Rep. Jim Banks says IU fails to combat antisemitism in letter to Pamela Whitten
Accusations of antisemitism on Indiana University's campus have spread from Bloomington to Rep. Jim Banks Jim Banks (R, IN-03) office in Washington, D.C.
After Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Makiah Pickett and Treasurer Alex Kaswan resigned from Indiana Undergraduate Student Government in a letter to the student body, Banks wrote to President Pamela Whitten Wednesday.
Banks asked that his office be briefed on the number antisemitic incidents since Oct. 7, when Hamas attacked Israel. He also requested information on meetings with IU antisemitism task forces and if student-led pro-Palestine protests led to harassment reports or illegal acts.
“As an IU graduate, allegations of antisemitism at my alma mater are personal and extremely concerning to me,” Banks said. “As a lawmaker, I would note that Title VI of the Civil Rights Act prohibits anti-Jewish and antisemitic discrimination. If IU administrators condone or tolerate campus antisemitism, the university could lose access to federal funding."
An IU spokesperson provided a statement, saying the university appreciates the congressman’s outreach. The statement said safety and well-being of IU students are always top priorities.
“IU’s commitment to stand against antisemitism is deep and sincere,” IU said. “Hate has no home at IU and acts of antisemitism and Islamophobia will not be tolerated.”
IU has increased police presence across all campuses and introduced additional security, the university stated. IU said it is working closely with law enforcement and Jewish campus organizations to follow best practices.
The Antisemitism Advisory Board was established over a year ago, the university said, and it “remains robust and active.”
Banks said he wants a response to his letter by Dec. 1.
IU Maurer School of Law Professor Steve Sanders studies freedom of speech at universities. He said it's appropriate for IU to respond to the letter in a business-like way. But to crack down on demonstrations held on campus would be limiting freedom of speech.
"I don't have any reason to think that the university will do that," Sanders said.
Sanders said it's usually best that universities don't take official positions on international issues unless they directly affect the institution.
What did Rep. Jim Banks write in his letter to President Pamela Whitten?
Banks wrote that pro-Palestine protests have been held on college campuses since Oct. 7, including Cornell University and George Washington University.
Hundreds gathered on the Bloomington campus Oct. 9 to show support for Israel and Palestine in separate demonstrations. IU’s Chabad and Hillel groups organized the pro-Israel demonstration. IU’s Palestine Solidarity Committee organized the other. Police monitored both rallies.
The Indiana Daily Student reported the two groups confronted each other at the end of the night.
Banks singled out the Palestine Solidarity Committee for its Oct. 28 protest calling for a ceasefire.
"One protestor held a sign reading 'Colonialism, Apartheid, Genecide [sic],' and, according to the Bloomingtonian, an IU student smeared Israelis as 'occupiers," Banks wrote.
IU's Palestine Solidarity Committee provided a statement Wednesday. The committee expressed “profound disappointment” at being singled out by Banks. It vehemently rejected linking its activities to antisemitism, and urged Banks to “uphold international law and fundamental principles of human dignity.”
“Contrary to assertions made by Congressman Jim Banks, our characterization of the state of Israel as ‘occupiers’ is not a smear but rather a precise reflection of the internationally recognized illegal occupation of Palestinian land, as defined by the United Nations Security Council and endorsed by numerous human rights organizations,” the Palestine Solidarity Committee said. “The IU administration has exhibited clear bias against Palestinian students through Pamela Whitten’s statement, yet the Congressman has not taken a stand in solidarity with Palestinian and Muslim students.”
The committee strongly encouraged empathy for both perspectives and to work towards ending discrimination against Palestinian, Jewish and minority students.
Whitten released a “statement regarding the Middle East” Oct. 10, saying “IU is heartbroken over the horrific violence that has occurred over the past few days.” The three-sentence statement did not name Israel, Hamas or Palestine.
