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Four takeaways from UCLA Chancellor Gene Block's testimony on campus antisemitism, protests

Jenny Jarvie, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON — UCLA Chancellor Gene Block found himself in the nation’s culture wars hot seat Thursday, interrogated by members of Congress about his handling of complaints of campus antisemitism, amid student protests over the Israel-Hamas war.

For Republican Congress members, the hearing organized by the GOP-led House Committee on Education and the Workforce was a chance to present the University of California, Los Angeles as exhibit A in how not to deal with protests.

Almost as soon as activists set up a Palestinian solidarity encampment April 25 in the heart of campus, Jewish students and faculty complained that demonstrators established checkpoints restricting access to many students, at times singling out students they identified as Zionists. But other Jewish students helped set up the camp, arguing it was not antisemitic, but anti-Zionist.

After a violent mob of pro-Israeli counterprotesters attacked the encampment on April 30, it was dismantled May 2, with law enforcement arresting more than 200 people.

But Thursday’s interrogation was not a forum for a constructive discussion on how universities can navigate the balance between maintaining free speech and protecting students from discrimination.

Instead, Republicans — and some Democrats — took it as an opportunity to score political points.

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“Over the course of years, decades even, universities gradually nurtured a campus culture of radicalism, in which antisemitism grew and became tolerated by administrators,” Virginia Foxx, the commitee chair, said in her opening remarks.

The Republican from North Carolina assailed Block for allowing UCLA’s protests to spiral out of control.

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

Here are some key takeaways from the hearing.

—Block said he was late in shutting down the encampment

In his opening testimony, Block conceded that UCLA made errors in judgment. The encampment, he said, “disrupted normal access to some classes” and “impeded our educational mission.”

“With the benefit of hindsight,” he said, “we should have been prepared to immediately remove the encampment if and when the safety of our community was put at risk.”

—He was vague about what he would do differently

Block did not specify what UCLA should have done to prevent discrimination or violence as protests ramped up. And he did not explain why the university did not take action as students reported discrimination from protesters and outside agitators gathered on campus.

“Why did you fail to immediately clear these checkpoints?” Foxx asked.

Block said he instructed staff to make sure all students could freely pass without obstruction and then sent out a campuswide memo April 30, declaring that the encampment was “unlawful.”

Striking a mild, noncombative approach throughout, Block did not say what campus discipline had been — or would be — meted out to students who violated UCLA rules.

Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., criticized UCLA leaders for standing by for hours as a “mob of agitators” gathered near the encampment.

“This happened in front of your eyes on your campus, and it was live streamed for the whole world to see,” Omar said. “How did you fail these students at many critical points where you could have intervened?”

Block said he rejected the premise of the question.


“How can you reject the premise?” Omar said. “Are these pictures lying? Are any of these people in jail?”

Block said the Los Angeles Police Department was working to identify the attackers.

“It’s been over a month,” Omar said, cutting him off.

—UCLA protesters who blocked students’ passage have yet to be disciplined

Rep. Kevin Kiley, a California Republican, asked Block whether physically obstructing students from entering campus based on their race, ethnicity or religion is an expellable offense.

‘There is a disciplinary process,” Block said. “It could be.”

Kiley played a viral video showing UCLA protesters blocking a student, Eli Tsives, from passing a checkpoint.

“Were those students who formed blockade?” Kiley said. “Were they disciplined?”

Block said he didn’t know, repeating that he sent out a memo April 30 instructing the campus community that blocking students’ passage was intolerable.

“I’m going to take that as a no,” Kiley said. “There’s been no consequence whatsoever?”

“I did not say that,” Block said. “This is being investigated, and we’ll see what happens with the disciplinary process.”

—Block said campus antisemitism is a problem

Block, who is Jewish and has family members who died in the Holocaust, said UCLA has a problem with 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 said in his opening statement. “Trust me, I understand their pain.”

Asked by Kathy E. Manning, a Democrat from North Carolina, about emails dating to 2014 that show alumni had alerted the chancellor of growing antisemitism, Block said the university had tried to respond with training.

About 90% of students, he said, had taken an online training course that includes discussion of antisemitism.

Manning asked whether students and staff need additional training.

“I think we need to do more,” Block said.

But the chancellor also rebutted the Republican narrative that UCLA was awash in antisemitism.

“I don’t believe we are a hotbed of antisemitism,” Block said. “I think we’ve had incidents of it that are disturbing we’re trying to address.”

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