Photo: Palestinians walk past the building destroyed in the Israeli Bombardment of the Gaza Strip in Gaza City
A Department of Education policy adviser appointed by the Biden administration quit Wednesday to protest the administration’s crucial military support of Israel’s war in Gaza and its handling of the conflict’s repercussions at home and abroad.
Tariq Habash, a Biden administration appointee who had worked in the education department to help overhaul the student loan system and address inequities in higher education, told The Associated Press he submitted his resignation Wednesday. That was after he and others had “done everything imaginable” to work within the system to try to register their objections to administration leaders, he said.
Habash becomes at least the second official, and the first known official of Palestinian origin, to resign from the administration in protest of President Joe Biden’s actions regarding the war. State Department veteran Josh Paul stepped down in October as the administration accelerated arms transfers to Israel.
Habash had been among the administration staffers of Middle East, Muslim and Jewish background taking part in meetings with senior White House officials and others in the administration in response to staffers’ concerns on the U.S. role in the war. Habash on Wednesday described the sessions as more briefings from higher-ups than opportunity for staffers to be heard.
The White House referred questions about Habash to the Department of Education and a department spokesperson said “we wish him the best in his future endeavors.”
Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks killed 1,200 people in Israel. More than 22,000 people have died since Israel launched its offensive in Gaza.
Biden and his top officials have defended Israel’s devastating air and ground campaign in Gaza as Israel’s rightful self-defense against Hamas. They point to their repeated urging to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to change how it is fighting the war so as to lessen deaths among Palestinian civilians.
Fallout from the Israel-Hamas war has roiled campuses across the U.S. and reignited a debate over free speech. College leaders have struggled to define the line where political speech crosses into harassment and discrimination, with Jewish and Arab students raising concerns that their schools are doing too little to protect them.
The issue came to a boil in December when the presidents of Harvard, Penn and MIT were asked to testify at a congressional hearing on campus antisemitism. Asked by Republican lawmakers whether calls for the genocide of Jews would violate campus policies, the presidents offered lawyerly answers and declined to say unequivocally that it was prohibited speech.
Their answers sparked weeks of backlash from donors and alumni, ultimately leading to the resignation of Liz Magill at Penn and Claudine Gay at Harvard.
The Education Department has warned colleges that they’re required to fight antisemitism and Islamophobia on their campuses or risk a loss of federal money. The agency has opened civil rights inquiries at dozens of schools and colleges in response to complaints of antisemitism and Islamophobia in the wake of Oct. 7, including at Harvard, Stanford and MIT.
Education Secretary Miguel Cardona met with Jewish students from Baltimore-area colleges in November and vowed to take action to keep them safe. He later met with the leaders of national Muslim, Arab, and Sikh organizations to discuss the rise of Islamophobia on college campuses.
In his resignation letter, Habash wrote, “The Department of Education must play an active role in supporting institutions as they respond to the needs of students, faculty, and staff. This includes protecting all students who choose to exercise their first amendment right to engage in nonviolent actions, including expressing solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza.”
Earlier months of the war saw some administration staffers sign petitions and open letters urging Biden to call for a cease-fire.