In No Labels Call, Josh Gottheimer, Mike Lawler, and University Trustees Agree: FBI Should Investigate Campus Protests

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During a call hosted by the centrist political group No Labels, Reps. Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J., and Mike Lawler, R-N.Y., spoke with close to 300 attendees, including trustees from several universities, about how Congress could help crack down further on student protesters — and how the FBI could get more involved. 

No Labels promoted the Wednesday event as a “special Zoom call” with “the leading voices in their parties” opposing student protests against the war in Gaza, which spread to more than 150 campuses in the last two weeks.

The bipartisan pair praised the responses of universities that have called on police to violently quell protests and promised that Congress would be doing more to investigate the student movements, according to a recording of the meeting obtained by The Intercept. The lawmakers and university board of trustee members repeatedly claimed that nefarious outside actors are funding and organizing the encampments on university campuses. 

Gottheimer said that he had been in touch with officials from the Federal Bureau of Investigation about campus protests. “Based on my conversations with the FBI — there’s activity I can’t get into, you know, given my committee responsibilities, I can’t get into more specifics — but I can just say that I think people are well aware this is an issue,“ said Gottheimer, who is on the House Intelligence Committee. 

“I can’t speak for the local FBI field offices, but it’s got to be all hands on deck,” he added. “I believe following the money is the key. Gotta follow the money. A lot of these universities are not transparent at all, remotely, about where the money comes from, you know, they just, they want it — and that has to be a big part of this.” 

This week, House Republicans said they would investigate federal funding for universities that held campus protests. House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., announced the plans on Tuesday alongside the chairs of six congressional committees. 

Gottheimer and Lawler have been at the forefront of congressional efforts to defend Israel amid its brutal war on Gaza. They led bipartisan efforts to silence criticism of Israel and to protect Israel from being held accountable for using the billions of dollars it receives from the United States in violation of international law. 

Gottheimer, Lawler, and No Labels did not respond to requests for comment.

Among the most prominent themes of the discussion were getting the FBI more involved in investigating American college campuses, and fears of outside agitators stoking the anti-war protests. New York University Chair Emeritus and Executive Vice Chair Bill Berkley, whose campus this week welcomed police to arrest over a dozen students, claimed that a New York City-based Palestine solidarity group had been very involved in leading protest efforts in the city and suggested that the feds should investigate.

Berkley claimed that “we have deciphered messages” that showed the group directing people to the encampment at Columbia. He also suggested that, because many of the tents at campus protests were the same, the demonstrations had been orchestrated externally. (Many prominent critics of the protest, including New York City Mayor Eric Adams, have repeated that claim. As the New York City outlet Hell Gate and others have pointed out, the tents are sold for $15 at Five Below and around $30 at Amazon and Walmart. “My God…looks like what we’ve got on our hands is a classic case of college students buying something cheap and disposable,” wrote Hell Gate.)

Berkley then asked why the FBI hadn’t yet taken action against the demonstrations. “And, by the way, the FBI and the terrorist monitoring groups know this — why haven’t we seen any action by the federal government?” He did not respond to requests for comment.

“You’re seeing how these kids are being manipulated by certain groups or entities or countries to foment hate on their behalf and really create a hostile environment here in the U.S.” 

Lawler, who co-sponsored a recent bill to ban TikTok, repeated Berkley’s claims about external organizers and said that was the type of thing that inspired Congress’s efforts to ban the app. “I don’t think there’s any question that there has been a coordinated effort off these college campuses, and that you have outside paid agitators and activists,” Lawler said. “It also highlights exactly why we included the TikTok bill in the foreign supplemental aid package because you’re seeing how these kids are being manipulated by certain groups or entities or countries to foment hate on their behalf and really create a hostile environment here in the U.S.” 

Lawler added that he would look into domestic groups funding protests. Gottheimer, for his part, said demonstrations at Columbia were “potentially” led by outsiders and repeated his frequent claim that the protesters support Hamas. 

Andrew Bursky, the board chair of Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, said America’s tradition of campus protests was “a positive thing,” but that there’s a “clear dark line” between allowing free speech and condoning antisemitism. “And I think you guys in Congress have darkened that line today with this piece of legislation,” he added. Bursky did not specify what legislation he was referring to, but earlier that day, the House of Representatives passed a Republican-led bill that expanded the definition of antisemitism. 

Students had forfeited their right to protest, Bursky went on, due to “physical violence, or threats of physical violence or harassment,” among other things. He said that universities that have failed to make that line clear and as a result “have chaos and anarchy,” stating that “the only way to fix it is to bring in law enforcement.”

“The only way to fix it is to bring in law enforcement.”

Bursky did not mention the most prominent examples of physical violence on his own campus or elsewhere. When police came onto Washington University in St. Louis this week, officers beat a professor from another university, slammed him, and dragged his limp body — leaving him with several broken ribs and a broken hand. At the University of California, Los Angeles, meanwhile, a pro-Israel mob shot fireworks, sprayed mace, and hurled fists and slurs at pro-Palestine students and student journalists. 

In a statement to The Intercept, Bursky said that “any injury of any individual, protestor or a member of law enforcement, is very unfortunate and regrettable.” He also reiterated students’ right to peacefully protest, noting that those rights are constrained by “well-documented” time and place restrictions meant to ensure that university business can go on as usual. “So long as those restrictions … are respected, the freedom of members of the university community to engage in protest must and will be protected,” he wrote. “Also, to be clear, protests that decay into violence or speech that is hate speech threatening to individuals or specific groups will never be acceptable.”

On the call, Gottheimer applauded Bursky and other university leaders for bringing police to campus. “Listen, it took a while for the board of trustees of Columbia to get to the right place. They eventually got to the right place,” he said. (The night before the call, Columbia had welcomed militarized police to invade one of its campus buildings to arrest students en masse — leaving some bruised and injured. One police officer even accidentally fired a gun on campus.)

 Civil defense teams and citizens continue search and rescue operations after an airstrike hits the building belonging to the Maslah family during the 32nd day of Israeli attacks in Deir Al-Balah, Gaza on November 7, 2023. (Photo by Ashraf Amra/Anadolu via Getty Images)

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A speaker who was identified on the call as Howard Berk and said he is involved in Texas urged the members of Congress to back schools doing “a great job.” While those leaders “may have support from the top,” Berk said, “they’re getting tremendous heat, obviously, from a minority of students, and from the faculty.” The University of Texas at Austin was widely scrutinized after hordes of riot police met peaceful protesters with tear gas and flash grenades. (There is a Howard Berk on the board of the University of Texas/Texas A&M Investment Management Company; he did not respond to requests for comment.)

Berk also complained that universities were not getting support from federal agencies to investigate protests. “The FBI question is an interesting one,” Berk said. He added that he’d heard from people in Texas that the “FBI have not really been helpful.” Universities were doing their own investigations “with really no help from the feds as my understanding at this point,” he said. “So it’s important.”

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Lawler applauded the response from the New York Police Department, whose counterterror unit he said was doing a good job of “finding some leads,” but said that the FBI could aid its response. “I definitely think the FBI could certainly be a little more helpful here. But again, I think Congress is going to take action,” he said.

Gottheimer agreed with Berk’s call to praise “all the right universities,” including schools in Texas and Florida “that have stepped up.” Among elite schools, he praised Princeton and Dartmouth, where the former chair of Jewish Studies was pushed down, arrested, and banned from campus for photographing protests. (The college later revoked the ban.)

Lawler and Gottheimer both visited Columbia’s campus in recent weeks to express concern for Jewish students. Neither appeared to spend time with Jewish students participating in the anti-war protests, let alone the Palestinian students who may be mourning family members killed by American bombs.

Last week, Lawler co-sponsored the “COLUMBIA Act” alongside Rep. Ritchie Torres, D-N.Y., which would impose an antisemitism monitor on any college or university receiving federal funding. 

Gottheimer, meanwhile, has been among the most outspoken members of his party. He has called Democrats who don’t support Israel a “cancer” and joined efforts to pressure university presidents at Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania to resign. In the days after Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel, Gottheimer reportedly suggested Muslim clerics are “guilty” of the attack. Gottheimer denied that he had made the comment and said his remarks were taken out of context.

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Rep. Josh Gottheimer Goes to War Against High Schoolers Protesting for Gaza

In November, he voted with Republicans to censure Rep. Rashida Tlaib, the only Palestinian member of Congress. In January, Gottheimer was one of 62 Democrats to join 148 Republicans in expressing “disgust” at South Africa’s suit accusing Israel of genocide, an accusation that the International Court of Justice later found to be plausible. The New Jersey Democrat also co-led a resolution to condemn the phrase “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” which the House passed in April.

One day after the call, No Labels, which spent much of the last year recruiting a spoiler candidate for the 2024 presidential election, sent out a fundraising email asking donors to max out contributions to both members of Congress. “As college campuses are gripped by anti-Israel, antisemitic protests, Reps. Josh Gottheimer and Mike Lawler are showing what bipartisan leadership looks like. They are standing up against these extremist bullies — on campuses and in Congress — and deserve our support. Would you show your support by making a donation of the maximum of $6,600 to Reps. Gottheimer and Lawler today?”

The post In No Labels Call, Josh Gottheimer, Mike Lawler, and University Trustees Agree: FBI Should Investigate Campus Protests appeared first on The Intercept.

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