After Pro-Palestine Campus Protests, State Senators Call Hearing on Antisemitism

Protesters demand that UT-Austin divest from weapons manufacturers selling to Israel (Photo by Lina Fisher)

On Tuesday, the Texas Senate Subcommittee on Higher Education held a daylong hearing that covered some of the most heated issues on college campuses in the state.

Much of the hearing tackled schools’ compliance with Senate Bill 17 – the state’s new Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) ban – but for a few hours, lawmakers focused on antisemitism on college campuses, in response to recent pro-Palestine campus protests that led to the arrest of more than 130 people at UT-Austin. Lawmakers also discussed Senate Bill 18, a 2019 law that requires universities to permit free speech in public outdoor areas on campus. Despite students and nonstudents who were at the protests disavowing antisemitism and clarifying that their aim was to demand UT divest from weapons manufacturers selling to Israel, senators and panelists claimed again and again that protesters aimed to intimidate Jewish students and faculty.

Committee Chair Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, invited a panel including a UT student, a UT law professor, and the policy director of the Anti-Defamation League to testify about a spike in antisemitism on college campuses. The ADL’s Courtney Toretto said 2023 was the worst year for antisemitic incidents since the ADL began recording them and found that roughly 80% of campus-based antisemitic incidents in 2023 happened after Hamas’ October 7 attack on Israel. Comparing October through December 2023 to the same period in 2022, the ADL recorded a more than 1000% increase in antisemitic incidents.

Sophomore UT student Levi Fox, with the group Longhorn Students for Israel, testified that as a Jew he has felt unsafe on campus since October 7. He said protesters “feel so brazen to call for the death of Jews and not just say it but to say it with pride,” and claimed that a professor at a protest told him “they’ll come after you and put you in the ovens next.” Fox then said protesters were “misinformed terrorist sympathizers whose primary goal is the destruction and murder of the Jewish people.”

Creighton called protesters “pro-Hamas groups” and said that the protests were “an effort to intimidate Jewish students and faculty.”

When asked by Sen. Jose Menendez, SD-26, about the intention of pro-Palestine protests, 2024 UT graduates answered that they want UT to divest from weapons manufacturers selling to Israel, and “to bring awareness about the ongoing genocide in Palestine,” recent grad Mina Mashhoon told lawmakers. “Children have been specifically targeted, aid hasn’t been allowed in, and our government and our academic institution funds this.” When asked if they intended to intimidate Jewish students, Mashhoon said, “a lot of the protesters and organizers are themselves Jewish; that kind of hate speech would never be tolerated in those spaces. It’s absolutely not coming from the top if it’s happening.”

David Albert, a Jewish government professor at Austin Community College and a UT alum who identified himself as Zionist, testified at the hearing that “the term antisemitism is being misapplied. Antisemitism is simply hatred of Jews, not criticism of Israel. Criticism of the Netanyahu government is not antisemitic, criticism of the Israeli occupation of Gaza is not antisemitism, criticism of the existence of the State of Israel is not antisemitism – that is called anti-Zionism. I disagree with anti-Zionists, but anti-Zionism is not inherently antisemitic.”

Senators did not invite a panel to speak about Islamophobic incidents, but some public speakers pointed to a rise in Islamophobia as well. (The Council on American-Islamic Relations released a 2024 civil rights report in April announcing that in 2023 they received more anti-Mulsim bias complaints nationwide than in any other year in its 30-year history. Half of those incidents occurred in the three months after October 7.)

Hikmah Jamal, a Muslim UT student, testified to the rise in hate crimes against Muslims and Palestinians in Austin, referencing the stabbing of Palestinian-American Zacharia Doar after he left a pro-Palestinian protest in February. (APD deemed that attack “bias-motivated,” though a Travis County grand jury decided the attack should not be prosecuted as a hate crime.) “Those in power have advocated for behavior that forces me and my community to hide ourselves and our faith,” said Jamal. Mashhoon claimed that Zionist counter-protesters have called her a “cockroach” and “terrorist.”

With campus communities divided on who has the right to free speech, the next legislative session may bring a renewed focus on First Amendment rights. Senate leader Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick listed campus antisemitism, free speech, and enforcement of the DEI ban as top priorities for the 2025 session, along with making “any needed reforms” to Senate Bill 18, which currently guarantees the right to free speech on college campuses.