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Jerry Nadler
Rep. Jerry Nadler opposes Rep. Mike Lawler’s bill to require the Department of Education to follow the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism. Frank Franklin II/AP

Democrats Want a Bill to Combat Antisemitism. But Which One?

Rep. Jerry Nadler called a bipartisan bill on antisemitism both “absurd” and “terrible,” but some of his colleagues already back it.

House Democrats want to do something this week about antisemitism on college campuses. They’re just divided on what that should be.

Democrats are mostly split into two groups. Some support Republican Rep. Mike Lawler’s bill to require the Department of Education to follow the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism, which will get a vote on Wednesday. Others are backing Democratic Rep. Kathy Manning’s bill to codify President Joe Biden’s National Strategy to Counter Antisemitism and appoint a special official in the Department of Education to monitor antisemitism cases.

Some of them believe Republicans are trying to co-opt the issue. Speaker Mike Johnson visited Columbia University last week amid student demonstrations against the war on Gaza and delivered a speech on antisemitism.

“Keep in mind, Republicans have been in charge since January of 2023,” Rep. Ritchie Torres, a co-sponsor on Lawler’s bill, said of the GOP’s focus on combating antisemitism. “It’s coming late.”

But some Democrats are worried that Congress could go too far — and that it could hurt freedom of expression and further inflame tensions as universities and law enforcement crack down on student protests.

Rep. Jerry Nadler told NOTUS that the antidote to antisemitism on college campuses is to increase the budget of the DOE’s civil rights office, not “fool[ing] around with definitions that are just going to infringe on free speech in certain circumstances.”

“The Lawler bill is an absurd bill,” he said. “It’s a terrible bill. I’m going to vote against it.”

Rep. Haley Stevens concurred, adding that students’ opinions should be prioritized because “there’s some unsafe stuff going on on the campuses.”

“I think we really need to hear from the students in this process,” she told NOTUS. “I think there are some students who feel bullied.”

The Biden administration already uses the IHRA’s definition of antisemitism, but if Lawler’s bill passes, future administrations would be required to stick to it. The definition is broad, especially in terms of how it concerns Israel. Under the working definition, claims that the “existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor” are considered a manifestation of antisemitism.

House Democratic leadership is backing Manning’s bill. Democratic Caucus Chair Pete Aguilar said in a press conference Tuesday that her bill would be the framework the caucus would adopt to “lower the temperature of what’s going on” if Democrats regain control of the House in 2025.

Progressive Rep. Greg Casar, who has attended protests in his home state of Texas, said his fellow lawmakers are missing the mark. He told NOTUS that the focus should be on ensuring that students are able to express their opinions safely on campuses without the fear of retaliation, especially in light of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott ordering the arrests of students who participated in encampments on the campus grounds of the University of Texas at Austin.

“It’s important for us to be able to condemn and combat all forms of bigotry, from racism to antisemitism to Islamophobia. But criticism of the Netanyahu government is part of our democratic right,” Casar said. “It certainly isn’t antisemitic in and of itself.”

He has not signed onto the bills from Lawler or Manning.

“I think we should really be focused on keeping students safe and protecting people’s First Amendment rights whether you agree with them or not,” he said when asked for his stance on the two bills. “And unfortunately, that doesn’t feel like what we’re talking about here.”

Rep. Max Frost also said he was undecided but admonished Lawler’s bill, noting the American Civil Liberties Union opposes it.

“When you codify definition, sometimes it makes it more difficult for universities. This is why there’s no codified definition of racism for schools for that very reason,” he told NOTUS. “So when you do it with antisemitism, you run into the same problems.”

Tinashe Chingarande is a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow.