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Speaker's speech

‘We are going to stand like a rock with our friend and our ally Israel,’ new House speaker tells RJC

Mike Johnson’s legislative record suggests a conventional conservative pro-Israel outlook, but he’s largely untested as a leader on Middle East policy issues

AP Photo/David Becker

Speaker of the House Mike Johnson, R-La., speaks at an annual leadership meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition, Saturday, Oct. 28, 2023, in Las Vegas.

Rep. Mike Johnson (R-LA), the new House speaker who rocketed from relative obscurity to second in line to the presidency last week, made a last-minute appearance at the Republican Jewish Coalition’s conference in Las Vegas on Saturday — his first event outside of Capitol Hill as the House’s leader.

“I want to tell you and I want to affirm what’s already been said here, that we are going to stand like a rock with our friend and our ally Israel,” Johnson said in his remarks to the pro-Israel crowd. “The reason I wanted to be here is because I want you to know that we are resolved on behalf of Israel.”

Johnson described Hamas as “barbaric and evil,” and the Israel-Hamas war as a conflict between good and evil, and light and darkness.

“They have no regard for life at all — it’s demonic,” he continued, “and we have to defeat them.” Johnson said a cease-fire would not be possible until “Hamas ceases to be a threat to Israel.”

Johnson said the House would pass a standalone supplemental Israel funding package in the coming week — a change from previous expectations that the Senate would move first to pass a funding package that’s likely to set up a fight with Senate Democrats and Republicans who favor combining Israel and Ukraine aid. 

Johnson has also said he plans to offset the Israel funding with budget cuts elsewhere in the government — an unusual move for emergency spending that’s meeting Democratic opposition. He has not previewed his plans for the tranche of humanitarian aid designated for Gaza, which has met with stiff opposition from Republicans.

Johnson said that the 16 House members — specifically calling out members of the Squad — who voted against or “present’ on a pro-Israel resolution in the House last week “underscore an alarming trend of antisemitism… both globally and even here, shamefully in the United States.” 

“The world’s oldest prejudice has become mainstream now, thanks to academia and mainstream media and fringe government figures,” Johnson said.

He described U.S. universities as particular “havens for antisemitism” where Jewish students do not feel safe.

“Some of these young people have no idea what they’re talking about and they’re swept up into this wave of activism,” Johnson said. Campus administrators and professors, he continued, are “actively supporting and promoting” anti-Israel groups on campus, and “know exactly what they’re doing.”

He further condemned media organizations for “breathlessly repeat[ing]… Hamas propaganda,” which he said could have escalated the war.

And he criticized President Joe Biden’s policy toward Iran, vowing that Congress would do “everything we can to reverse” the release of $6 billion in Iranian funds — which have already been informally re-frozen by the administration.

The House speaker, an evangelical Christian minister, invoked the Bible in his explanation of the U.S.-Israel relationship.

“This special bond that Israel and the U.S. have, of course, transcends politics and diplomacy. And it’s about much more than current events,” he said. “As a Christian, I know and we believe that the Bible teaches very clearly that we are to stand with Israel, that God will bless the nation that blesses Israel.”

He added that he believes “God is not done with America yet, and I know he’s not done with Israel.” 

In discussing America’s founding, Johnson repeated a reference he made in his opening speech on the House floor last week, quoting British philosopher G.K. Chesterton — who has been described as a “virulent antisemite.” 

Chesterton said that Jews in public office should be required to wear distinctive clothing, utilized antisemitic tropes in his writing, contested Alfred Dreyfus’ innocence, questioned Jews’ loyalty and defended the expulsion of Jews from England in 1290.

Johnson held his first phone call with a foreign leader with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday, two days after being elected speaker.

“I assured the prime minister of our unwavering support of Israel and her people,” Johnson said at RJC. “And I assured him that our Congress, under my leadership, will be there until the end of this conflict.”

In his four terms in Congress, Johnson has a record of co-sponsoring pro-Israel legislation with broad support among Republicans, suggesting a conventional conservative pro-Israel policy approach, but he has rarely been a leader on Middle East policy issues.

