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U.S. House speaker leading congressional push to curb campus protests over Gaza


U.S. House speaker leading congressional push to curb campus protests over Gaza

Apr 30, 2024 | 1:45 pm ET
By Jennifer Shutt Ariana Figueroa
U.S. House speaker leading congressional push to curb campus protests over Gaza
Demonstrators supporting Palestinians in Gaza barricade themselves inside Hamilton Hall, an academic building at Columbia University which has been occupied in past student movements, on April 30, 2024, in New York City. (Photo by Alex Kent/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson argued Tuesday protests on college campuses calling for a ceasefire in Gaza have crossed the line and represent a threat to Jewish students — one day before lawmakers in that chamber are set to vote on a bipartisan bill that would define antisemitism for the Department of Education.

Johnson, a Louisiana Republican, is leading efforts in the House to object to rising antisemitism throughout the country, as well as punish colleges and universities that allow the student protests to continue.

“The university is intended to be the free marketplace of ideas. It’s where you should have vigorous debate, thoughtful debate, consideration of weighty issues — and often you’ll have very different opinions, vigorous disagreement,” Johnson said. “That’s all great. That’s what the First Amendment protects.”

“This is not that,” he added, referencing the protests. “What these students are doing is shutting down the campuses, taking control of buildings.”

Many college campus protesters have called for their own universities to cut financial ties, such as endowments, with companies that do business with Israel or those that make weapons used in the war in Gaza that has killed more than 30,000 Palestinians, according to the Gaza Ministry of Health.

Several of the protests on college campuses include Jewish students, many of whom wear shirts indicating they are members of Jewish Voice for Peace, which says it is “the largest progressive Jewish anti-Zionist organization in the world.”

Johnson argued protests are “out of control” and are no longer using protected free speech. He also said it is “incumbent upon every leader in this country” to reject antisemitism.

Former President Donald Trump, who is once again seeking the Oval Office as the Republican Party’s presumptive nominee, made several comments during his first term in office and during this campaign that have been called antisemitic or were seen as supporting white supremacist movements.

Trump earlier this month said that “any Jewish person who votes for a Democrat or votes for Biden should have their head examined” and said in March that Jewish people who vote for Democrats “hate Israel.”

Raskin hopes for ‘tradition of nonviolence’

Maryland Democratic Rep. Jamie Raskin said during a brief interview Tuesday that lawmakers from both political parties are reacting with “horror to antisemitic utterances and speech, and everybody is reacting with horror to violence.”

“It’s not at the level of something like January 6, where police officers are getting injured and wounded, but it’s very serious,” Raskin said. “And it’s a departure from, you know, the nonviolent tradition in American protests.”

Raskin said that the First Amendment, which protects the freedom of speech and assembly, as well as Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based on race, color, or national origin, are relevant when discussing the campus protests.

“We need to make sure that there’s not a hostile learning environment,” Raskin said. “But people have a right to speak and to protest and to make their views known.”

Raskin said he hopes the student protests on college campuses throughout the country will operate “within the spirit and the tradition of nonviolence.”

“That’s critical,” Raskin said. “And I certainly hope that they would reject antisemitism along with every other form of discrimination and violence.”

The bipartisan bill that House lawmakers are set to vote on Wednesday, H.R. 6090, would codify the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism in Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, with which all schools that receive federal funding are required to comply.

The Department of State adopted that definition in 2016, which is a non-legally-binding working definition of antisemitism.

That definition would be: “Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”

Some of those manifestations include “targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity,” according to guidance from the U.S. State Department.  

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does not protect students from discrimination based only on religion, so the civil rights division in the Department of Education refers those complaints to the Department of Justice, according to the Department of Education. 

Concerns about chilling free speech

Some Democrats have raised concerns that the House bill is too broad and would create a chilling effect of free speech. That includes the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, Rep. Jerry Nadler of New York.

“Speech that is critical of Israel alone does not constitute unlawful discrimination,” Nadler said Monday during a meeting of the Rules Committee, which advanced the bill to the floor.

House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries of New York on Monday called for Congress to debate legislation to address antisemitism, but pressed for a different bipartisan bill, H.R. 7921.

“The effort to crush antisemitism and hatred in any form is not a Democratic or Republican issue,” Jeffries wrote in a letter to Johnson. “It’s an American issue that must be addressed in a bipartisan manner with the fierce urgency of now.”