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House passes bill aimed to combat antisemitism amid college unrest

Speaker of the House Mike Johnson visited Columbia University on April 24 to meet with Jewish students and make remarks about concerns that the ongoing demonstrations have become antisemitic.
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Speaker of the House Mike Johnson visited Columbia University on April 24 to meet with Jewish students and make remarks about concerns that the ongoing demonstrations have become antisemitic.

The House of Representatives passed a bill on Wednesday aimed at addressing reports of rising antisemitism on college campuses, where activists angered by Israel's war against Hamas have been protesting for months and more recently set up encampments on campus grounds.

The Antisemitism Awareness Act would see the adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance's definition of antisemitism for the enforcement of federal anti-discrimination laws regarding education programs.

The bill passed with a 320-91 vote. Seventy Democrats and 21 Republicans voted against the measure.

The international group defines antisemitismas "a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews" and gives examples of the definition's application, which includes "accusing Jews as a people of being responsible for real or imagine wrongdoing committed by a single Jewish person or group" and making " dehumanizing, demonizing, or stereotypical allegations about Jews as such or the power of Jews as collective."

Rep. Mike Lawler, R-N.Y., introduced the legislation.

"Right now, without a clear definition of antisemitism, the Department of Education and college administrators are having trouble discerning whether conduct is antisemitic or not, whether the activity we're seeing crosses the line into antisemitic harassment," he said on the House floor before passage.

The bill goes further than an executive order former President Donald Trump signed in 2019. Opponents argue the measure could restrict free speech.

"This definition adopted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance includes 'contemporary examples of antisemitism'," said Rep. Jerry Nadler in a speech on the House floor ahead of the vote. "The problem is that these examples may include protected speech in some context, particularly with respect to criticism of the state of Israel."

Fellow New York Democrat Rep. Ritchie Torres, one of the 15 Democratic cosponsors of the bill, told NPR he finds that argument unconvincing.

"There's a false narrative that the definition censors criticism of the Israeli government. I consider it complete nonsense," Torres said in an interview with NPR.

"If you can figure out how to critique the policies and practices of the Israeli government without calling for the destruction of Israel itself, then no reasonable person would ever accuse you of antisemitism," he added.

Issue should 'transcend partisan politics'

While members of both parties have criticized reports of antisemitism at the protests, Republicans have made the issue a central political focus.

House Speaker Mike Johnson made a rare visit last week to Columbia University, where demonstrators were demanding the school divestfrom companies that operate in Israel. Johnson and a handful of GOP lawmakers met with a group of Jewish students.

"They are really concerned that their voices are not being heard when they may complain about being assaulted, being spit on, being told that all Jews should die — and they are not getting any response from the individuals who are literally being paid to protect them," Rep. Anthony D'Esposito, R-N.Y., told NPR of the meeting.

On Tuesday, Johnson held a press conference focused on antisemitism with a group of House Republicans at the U.S. Capitol.

"Antisemitism is a virus and it will spread if it's not stamped out," Johnson said. "We have to act, and House Republicans will speak to this fateful moment with moral clarity."

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., who chairs the House progressive caucus, says Republicans are playing politics.

"Many of these Republicans didn't say a word when Trump and others in Charlottesvilleand other places were saying truly antisemitic things. But all of a sudden now they want to bring forward bills that divide Democrats and weaponize this," she said.

Torres said he wished Johnson had done a bipartisan event with House Democrats to "present a united front."

"You know, it's impossible to take the politics out of politics, but the fight against all forms of hate, including antisemitism, should transcend partisan politics," he said.

Student protestors chant near an entrance to Columbia University on April 30. Columbia University has restricted access to the school's campus to students residing in residential buildings on campus and employees who provide essential services to campus buildings after protestors took over Hamilton Hall overnight.
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Student protestors chant near an entrance to Columbia University on April 30. Columbia University has restricted access to the school's campus to students residing in residential buildings on campus and employees who provide essential services to campus buildings after protestors took over Hamilton Hall overnight.

Jewish students speak about feeling harassed

There was increased urgency to move legislation to the floor after lawmakers started hearing stories of Jewish students feeling unwelcome on campuses.

Eliana Goldin, a junior at Columbia and the Jewish Theological Seminary, said the escalation of protests on and around her campus have made her feel unsafe.

"I know many, many people who have been harassed because they wear a Jewish star necklace," Goldin told NPR. Goldin was one student who received a message from Rabbi Elie Buechler of Columbia a week ago.

"The events of the last few days...have made it clear that Columbia University's Public Safety and the NYPD cannot guarantee Jewish students' safety in the face of extreme antisemitism and anarchy," the message read. "It deeply pains me to say that I would strongly recommend you return home as soon as possible and remain home until the reality in and around campus has dramatically improved."

Demonstrators say their protest is peaceful and that some of the antisemitic events that have garnered national attention have come from people outside of the university.

Goldin said she was part of an interaction that got a lot of online attention of someone yelling at her and others to "go back to Poland." She said she was disappointed in the reaction from the broader Columbia community, even though the person was likely not a student.

