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U.S. House approves definition of antisemitism as campus protests continue

California Highway Patrol officers patrol at a pro-Palestinian encampment, the morning after it was attacked by counter-protestors at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) campus, on May 1, 2024 in Los Angeles, California. (Credit: Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Ariana Figueroa, Pennsylvania Capital-Star
May 1, 2024

WASHINGTON — U.S. House Republicans Wednesday passed a bill, with heavy support from Democrats, that would define antisemitism for the Department of Education, amid nationwide college campus protests in which students are calling for a ceasefire in Gaza.

The 320-91 vote 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.

But some Democrats raised concerns that the language is too broad and could chill freedom of speech at schools.

“Speech that is critical of Israel alone does not constitute unlawful discrimination,” the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Jerry Nadler of New York, said during debate of the bill, H.R. 6090.

All of  Pennsylvania’s 17 House members voted in favor except for Democrats Dwight Evans (PA-03), Mary Gay Scanlon (PA-05) and Summer Lee (PA-12), who voted against it. Republican Glenn Thompson (PA-15) did not vote.

Republicans have slammed the leaders of higher education institutions that are the sites of protests, calling for them to resign and to send in law enforcement to crack down on the students protesting.

House Speaker Mike Johnson of Louisiana is also rolling out a Congress-wide effort to address the protests, such as tougher oversight of university presidents and pulling funding.

Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York in a Wednesday press conference did not commit to putting the House bill on the Senate floor.

“We haven’t seen what the House is sending us yet,” he said.

Lawmakers have focused on Columbia University in New York, where students set up a “Gaza Solidarity Encampment.”

Students are demanding that the university cut financial ties, such as endowments, with companies that do business with Israel or those that make weapons used in the war in Gaza. More than 34,000 Palestinians have been killed, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.

The New York Police Department was deployed on the campus early Wednesday by Columbia University President Minouche Shafik, who authorized the NYPD to sweep the campus after students took over one of the buildings that has a history of student activism, Hamilton Hall, according to the Columbia Spectator. 

However, students occupying the building have drawn criticism from Democrats as well.

“Smashing windows with hammers and taking over university buildings is not free speech — it is lawlessness, and those who did it should promptly face the consequences that are not merely a slap on the wrist,” Schumer said on the Senate floor Tuesday.

More than 300 students were arrested by the NYPD, according to The Associated Press. 

Cotton calls for protection of Jewish students

Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton held a press conference Wednesday, where he was joined by several Senate Republicans in urging university presidents to crack down on the encampments and to protect Jewish students.

Cotton called for the State Department to pull the visas of international students who have participated in the protests and for the Department of Education to withhold federal funding to those schools where protests are taking place.

“They have a right if they want to go out and make fools of themselves, and protest on behalf of Hamas, but they don’t have the right to build little Gazas in violation of the laws,” Cotton said, referring to protesters and encampments.

Cotton was joined by Sens. Rick Scott of Florida, James Lankford of Oklahoma, John Kennedy of Louisiana, Deb Fischer of Nebraska, Joni Ernst of Iowa and Roger Marshall of Kansas.

Lankford said that the protesters have crossed a line and have made Jewish students feel unsafe.

“Every university and every student has the right to be able to speak their mind, to be able to test out new ideas — it’s the nature of being on a college campus to be able to speak out and be able to think through different things,” Lankford said.

“We’re a nation that prides ourself on the right to speak out, but we’re also a nation that says, ‘You cannot go and intimidate someone else in the process.’”

Kennedy and Marshall said policies on diversity, inclusion and equity resulted in the protests on college campuses.

Kennedy said he blamed some of the faculty members at those higher education institutions for the protests.

“There are members of the faculty at some of these universities who believe in diversity, equity, inclusion,” he said.

Ernst said the universities need “to put an end to this.”

“If they don’t, they should kiss their federal funding goodbye,” she said.

 Argument against bill

Nadler was the sole Democrat to speak out against the bill during Wednesday’s floor debate.

He argued that the language is too broad and would curtail freedom of speech.

“While there is much in the bill I agree with, its core provision would put a thumb on the scale in favor of one particular definition of antisemitism to the exclusion of all others to be used when the Department of Education assesses claims of antisemitism on campus,” Nadler said.

He took issue with some of the examples the definition provides that can be considered antisemitic, such as criticism of the state of Israel.

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.”

GOP Rep. Tom McClintock of California said the bill was needed because there has been a spike in antisemitism since Oct. 7, the start of the Hamas-Israel war, when Hamas staged an attack against Israeli civilians.

“You cannot fight antisemitism if you cannot define it,” he said.

Republican Rep. Mike Lawler of New York, who sponsored the bill, said without a clear definition of antisemitism, the Department of Education and college administrations are having trouble discerning what is considered antisemitic.

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

Nadler argued that the bill would threaten freedom of speech, “while doing nothing to combat antisemitism.”

The chair of the Education and Workforce Committee, Rep. Virginia Foxx of North Carolina, said the definition is needed to “ensure the safety of Jewish students.”

Foxx has held several hearings throughout the year where she and Republicans on the committee grilled the leaders of universities about the pro-Palestinian protests on their campuses. Another is set for May 23 for the heads of Yale, UCLA and the University of Michigan.

Pennsylvania Capital-Star is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Pennsylvania Capital-Star maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Kim Lyons for questions: info@penncapital-star.com. Follow Pennsylvania Capital-Star on Facebook and Twitter.

This article is republished from Pennsylvania Capital-Star under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.