Podcast: How House GOP Is Responding To Campus Protests : The NPR Politics Podcast Speaker of the House Mike Johnson visited Columbia University with fellow members of the House Republican conference and met with students who said they felt unsafe on campus in the midst of protests calling on the university to shed its investments related to Israel. Now, Johnson is moving forward with legislation aimed at combating campus antisemitism — though some Democrats are criticizing the effort as a political stunt that could curb legitimate criticism of the Israeli government.

This episode: senior White House correspondent Tamara Keith, national political correspondent Mara Liasson, and congressional reporter Barbara Sprunt.

This podcast was produced by Kelli Wessinger and Casey Morell. Our editor is Eric McDaniel. Our executive producer is Muthoni Muturi.

Listen to every episode of the NPR Politics Podcast sponsor-free, unlock access to bonus episodes with more from the NPR Politics team, and support public media when you sign up for The NPR Politics Podcast+ at plus.npr.org/politics.

How House Republicans Are Responding To Campus Protests

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SKIP: Hi. This is Skip (ph), and I'm around mile 80 on the Continental Divide Trail as I try to get into Lordsburg, N.M. - my first town stop before the day gets much hotter.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Very cool.

SKIP: This podcast was recorded at...

TAMARA KEITH, HOST:

12:21 p.m. Eastern time on Wednesday, May 1.

SKIP: OK. Here's the show. And think of me for the next five months and 3,100 miles as I make my way to the Canadian border.

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LIASSON: Wow.

BARBARA SPRUNT, BYLINE: Oh, I'm tired for you.

KEITH: Yeah. You know, some of these make me jealous. This one just made me tired. Hey, there, it's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

SPRUNT: I'm Barbara Sprunt. I cover Congress.

LIASSON: And I'm Mara Liasson, national political correspondent.

KEITH: NPR has extensively covered the student protests over Israel's handling of the war in Gaza and the police crackdowns on some college campuses. Today on the pod, Congress is weighing in with legislation. The House is set to vote today. Who is behind this legislation?

SPRUNT: This bill, the Antisemitism Awareness Act, is sponsored by Mike Lawler, a Republican from New York. He has been vocal on this issue. He traveled with House Speaker Mike Johnson last week to Columbia to talk to students who've reported feeling unsafe on their college campus because they're Jewish.

KEITH: OK. And Barbara, what does this Antisemitism Awareness Act actually do? What does it say?

SPRUNT: Yeah, I mean, this bill would adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance's definition of antisemitism to apply to federally funded education programs. I will read...

KEITH: Yes, please.

SPRUNT: ...The definition because it is so central to people's support or lack thereof. It says...

(Reading) Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred towards Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed towards Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and their property, towards Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.

Now, this goes further than the executive order that former President Trump signed in 2019, which made Title VI of the Civil Rights Act apply to antisemitic acts. In that order, there was the suggestion that this definition be used, but this bill would mandate the application of this definition.

Now, some Democrats don't support this. They say it's too vague. They've expressed concerns that this would crack down on free speech as it relates to Israel and criticizing Israeli policy. But it does have 15 Democratic co-sponsors, and that includes Ritchie Torres of New York. He's been one of the most outspoken lawmakers on Capitol Hill about issues of antisemitism. And I spoke to him this morning about these concerns from others in his party.

RITCHIE TORRES: You know, there's a false narrative that the IHRA definition of antisemitism censors criticism of the Israeli government. I consider it complete nonsense. If it were true, then by that standard, Israelis themselves would be antisemitic because no one is more critical of the Israeli government than the Israeli people, as evidenced by the prolonged protest against the judicial reforms of the Netanyahu government. So I find the criticism to be unpersuasive.

KEITH: And Barbara, as you mentioned, last week, House Speaker Mike Johnson, a Republican, went to Columbia University, and he spoke with students - spoke with Jewish students.

SPRUNT: That's right. He and a couple of Republican lawmakers went. They gave remarks. They talked to Jewish students.

KEITH: And how were they received?

SPRUNT: Well, campus-wise, I would say it was not a warm reception. After he and the other lawmakers met with students, they came out and did, like, a big press conference outside one of the buildings, and he was shouted down.

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MIKE JOHNSON: A growing number of students have chanted in support of terrorists. They have chased down Jewish students. They have mocked them and reviled them. They have shouted racial epithets. They have screamed at those who bear the Star of David.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting) We can't hear you. We can't hear you.

JOHNSON: Enjoy your free speech.

KEITH: Yeah. They are shouting him down saying, we can't hear you.

SPRUNT: So not a - you know, not a warm reception from the protesters, but he did meet with those Jewish students beforehand. And I spoke to some of them about what that meeting was like. And many of them said we're - we were just so happy that someone so high-profile - you know, someone who's third in line to the presidency - would come and ask to hear our stories.

And the students that I spoke with said that while they feel that there is a good national understanding about what protesters are asking for when they're demanding that their universities divest from companies that operate in Israel, that the concerns of antisemitism that these students are raising have not been taken seriously.

And I'll just give a couple of brief examples. I spoke to one student who received a text from a rabbi associated with Columbia who, about a week or so ago, had sent a text to a larger group of Jewish students saying, it pains me to say this, but I don't think that this campus is safe anymore for Jewish students. I think you should go home and stay there until this resolves in some fashion.

And that prompted a lot of Jewish students to then ask, should I come back to school after the Passover holiday? I spoke to some who were really weighing that decision. I talked to students who alleged they were blocked from coming onto certain parts of campus. They say they had been shoved, spat on, told to go back to Europe, and these were all stories that they shared with the House speaker.

KEITH: So Mara, the politics here are interesting because you definitely have a Republican House speaker really leaning in on liberal overreach at an Ivy League campus. It fits the message.