"I do think if someone were to say, 'go back to Africa' to a Black student, it would one, be abhorrent," Goldin said. "And correctly, the entire Columbia student body would feel outraged at that, and we would all be able to rally around it. But of course, when someone says 'go back to Poland' to a Jew, we don't feel the same outrage and the same unity against that."

Torres said lawmakers should listen to students like Goldin.

"If there are Black students, who claim to experience racism, we rightly respect their experiences. The same would be true of Latino students, the same would be true of Asian students," he said. "If there are Jewish students who are telling us that they do not feel safe, why are we questioning the validity of their experiences? Why are we not affording them the sensitivity that we would have for every other group?"

Columbia University did not respond to NPR about questions about their handling of the protests.

A demonstrator breaks the windows of the front door of the building in order to secure a chain around it to prevent authorities from entering as demonstrators from the pro-Palestine encampment barricade themselves inside Hamilton Hall, an academic building at Columbia University, on April 30.
Alex Kent / Getty Images
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A demonstrator breaks the windows of the front door of the building in order to secure a chain around it to prevent authorities from entering as demonstrators from the pro-Palestine encampment barricade themselves inside Hamilton Hall, an academic building at Columbia University, on April 30.

'It just really kind of erodes the soul'

Xavier Westergaard, a Ph.D. student at Columbia, attended the meeting between the House GOP delegation and Jewish students.

"The mood in the room was relief that someone so high up in the government made this a priority," he said, referring to Johnson.

"Jewish students, including myself, have been the victims of physical violence and intimidation. This goes from shoving, spitting, being told to go back to Europe," he said. "It just really kind of erodes the soul if you hear it too many times."

He added: "And this is not just happening outside the gates, on the sidewalk where anyone from anywhere can come and demonstrate. We do have the First Amendment in this country. This was actually on campus. The university has responsibilities to protect their students from harassment on the basis of religion or creed or national origin."

A consistent refrain among protesters is that criticizing the policies of the Israeli government doesn't equate to antisemitism.

Westergaard agrees, but says that's not what he's experiencing.

"I've heard, 'We want all Zionists off campus.' I've heard 'death to the Zionist state, death to Zionists.' And as a Jew, I feel that Zionism and Judaism can be teased apart with a tremendous amount of care and compassion and knowledge," he said. "But it's also just a dog whistle that people use when they're talking about the Jews."

Juliana Castillo, an undergraduate, was also at the meeting with Johnson. She said calls for the safety of students doesn't just include physical well-being.

"There are things like intimidation, like feeling uncomfortable being openly Jewish or taking a direct route across campus," she said. "It doesn't always manifest as a lack of physical safety. Sometimes it manifests as being unwelcome in a class or feeling like people's viewpoints or perspectives are not respected."

She said even isolated incidents of antisemitism that get circulated widely online have a "creeping impact on people."

"Just knowing that something has happened to your friends, or to people you know in a place you're familiar with, makes it difficult to have a sense that this is your campus," she said. "These things do build up."

Bipartisan push on more bills to counter antisemitism

Lawmakers say this bill is just one step — and that there's more action the chamber should take to combat antisemitism.

Torres and Lawler have introduced another bill that would place a monitor on a campus to report back to the federal government on whether the university is complying with Title VI, which prohibits discrimination based on race, color or national origin in places like colleges that receive federal funding.

"A law is only as effective as its enforcement, and the purpose here is to provide an enforcement mechanism where none exist," Torres said. "And I want to be clear: the legislation would empower the federal Department of Education not to impose a monitor on every college or university, only when there's reason to suspect a violation of Title VI."

Meanwhile, House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries is urging Johnson to bring the bipartisan Countering Antisemitism Act to the floor.

"The effort to crush antisemitism and hatred in any form is not a Democratic or Republican issue" said Jeffries in a statement.

The bill would establish a senior official in the Department of Education to monitor for antisemitism on college campuses and create a national coordinator in the White House to oversee a new interagency task force to counter antisemitism.

"We have negotiated that bill for nine months. It is bipartisan. It's bicameral," said North Carolina Democrat Kathy Manning, who co-chairs the House Bipartisan Task Force for Combating Antisemitism.

Manning was part of a trio of House Democrats who visited Columbia University last week to hear from Jewish students.

Manning points to a study from the American Jewish Committee that found that 46% of American Jews since October 7 say they have altered their behavior out of fear of antisemitism.

"I find that deeply disturbing, that in the United States of America, people are now afraid to be recognized in public as being Jewish," Manning said.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Barbara Sprunt
Barbara Sprunt is a producer on NPR's Washington desk, where she reports and produces breaking news and feature political content. She formerly produced the NPR Politics Podcast and got her start in radio at as an intern on NPR's Weekend All Things Considered and Tell Me More with Michel Martin. She is an alumnus of the Paul Miller Reporting Fellowship at the National Press Foundation. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Pennsylvania native.