House passes antisemitism bill as House Speaker Johnson highlights campus protests

Supporters say it will help combat antisemitism on college campuses, but opponents say it overreaches and threatens free speech.

ByClare Foran, Haley Talbot and Kristin Wilson, CNN, CNNWire
Thursday, May 2, 2024
House passes antisemitism bill as House Speaker Johnson highlights campus protests
The House vote was 320 to 91 with 70 Democrats and 21 Republicans voting against the Antisemitism Awareness Act.

WASHINGTON -- The House voted on Wednesday to pass the bipartisan Antisemitism Awareness Act, a vote that comes amid heightened concerns over antisemitism with Israel at war with Hamas and as pro-Palestinian protests have sprung up on college campuses across the country.

Supporters of the legislation say it will help combat antisemitism on college campuses, but opponents say it overreaches and threatens to chill free speech.

The bill would mandate that when the Department of Education enforces federal anti-discrimination laws it uses a definition of antisemitism put forward by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.

Critics of the bill argue that the definition is overly expansive and could lead to censorship issues.

The House vote was 320 to 91 with 70 Democrats and 21 Republicans voting against the bill. The GOP opposition largely came from the right flank of the conference. The bill would next need to be taken up by the Senate.

RELATED: Antisemitic incidents in US hit all-time high, Anti-Defamation League report shows

New York Republican Rep. Mike Lawler, who introduced the legislation, said in a statement, "It's critical that we crack down on antisemitic hate within our own country."

"I'm thankful for the bipartisan support of the Antisemitism Awareness Act and for the support from a wide range of Jewish organizations that are standing up, endorsing this legislation, and saying enough is enough," he said.

In the House, Reps. Josh Gottheimer, a New Jersey Democrat, Max Miller, an Ohio Republican, and Jared Moskowitz, a Florida Democrat, are also leading the effort.

The American Civil Liberties Union has called on lawmakers to oppose the bill.

In a letter to representatives, the ACLU wrote, "Federal law already prohibits antisemitic discrimination and harassment by federally funded entities. H.R. 6090 is therefore not needed to protect against antisemitic discrimination; instead, it would likely chill free speech of students on college campuses by incorrectly equating criticism of the Israeli government with antisemitism."

"While we wholly support efforts to fight discrimination and harassment through Title VI complaints and investigations, we strongly oppose use of the IHRA definition, or any definition of discrimination that threatens to censor or penalize political speech protected by the First Amendment," the letter states.

Democratic Rep. Jerry Nadler of New York said during floor debate on the bill Wednesday, "There is no excuse for bigotry, threats or violence directed at anyone, anywhere, and it is imperative that we confront the scourge of antisemitism, and Congress can help, but this legislation is not the answer."

"Speech that is critical of Israel alone does not constitute unlawful discrimination," the congressman said. "The bill sweeps too broadly."

Lawler dismissed bipartisan critics of the bill and told CNN that GOP Sen. Tim Scott will introduce the Senate's companion bill, calling on Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to take action.

"Now it's up to Senator Schumer, the highest ranking Jewish official in America and in American history, to do something and bring this bill for a vote on the Senate floor," he said, urging the Senate to "quickly act on it."

Speaker Johnson puts a spotlight on campus protests

House Speaker Mike Johnson has increasingly put a spotlight on campus protests. Last week, the Louisiana Republican visited Columbia University to meet with Jewish students and hold a press conference where he called on the university's president to resign.

On Tuesday, Johnson announced "a House-wide effort to crack down on antisemitism on college campuses" at a news conference as House Republicans vowed to increase scrutiny of college campuses by expanding oversight efforts across multiple committees.

GOP Rep. Virginia Foxx of North Carolina, the chairwoman of the House Education Committee, announced that she has given notice to a number of universities to appear before the panel.

RELATED: Police arrive at UCLA after violent clashes break out amid dueling demonstrations; classes canceled

"Actions have consequences. One of those consequences is that I've given notice to appear to Yale, UCLA, and Michigan to appear before the Education and Workforce Committee on May 23 for a hearing on their handling of these most recent outrages," she said.

The speaker's office said in a news release that the House will be looking into federal funding for universities, the foreign student visa program and tax benefits for universities.

Johnson's emphasis on the issue comes as he has faced threats to his leadership from a small faction of conservative hardliners and has tried to rally House Republicans behind him.

On Wednesday, GOP Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene announced that she will seek a vote next week over Johnson's ouster. Democrats are expected to vote to kill the motion, effectively ensuring that Johnson remains in the leadership post. But the move nevertheless escalates pressure on the speaker and sets up a showdown on the House floor.

After stating "antisemitism is wrong," Greene said in a post on X that she would not vote for the bill because the definition of antisemitism adopted by the bill includes "claims of Jews killing Jesus" - claims that she argues are true.

She wrote on X that the Christian gospel says, "Jesus was handed over to Herod to be crucified by the Jews," an interpretation of the Bible that has been used historically to justify antisemitic attacks on the Jewish community.

RELATED: Pro-Palestinian protest on Penn's campus continues; petition calls for end to encampment

Some Democratic lawmakers have called on university officials to disband the encampment at Columbia, while others visited the campus last week to speak with student activists. The situation on the ground has shifted since that time as protestors moved this week to occupy one of the campus buildings.

While the spotlight for now is on campus protests, former President Donald Trump, now vying to win back the presidency, has also come under criticism for his rhetoric related to Jewish Americans.

In March, Trump said in an interview that any Jewish person who votes for Democrats "hates their religion" and hates "everything about Israel," playing into an antisemitic trope that Jewish Americans have dual loyalties to the US and to Israel.

In 2022, Trump hosted White nationalist and Holocaust denier Nick Fuentes and rapper Kanye West at his Mar-a-Lago estate, demonstrating a willingness to associate with figures who have well-publicized antisemitic views as he embarked on another White House run.

And, during his presidency, when White nationalists, neo-Nazis and other right-wing groups rallied in Charlottesville, Virginia, with some gathered chanting, "Jews will not replace us," Trump insisted there were "very fine people" on both sides of the demonstrations.

Why this campus turmoil story is so complex

The nuance and history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains difficult to capture succinctly, particularly during escalating turmoil among groups with deep-held - and entrenched - views on the issue.

Students inside collegiate encampments that have spread across the United States are from a variety of backgrounds - including Palestinians, Arabs, Jews and Muslims, joined by students of other religious and ethnic backgrounds. They hold a spectrum of political and social views.

Many have been motivated by reports and video coming out of Gaza of an unfolding humanitarian crisis. Many of these students see the actions of the Israeli military in Gaza as a continuation of a more than 70-year-long oppression of Palestinian rights, land and culture. Protesters say they want their schools to stand against what they believe is genocide in Gaza.

RELATED: How universities are cracking down on a swell of tension months into student protests

As antisemitism has surged to record levels since Hamas' attack on October 7, 2023, many Jews feel Israel requires more support now than ever - as a refuge for Jews, who have long been an oppressed minority. Even if they oppose Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's policies and the country's actions in Gaza, many Jews believe anti-Israel and anti-Zionist sentiment and even peaceful protest of Israel is itself antisemitic, because the concept of Israel as a Jewish homeland is core to Judaism. And some support the Israeli government's efforts to crush Hamas in Gaza.

CAIR has reported record incidents of Islamophobia on campus, and the Anti-Defamation League has recorded a historic number of incidents of violence and threats against Jewish students. Some Jewish students have said they were threatened by protesters and encountered antisemitic rhetoric at some of the rallies. The White House and multiple governors have voiced support for Jewish students and urged protesters and universities to exercise restraint.

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