Banks highlighted the criticism that followed Whitten’s statement. He said he imagines Whitten will respond to his letter, and he's looking forward to having a covrsation with her.
“And we'll have a discussion about what I can do to help her do more to make sure that Jewish students feel safe, and that antisemitism is taken more seriously," Banks said.
On Oct. 16, Whitten released another statement on social media, expressing solidarity with IU’s Jewish community and urging compassion on campus.
“I have reflected on the events of this past week and have had many conversations with the IU community,” Whitten said in the new statement. “I continue to be heartbroken by the terrorist attack on the people of Israel. Let there be no ambiguity, Israel has suffered grievous atrocities at the hands of Hamas terrorists.”
Banks details recent accusations against IU Student Government, citing Kaswan’s and Pickett’s labeling IUSG leadership “blatantly antisemitic.” He said he shares their sentiments that the resignations motivate “actions from leadership to combat bias and antisemitism on campus.”
But Sanders said the lawmaker is conflating criticism and protest of the Israeli government with antisemitism.
“Criticizing an ideology, criticizing political views, criticizing the behavior of one country or a terrorist group; that is simply not the same thing as discrimination or harassment, the kinds of things that IU's policies to protect people against.”
The Anti-Defamation League reported a quadrupling of verified antisemitic incidents in the U.S. from Oct. 7-23. Pro-Palestinian rallies are included in that figure, the ADL said. The ADL reported there were 33 antisemitic incidents in Indiana in 2022.
Banks said IU leadership must respond aggressively to reports of antisemitism on its campus.
“I'm reacting to concerns that students and families in Indiana have brought to me about cases of antisemitism on college campuses and their children not feeling safe to go to class," he said.
Islamophobia and anti-Arab bias are also on the rise in the U.S. since Oct. 7. The Council on American-Islamic Relations reported it received a total of 1,283 requests for help and reports of bias between Oct. 7 and Nov. 4. This is a 216 percent increase compared to last year, CAIR said.
What happened in IUSG?
Kaswan and Pickett wrote in their letter they resigned because of the organization's and leadership’s “failure to fulfill the purpose of advocating and supporting the entirety of the student body.” They resigned Nov. 13, according to reporting from IDS, saying IUSG is antisemitic.
“The goal of this letter is to illustrate to the administration their concerning actions toward their directors and the student body that need to change,” the joint statement read. “It is our hope that our resignation motivates actions from leadership to combat bias and antisemitism on campus, as well as any issues that students face during their time at Indiana University Bloomington.”
Pickett, who is not Jewish, said President Aaliyah Raji intentionally neglected the Jewish student body and did not include Jewish voices in their work. Pickett said IUSG leadership told her antisemitism “is not an issue on campus.”
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Kaswan, who is Jewish, said IUSG is failing to address the rise of antisemitism on campus, and leadership showed a lack of care. He said leadership has “plainly chosen to ignore the experience of being Jewish on a college campus.
“I cannot continue to stand by and watch while my concerns and the concerns of other Jewish students are ignored,” Kaswan said.
Raji, who is Muslim, responded in a statement on social media. She said she is aware of her own biases, and the allegations “do not align” with her experiences or intentions. She apologized for any unintended harm and acknowledged that antisemitism is an issue on campus.
Raji said IUSG is dedicated to supporting all students.
“Amid the complexity of international conflicts, my administration has attempted to engage in conversation with student leaders from various organizations, including IU Hillel and the Muslim Student Association,” Raji said. “I continue to hope that together, we can strategize to combat anti semitism and islamophobia at Indiana University.”
On Thursday, IUSG’s Steering Committee announced on social media it will investigate the resignation and claims made by Kaswan and Pickett. The group wrote it was “blindsided.”
This story was updated on Nov. 16 to include information on Makiah Pickett and Alex Kaswan’s resignation from Indiana University’s Student Government.
This story was updated Nov. 17 by Bente Bouthier to include interviews with IU Professor Steve Sanders and Representative Jim Banks.