House passes bill to expand definition of antisemitism amid growing campus protests over Gaza war

House antisemitism
Pro-Palestinian protesters camp out in tents at Columbia University on Saturday, April 27, 2024 in New York.
AP Photo

By FARNOUSH AMIRI Associated Press

The House passed legislation Wednesday that would establish a broader definition of antisemitism for the Department of Education to enforce anti-discrimination laws, the latest response from lawmakers to a nationwide student protest movement over the Israel-Hamas war.

The proposal, which passed 320-91 with some bipartisan support, would codify the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism in Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a federal anti-discrimination law that bars discrimination based on shared ancestry, ethnic characteristics or national origin. It now goes to the Senate where its fate is uncertain.

Action on the bill was just the latest reverberation in Congress from the protest movement that has swept university campuses. Republicans in Congress have denounced the protests and demanded action to stop them, thrusting university officials into the center of the charged political debate over Israel’s conduct of the war in Gaza. More than 33,000 Palestinians have been killed since the war was launched in October, after Hamas staged a deadly terrorist attack against Israeli civilians.

House antisemitism
A notice outside the pro-Palestine encampment at the University of Pennsylvania is vandalized.JACK TOMCZUK

If passed by the Senate and signed into law, the bill would broaden the legal definition of antisemitism to include the “targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity.” Critics say the move would have a chilling effect on free speech throughout college campuses.

“Speech that is critical of Israel alone does not constitute unlawful discrimination,” Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., said during a hearing Tuesday. “By encompassing purely political speech about Israel into Title VI’s ambit, the bill sweeps too broadly.”

Advocates of the proposal say it would provide a much-needed, consistent framework for the Department of Education to police and investigate the rising cases of discrimination and harassment targeted toward Jewish students.

“It is long past time that Congress act to protect Jewish Americans from the scourge of antisemitism on campuses around the country,” Rep. Russell Fry, R-S.C., said Tuesday.

The expanded definition of antisemitism was first adopted in 2016 by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, an intergovernmental group that includes the United States and European Union states, and has been embraced by the State Department under the past three presidential administrations, including Joe Biden’s

Previous bipartisan efforts to codify it into law have failed. But the Oct. 7 terrorist attack by Hamas militants in Israel and the subsequent war in Gaza have reignited efforts to target incidents of antisemitism on college campuses.

Separately, Speaker Mike Johnson announced Tuesday that several House committees will be tasked with a wide probe that ultimately threatens to withhold federal research grants and other government support for universities, placing another pressure point on campus administrators who are struggling to manage pro-Palestinian encampments, allegations of discrimination against Jewish students and questions of how they are integrating free speech and campus safety.

House antisemitism
Police officers cut zip ties from barricades Wednesday, May 1, at the pro-Palestine encampment at the University of Pennsylvania.JACK TOMCZUK

The House investigation follows several high-profile hearings that helped precipitate the resignations of presidents at Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania. And House Republicans promised more scrutiny, saying they were calling on the administrators of Yale, UCLA and the University of Michigan to testify next month.

The House Oversight Committee took it one step further Wednesday, sending a small delegation of Republican members to an encampment at nearby George Washington University in the District of Columbia. GOP lawmakers spent the short visit criticizing the protests and Mayor Muriel Bowser’s refusal to send in the Metropolitan Police Department to disperse the demonstrators.

Bowser on Monday confirmed that the city and the district’s police department had declined the university’s request to intervene. “We did not have any violence to interrupt on the GW campus,” Bowser said, adding that police chief Pamela Smith made the ultimate decision. “This is Washington, D.C., and we are, by design, a place where people come to address the government and their grievances with the government.”

It all comes at a time when college campuses and the federal government are struggling to define exactly where political speech crosses into antisemitism. Dozens of U.S. universities and schools face civil rights investigations by the Education Department over allegations of antisemitism and Islamophobia.

Among the questions campus leaders have struggled to answer is whether phrases like “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” should be considered under the definition of antisemitism.

The proposed definition faced strong opposition from several Democratic lawmakers, Jewish organizations as well as free speech advocates.

In a letter sent to lawmakers Friday, the American Civil Liberties Union urged members to vote against the legislation, saying federal law already prohibits antisemitic discrimination and harassment.

“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,” the letter stated.

Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of the centrist pro-Israel group J Street, said his organization opposes the bipartisan proposal because he sees it as an “unserious” effort led by Republicans “to continually force votes that divide the Democratic caucus on an issue that shouldn’t be turned into a political football.”

Associated Press writers Ashraf Khalil, Collin Binkley and Stephen Groves contributed to this report.