Johnson has been a lead sponsor of one Israel-related bill in his time in Congress, co-leading a bill seeking to expand U.S.-Israel counter-drone partnerships in 2018 with former Rep. Charlie Crist (D-FL). That advanced as part of the 2018 defense bill.

He has co-sponsored legislation on continuing U.S.-Israel aid programs; supporting missile-defense cooperation among Abraham Accords members; restoring maximum pressure sanctions on Iran; opposing nuclear talks with Iran; supporting state-level anti-boycott, divestment and sanctions efforts; keeping the U.S. Embassy to Israel in Jerusalem; and opposing the U.N.’s investigation of Israel, as well as the Taylor Force Act.

Johnson, alongside Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), made his second trip to Israel in 2020, including a meeting with officials from the Kohelet Policy Forum — the think tank deeply involved with the Israeli judicial reform plan, a visit to the Temple Mount, an overnight stay in a West Bank settlement, visits to other sites in Israeli settlements and meetings with various Israeli officials including Netanyahu.

In a podcast interview with an organizer of the trip, Johnson said that it was “jarring” and “very sad” that Jews and Christians are not allowed to pray on the Temple Mount, adding that he hopes that regulation will change. He added that it was important for other members of Congress to see “the Judea and Samaria portions of the country” — using the biblical name for the West Bank territory.

In a potential signal of how he might view the U.S.-Turkey relationship at a time when Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has publicly sided with Hamas and against Israel, Johnson was an original co-sponsor of bills seeking to sanction Turkey’s leadership and its military and cut off U.S. military aid to the country, and seeking to punish Turkey for detaining U.S. citizens and embassy staff.

Johnson has voted repeatedly against additional Ukraine aid, including voting during this year’s defense policy bill revision process to prohibit further security assistance to the country. But his views on that issue seem to have softened since he became House speaker.

“Now, we can’t allow Vladimir Putin to prevail in Ukraine, because I don’t believe it would stop there, and it would probably encourage and empower China to perhaps make a move on Taiwan,” Johnson said in his first television interview after becoming House speaker. “We have these concerns. We’re not going to abandon them.”

He added that he sees Russia, Iran and China as “working together.” He made a similar reference to Russia, China and Iran being emboldened in his remarks at RJC. But he has described the Israel aid package as being more urgent than other funding needs.

“We have no doubt, no doubt, of his deep commitment to the Jewish state, understanding that it’s in America’s interest to support Israel,” former Sen. Norm Coleman (R-MN), the chairman of the Republican Jewish Committee, told Jewish Insider last week. Coleman, who supports Ukraine aid, said that RJC is hopeful it will be able to discuss the subject with Johnson.

Prior to winning the speakership, Johnson served on the House Armed Services Committee, giving him a background in foreign policy. Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA), the former HASC chair and current ranking member, described Johnson as an “honest broker” who would provide Armed Services Committee leadership “the leeway to do our job” in finalizing a compromise defense bill for 2024.

Before his time in elected office, the new House speaker was an attorney focusing on religious freedom-related cases for Christian conservatives. His hardline views opposing abortion and homosexuality have garnered significant scrutiny since he was elected speaker.

In a 2016 interview, Johnson pushed back against the notion of separation of church and state, arguing that efforts to keep religion out of public life and governance are “anathema” to the founding values of the country — which aimed to keep the government from interfering with religion, but not vice versa, he said.

In a 2005 op-ed, Johnson described abortion as “a holocaust” and said that “the prevailing judicial philosophy” that supported legalizing abortion “is no different than Hitler’s.”

Similar invocations of the Holocaust have landed other politicians in hot water in recent years, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Rep. Dan Goldman (D-NY), a Jewish Democrat, responded to the revelation of that op-ed saying, “Anyone who thinks the genocide of 6 million Jews is equivalent to a woman exercising control over her own reproductive health is a danger to individual freedoms in America.” 

Jewish Council for Public Affairs CEO Amy Spitalnick called the comparison, “all the more frightening at a moment of record antisemitism & hate,” also accusing Johnson of spreading the “great replacement” conspiracy theory.

Jewish Insider features reporter Matthew Kassel contributed reporting.

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