members looked for students from universities that had high-profile incidents of antisemitism.

Several Jewish groups showed support for the congressional committee’s efforts on Thursday, sending representatives to sit in the audience. But some critics have dismissed hearings on the issue, considering them part of a broader G.O.P.-driven culture war against colleges and universities, which are perceived to be bastions of liberalism.

The discussion, less formal than testimony at a congressional hearing, was a sequel of sorts to the Dec. 5 hearing in which the presidents of M.I.T., Harvard and Penn were grilled over campus antisemitism. The leaders were asked whether calling for the genocide of Jews on their campuses would be punished, and their answers — that it would depend on the context — drew a fierce backlash and led to the resignations of two of the presidents.

Questions about how to maintain free expression while cracking down on disruptive protests have rocked universities across the country since the Oct. 7 attack. As Jewish students have pushed for action from universities to combat antisemitism, with some filing lawsuits against their schools, Muslim students and other supporters of Palestinians have also filed complaints describing harassment and discrimination against them.

Several investigations are underway to examine claims of antisemitism and anti-Muslim bias on campuses. The Department of Education has opened inquiries into discrimination against Muslim students at Harvard and other universities. And the House committee is investigating antisemitism at Harvard, Penn, M.I.T. and Columbia, and Ms. Foxx has said the examination could be expanded. The round table would help inform next steps in the inquiry, she said.

Passionate, angry and defiant, the students on Thursday repeatedly described feeling scared and abandoned, in spite of their efforts to be heard by university officials.

“By inviting me, you’ve actually already done more than Harvard University has ever done for its Jews, which is listening to us,” said Shabbos Kestenbaum, a Harvard Divinity School student. Mr. Kestenbaum is one of six Jewish students at Harvard who have sued the university for discrimination.

Students, who were not under oath, discussed experiencing and witnessing episodes of violence and verbal attacks on campus. Some said that after being spat on and cursed at, they stopped wearing their Star of David necklaces and skullcaps.

They also said that during war-related protests, some of which had become violent, it appeared that the campus police at their schools had been told not to stop the demonstrators.

Jacob Khalili, a student at Cooper Union, described staying inside a library while a pro-Palestinian protest was held outside. He said protesters rattled the doors and pounded on windows, “screaming anti-Israel, antisemitic chants.” He recalled some of the people with him calling the police for help, but said that the authorities did not intervene.

Joe Gindi, a Rutgers student, said protesters once screamed at him, “We don’t want Zionists here!” and called him a “European colonizer” even though his family had come from Syria. He also said that police officers and administrators at the scene did not stop the demonstrators.

The lawmakers at the round table seemed shocked by the accounts and empathized with the students. The House members said they were working on turning the information gleaned from the hearings and discussions into legislation.

But some members of the audience on Thursday pointed out that Jewish students aren’t the only ones who face discrimination on campus. A small group of demonstrators from Code Pink, an antiwar, pro-Palestinian group, said that Muslim and Arab students had also suffered abuse and deserved to be heard.

“There’s a very real issue with Islamophobia,” said Moataz Salim, a graduate student at George Washington University, who said about 40 of his family members had been displaced from their homes in Gaza, while others had been killed. He knew of a professor who had been accused of antisemitism for being outspoken about Palestinian rights and for inviting a speaker whom Jewish students had objected to, he said.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad, a professor of history, race and public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, said limiting Thursday’s discussion to antisemitism “ignores many forms of bias that exist on campuses.”

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