Posted on May 1, 2024

Denouncing Campus Protests, House GOP Pushes Divisive Antisemitism Bill

Abigail Hauslohner, Washington Post, May 1, 2024

House Republicans are seeking to unite their unruly majority around an evergreen conservative cause, devising a strict response to the wave of pro-Palestinian protests that have roiled college campuses across the country in recent weeks.

GOP leaders this week announced plans for new oversight investigations of elite universities where — in the words of House Republican Whip Tom Emmer (Minn.) — “pro-terrorist anti-Semites [are] taking over.” And on Wednesday they prepared to pass a bill they said would empower the federal government to crack down on anti-Israel protests on campuses by codifying a definition of antisemitism that encompasses not just threats against Jews, but also certain criticisms of Israel itself.

“We must give the Department of Education the tools to … hold college administrators accountable for refusing to address antisemitism on their campuses,” said Rep. Michael Lawler (R-N.Y.), the bill’s lead sponsor.

Lawler’s bill, the Antisemitism Awareness Act, with 61 co-sponsors — including 15 Democrats — would create “a clear definition of antisemitism” in U.S. law that the Education Department could then use to cut off funding to academic institutions found to tolerate such behaviors. The definition, however, has drawn fierce opposition from First Amendment advocates such as the American Civil Liberties Union and liberal Democrats, who say it veers sharply into the realm of restricting political views.

It’s unclear what the bill’s prospects are in the Democratic-controlled Senate or how the White House views it. Previous iterations failed to muster sufficient support in Congress, but both its supporters and opponents say the ongoing protests and a rise in antisemitism since Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack on Israel have injected fresh momentum.

If it does become law, the federal definition of antisemitism, adopted from the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, would include such speech as “claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor”; “applying double standards” to Israel that are “not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation”; and “drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.”

The idea is that student-held signs, for example, like those displayed at Columbia University in New York this week, calling for “revolution” or “intifada” — which means “uprising” — would amount to antisemitism under the law. The Education Department, in turn, could then revoke federal research grants and other funding to a university that fails to take punitive action toward students who express such views, the bill’s proponents say.

Several Republicans said that opposing Zionism, the 20th-century political movement to establish, and now to preserve, Israel as an officially and demographically Jewish state, would qualify as antisemitism under the law. Some suggested that even holding a prolonged protest would constitute antisemitism. “The erection of encampments on college campuses isn’t an expression of speech,” Rep. Marcus J. Molinaro (R-N.Y.) said on the House floor Wednesday. “It is a direct threat to Jewish students on college campuses.”


Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), a Jewish lawmaker who has co-sponsored other bills aimed at combating antisemitism and described himself Wednesday as a “deeply committed Zionist,” urged colleagues to reject Lawler’s bill, which he characterized as “misguided” because it “threatens to chill constitutionally protected speech.”

“If this legislation were to become law,” he said, universities wanting to avoid federal investigation “could end up suppressing protected speech criticizing Israel or supporting Palestinians,” and students and faculty might be driven to self-censor.