LIASSON: It fits the message. You did not see Republican leaders going to Charlottesville, another college town, when white supremacist demonstrators chanted, Jews will not replace us. So this is extremely advantageous, according to Republican operatives, for them because this is a deep wedge issue inside the Democratic coalition. Young people are opposed to Biden's policies. It's a real problem for Democrats. And Republicans want to make as much as they can of these protests.

KEITH: Well, and generally speaking - and this - obviously, no group of people are a monolith, but Jewish voters tend to vote more Democratic than they vote Republican, at least traditionally.

LIASSON: Yes, they do. But this is bigger than that. I don't think that the goal of the House Speaker is to peel off Jewish voters for Republicans. There are a very, very small number of Jewish voters in the United States. What they want to do is have this reinforce their larger message. The world is out of control. It's full of chaos. Biden isn't in command. He's old and senile. He can't stop the violence in the Middle East. He can't stop the violence on campuses with these protests. So I think that's what the political aim of this is.

KEITH: Well, we are going to take a quick break, and when we get back, more in a moment.

And we're back. And the left has a long history of campus protest. In fact, the movement to try to get universities to divest from Israel has been around for years and years and years. And there are certainly also members of Congress, perhaps, most notably, Senator Bernie Sanders, who have found common cause with the protesters who believe that President Biden should do more to force Israel's hand and push for a cease-fire. I mean, we alluded to this before, but this is a wedge in the Democratic Party.

SPRUNT: It is. I mean, and certainly, there are Democrats in Congress who do not like the way that Israelis - you know, Prime Minister Netanyahu has conducted this war to eliminate Hamas. And that's been a consistent refrain among Democratic lawmakers, Democratic voters. But I think it's important to note here that, like, what we're talking about at the beginning of this conversation is about a bill to address antisemitism. Legislatively, and in talking to lawmakers and students, that is completely separate from the conversation around what is the policy of the Israeli government and how they are conducting the war against Hamas.

The bill is about antisemitism in response to Jewish students alleging feelings of harassment, feelings of being threatened and concerns that they're not welcome on campus. And what I'll say is, like, I've talked to students about this, and they say that when you conflate those two things, the idea that you - you know, the criticism about the war against Hamas and antisemitism - that it's a dangerous thing. It's in some ways almost, like, gaslighting people who are bringing up concerns about personal safety and saying, well, this is actually about something going on over here, when the bill itself is about, like, protecting, you know, students from antisemitism.

KEITH: I do want to talk about the broader politics of the debate over the conflict in Gaza and, in particular, the effect it might have on presidential politics. We have reported on this podcast. It's been reported all over the place. You hear from a lot of young people who are upset about the way Israel has handled the war. They want President Biden to do more to put more pressure on Netanyahu. President Biden is putting a lot of pressure on Netanyahu, but he seems to be a little bit immune. But they say that there is more that could be done. The question is, what does this mean in November?

LIASSON: It depends on a lot of things. No. 1, what happens to the war? Does it get wrapped up? What happens to these protests? Do they fizzle out after people leave school in another couple of - a big summer break is soon. Do they reassert themselves in August in Chicago at the Democratic Convention? I mean, those are a lot of ifs. And, you know, we have to see what happens. But I can assure you that the irresistible urge of the narrative - Democrats are back in Chicago, and there are violent protests in the streets, just like in 1968 - is going to be hard for a lot of the media to resist.

KEITH: I do want to ask you, though, Mara, about this recent Harvard Youth Poll that didn't have Gaza at the top of the list, even among young voters - voters 18 to 29.

LIASSON: Harvard Youth Poll asked young voters, thinking about national issues, which issues concern you the most? And not surprisingly, economic issues got the most, at 27%. But way down the list is the Israel-Palestine conflict. Only 2% said that was an issue that they cared about the most. So even though the vast majority of young people are unhappy with Israel's conduct of the war, it doesn't seem like this is rising to the top as a voting issue. Among the 60% of voters who even had an opinion, young voters were split on showing more or less support for Israel, and they're also split on showing more or less support for Palestine. It turns out that young people are just like other voters. They care about the economy.

SPRUNT: And also, like, you know, there have been recent exceptions about the participation rate of young people. But overall, it's - I don't think any party is ever hanging their hat on the youth coming out to support them in an election. I mean, there is low participation rates among young people, you know, more broadly, traditionally, over time. And so I do doubt at this point - and the poll is a good example of that. But I do just - I haven't yet seen any numbers that convince me that the frustration and anger that protesters and young people say they feel about this is actually going to move the needle, you know, come November.

KEITH: Yeah, I mean, the passion is undeniable. The passion is very real. The question is how widespread it is within the electorate.

LIASSON: And how important is it compared to other motivations for people to vote?

SPRUNT: How actionable is it?

LIASSON: Yeah.

SPRUNT: Right?

LIASSON: Yeah.

SPRUNT: Yeah.

KEITH: And you know, there's this long-standing truth that even though foreign policy gets a lot of focus - particularly a lot of focus from the president of the United States and their time and head space - in the end, voters vote on things that affect them personally, generally speaking. I mean, there are...

LIASSON: Generally.

KEITH: ...Exceptions.

LIASSON: Except for when there are American people - soldiers on the ground overseas. But this could be an exception. You know, I always say this - historical rules only work till they stop working. You know, maybe this is an exception. But you're absolutely right - foreign policy, other than an act of war with Americans involved, has never been a top determiner in a presidential election.

KEITH: All right. Well, we are going to leave it there for today, realizing there is still much more to say. I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

SPRUNT: I'm Barbara Sprunt. I cover Congress.

LIASSON: And I'm Mara Liasson, national political correspondent.

KEITH: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

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