(JTA) – As Amanda Silberstein testified to the U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday about how a student at her university had threatened to kill and rape Jewish students, she was interrupted.
“Free Palestine,” a protester shouted from the audience during Silberstein’s testimony at a hearing on free speech and antisemitism on college campuses. “Anti-Zionism is not antisemitism.”
Silberstein is an undergraduate at Cornell University, where a student was recently arrested for making antisemitic death threats. Silberstein, a member of the student board at Cornell’s Chabad-Lubavitch movement chapter, had just described how “professors and student organizations have been fueling Jew-hatred and spreading it across campus with disregard or potentially even with deliberate intent to incite.”
It was one of several times when pro-Palestinian protesters interrupted witnesses at the House Judiciary Committee hearing titled “Free Speech on College Campuses.” Throughout the more than three-hour hearing, they called for a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip; decried a purported silencing of Palestinian students on campus; and protested the recent House censuring of Michigan Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib, who is Palestinian-American, for her use of the pro-Palestinian phrase “From the river to the sea,” which Jewish groups and others have called antisemitic.
This was not the first time in recent days when pro-Palestinian protesters disrupted congressional proceedings: Last week, hecklers also tried to derail U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken as he implored Congress to allocate emergency funds for Israel.
But the dissonance of the moment — Silberstein, unlike Blinken, was not using her testimony to advocate for Israel — exemplified the tense atmosphere, as Republicans and Democrats alike openly pondered the question of whether, and how, speech about Israel and Jews should be policed on campus and in the House.
“I happen to believe in the eradication of Hamas. The same freedom of speech that protects my right to advocate that position is at stake here, is it not?” California Republican Rep. Tom McClintock said at one point to Kenneth Marcus, a witness who served in the Trump administration’s Education Department and chairs the Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, a pro-Israel group that has repeatedly brought legal challenges against universities it says fail to properly discipline anti-Zionist speech.
The hearing was originally intended to focus on the issue of conservative college students allegedly being silenced. But in light of Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel, it largely centered on antisemitism on campus and beyond as student and faculty rhetoric around Israel has reached a fever pitch.
Silberstein had been invited to testify in part because Cornell recently canceled classes for a day because of the threats against its Jewish students. That incident followed a professor at the Ivy League university publicly praising the Hamas attacks, turning the school into a flashpoint for the rising temperature around antisemitic and anti-Zionist speech on campuses.
Some Republicans, including hardline right-wing Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, suggested that efforts to restrict pro-Palestinian or pro-Hamas speech on campuses were misguided. Another, California Rep. Kevin Kiley, accused university administrators at schools such as Harvard of relying on free speech as an excuse to avoid condemning students with pro-Hamas views.
A Cornell alum, Texas Rep. Wesley Hunt, condemned the school’s administration for not immediately firing the pro-Hamas professor, suggesting administrators would have done so if he had shared anti-trans or anti-Black views instead.
One Democrat, Georgia Rep. Hank Johnson, said the hearing itself was hypocritical in light of the House’s vote the previous night to censure Tlaib over speech related to Israel.
“It’s ironic that we’re holding this hearing today about censorship and speech on campus, but last night, MAGA Republicans and others censured the only Palestinian voice in the House of Representatives because they didn’t like what she had to say,” Johnson said. “She didn’t threaten anybody. She did not advocate for violence. She stated a view, as happens on college campuses.” (Nearly two dozen Democrats also voted to censure Tlaib, saying that they believed her use of the phrase “From the river to the sea” implied threats of violence toward Jews and Israel.)
McClintock grilled Silberstein and Marcus about whether certain Israel-related speech should be protected on campus. He asked Marcus if “the mere repetition” of the phrase “From the river to the sea” should be “banned or punished.”
In his answer, Marcus referred to an executive order by President Donald Trump that included some anti-Israel speech under the Education Department’s civil rights protections. Speech, he said, could be used “as an indicator of the nature of conduct.” He added that, if a violent antisemitic action followed anti-Israel speech, the prior speech could be policed as an example of predicting that conduct.
“Conduct often follows words,” Silberstein said in agreement, linking chants at Cornell of “From the river to the sea” to antisemitic threats to students. “Speech advocating for violence should not be tolerated on a college campus,” she added.
“Well, what about the eradication of Hamas?” McClintock asked her. Silberstein responded that Hamas is “a recognized terror organization,” which led McClintock to ask, “So it depends upon your viewpoint, is that what you’re saying?”
Gaetz, too, pushed Marcus on whether punishing students who voice support for Hamas amounts to the suppression of legitimate speech. He suggested that those who have called for the suppression of bigoted speech are being inconsistent.
“I am reminded of the great philosopher Austin Powers, who said, ‘There’s only two things I can’t stand: people who are intolerant of other people, and the Dutch,’” Gaetz said, referencing the series of spy comedies starring Mike Myers. “And a similar tension seems to be on display today.”
Silberstein and Marcus were joined on the witness panel by Stacy Burdett, a senior executive at the Anti-Defamation League; two non-Jewish conservative campus activists; and Pamela Nadell, the director of American University’s Jewish studies program and the author of a forthcoming book on antisemitism in America.
Nadell sparred with Gaetz over whether criticisms of “globalists” or progressive Jewish philanthropist George Soros, both frequent targets of Gaetz’s ire, should always be seen as antisemitic.
Elsewhere during the hearing, Judiciary Committee Chair Jim Jordan, a Republican, refused to respond to California Democratic Rep. Eric Swalwell’s queries about why his committee left up a tweet reading “Kanye. Elon. Trump.” for months after the rapper Kanye West embarked on a stream of antisemitic comments.