Bill to Combat Antisemitism on Campuses Prompts Backlash From the Right

A bipartisan push in Congress to enact a law cracking down on antisemitic speech on college campuses has prompted a backlash from far-right lawmakers and activists, who argue it could outlaw Christian biblical teachings.

The House passed the legislation, called the Antisemitism Awareness Act, overwhelmingly on Wednesday, and Senate leaders in both parties were working behind the scenes on Thursday to determine whether it would have enough backing to come to a vote in that chamber.

House Republicans rolled the bill out this week as part of their efforts to condemn the pro-Palestinian protests that have surged at university campuses across the country, and to put a political squeeze on Democrats, who they have accused of tolerating antisemitism to please their liberal base.

But in trying to use the issue as a political cudgel against the left, Republicans also called attention to a rift on the right. Some G.O.P. members said they firmly believe that Jews killed Jesus Christ, and argued that the bill — which includes such claims in its definition of antisemitism — would outlaw parts of the Bible.

Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, Republican of Georgia, said she opposed the bill because it “could convict Christians of antisemitism for believing the Gospel that says Jesus was handed over to Herod to be crucified by the Jews.”

Speaker Mike Johnson and other Republican leaders have sought to capitalize on the campus unrest to unite the G.O.P. and further drive a wedge in the Democratic Party, which is deeply divided over the war in Gaza. Many progressives have sided with the protesters who have condemned Israel’s tactics, citing the deaths of tens of thousands of Palestinian civilians, while centrist lawmakers and President Biden have continued to support Israel’s right to defend itself after the Hamas attack in October.

The bill would for the first time enshrine a definition of antisemitism into federal law, and instruct the Education Department to consider it when investigating allegations of discrimination against Jews on college campuses. That could lead to federal funds being withheld from colleges or universities that fail to restrict a broad range of statements covered by the definition, which includes “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination” and claiming that Israel’s existence is a “racist endeavor.”

The measure had its intended effect of dividing Democrats; 70 of them voted “no.” Representative Mike Lawler, Republican of New York and the lead sponsor, got in his intended jab, saying on the House floor that “some of my colleagues on the left are allowing electoral politics to get in the way of doing what is right.”

But the bill also splintered the G.O.P. conference, with 21 Republicans opposing it.

Representative Matt Gaetz, Republican of Florida, called the legislation a “ridiculous hate speech bill.” On social media, he argued that “the Gospel itself would meet the definition of antisemitism under the terms of the bill,” and included a line from the New Testament about the crucifixion of Jesus.

“The Bible is clear,” he added. “There is no myth or controversy about this.”

The Anti-Defamation League considers the assertion that Jews killed Jesus an antisemitic myth that has been used to justify violence against Jews for centuries. In 1965, the Catholic Church said that Jews could not be held collectively accountable for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. And in 2011, Pope Benedict XVI said in a book that there was no basis in the scripture for the belief that Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus Christ.

In 2019, former President Donald J. Trump signed an executive order on combating antisemitism that relied on the same definition that appears in the House bill. That did not stop right-wing lawmakers and activists from erupting over the issue after the legislation passed the House on Wednesday on a vote of 320-91.

“Did the House of Representatives just make parts of the Bible illegal?” Charlie Kirk, a far-right influencer, asked rhetorically on social media. “Yes,” replied Tucker Carlson, the former Fox News host. “The New Testament.”

In an appearance on CNN on Wednesday afternoon, Representative Jared Moskowitz, Democrat of Florida, batted away Ms. Greene’s comments as par for the course for someone known for her antisemitic and racist language.

“I don’t think the Jewish community is worried right now what the ‘Jew Laser Lady’ has to say,” Mr. Moskowitz said, adding, “That’s not who we want on our side.” In a 2018 Facebook post, Ms. Greene wrote before she was elected to Congress, she speculated that a devastating wildfire that ravaged California was started by “a laser” beamed from space and controlled by a prominent Jewish banking family with connections to powerful Democrats.

“She has been one of the people in this hall that has stoked antisemitism in the past,” Mr. Moskowitz said.

Mr. Lawler said the argument put forward by Ms. Greene and Mr. Gaetz was “absurd on its face, inflammatory and irrational.”

Jewish leaders have been pressing Congress to pass some version of the bill for years. In 2016, the Senate, which was controlled by Democrats, passed a similar measure, but it died in the Republican-led House. The hope of many Jewish leaders now is that the situation on campuses in the United States has become so heated in reaction to the Israel-Hamas war that there could be momentum for the bill to clear both chambers.

But it is now facing headwinds in the Senate. Ginned up by Mr. Carlson and other right-wing figures, a handful of Republicans, including Senators Rand Paul of Kentucky and Mike Lee of Utah, have voiced objections to the bill, according to two people familiar with the internal party discussion who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

“There are objections on both sides,” said Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the majority leader. “So we’re going to look for the best way to move forward.”

There has long been controversy, even among those who have dedicated their careers to studying and combating antisemitism, about the Holocaust organization’s definition and the potential it has to run afoul of the First Amendment.

Kenneth Stern, an attorney who wrote the definition, testified in 2017 that it “was not drafted, and was never intended, as a tool to target or chill speech on a college campus.” Its goal, he said, was to help governments collect data on antisemitism. One of his concerns was that anti-hate speech laws could let racist and antisemitic actors portray themselves as victims denied their constitutional rights.

Christopher Anders, director of the democracy and technology policy division at the American Civil Liberties Union, warned that the bill could lead to pressure on colleges and universities to restrict speech critical of the Israeli government “out of fear of the college losing federal funding.”

“The House’s approval of this misguided and harmful bill is a direct attack on the First Amendment,” he said.

Representative Thomas Massie, a libertarian Republican from Kentucky, made the same argument, calling the measure a “hate speech” bill that he believed was a violation of the First Amendment.

Opponents of the bill included progressive Democrats such as Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Cori Bush of Missouri and Pramila Jayapal of Washington.

“How dare the party of Donald Trump and Marjorie Taylor Greene come down here and lecture Democrats about antisemitism,” Representative Teresa Leger Fernandez, Democrat of New Mexico, who voted against it, said on the House floor.

“Remember,” the lawmaker added, “the leader of the Republican Party, Donald Trump, dines with Holocaust deniers, and said there were ‘fine people on both sides’ at a rally where white supremacists chanted ‘Jews will not replace us.’”

She appeared to be referring to Mr. Trump’s dinner in 2022 with Nick Fuentes, an outspoken antisemite and racist who also forged ties with Ms. Greene and other right-wing lawmakers in Congress.

In addition to Mr. Gaetz and Ms. Greene, hard-right opponents of the legislation included Representatives Lauren Boebert of Colorado, Anna Paulina Luna of Florida, Chip Roy of Texas, Paul Gosar of Arizona and Andy Biggs of Arizona.

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