campus beat

Johnson says he’ll push Biden to call in National Guard to quell Columbia unrest

Johnson tells JI: ‘They're physically intimidating and threatening their fellow students, that's something that must be stopped’

Alex Kent/Getty Images

House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) speaks during a press conference at Columbia University on April 24, 2024 in New York City.

House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) faced down more than 100 anti-Israel protesters on Columbia University’s campus on Wednesday, vowing to push President Joe Biden to call in the National Guard to get the activists removed as they tried to drown out his address on the embattled campus. 

Protesters began surrounding the area around the press conference more than an hour in advance, with Johson’s advance staff and Columbia University employees telling Jewish Insider as the House speaker was heading to the event that they were expecting disruptions from the raucous group of protesting students. Members of the group began raising their middle fingers in the air and booing as Johnson and his colleagues arrived on the scene, with many shouting “F*** you” and demanding the lawmakers leave the campus. 

Johnson said amid constant boos from the crowd that “there is executive authority that would be appropriate… if this is not contained quickly and if these threats and intimidation do not stop. There is an appropriate time for the National Guard.”

“We have to bring order to these campuses,” Johnson continued amid constant jeers and antisemitic chants from the crowd. “We cannot allow this to happen around the country. We are better than this.”

Johnson added that he planned to call Biden on Wednesday evening about what executive actions could be taken on the matter. 

Speaking to Jewish Insider in an interview after the presser, Johnson said that, “My intention is to call the president myself after all this and relay to him what I’ve seen here and demand of him action. There’s executive authority that he has. Certainly his voice is important too and he needs to call this [antisemitism on college campuses] out.”

“It’s so disappointing to see students have such a high level of disrespect for their fellow students, for their classmates, for public officials who are trying to speak to them about the issue,” Johnson said of what surprised him most during his visit. “They’re openly rebellious and scornful, and that’s fine because that’s free speech, but when it crosses the line and they’re physically intimidating and threatening their fellow students, that’s something that must be stopped.” 

Asked if he thought the rise in antisemitism—and the ascent of hard-left Democrats cheering on the anti-Israel protesters — would impact how American Jews vote in November, Johnson told JI that, “By the end of this week I will have traveled to 35 states doing campaign events and ballroom events and stuff all around the country for all of our candidates and some of these really tight races. I will tell you, one of the most motivated segments of the electorate right now is the Jewish community.”

“This isn’t my words, but they say they feel as though the Democratic Party is abandoning them, turning its back on Israel. Their actions and their votes show that, and I think that is going to be a factor in the election, I really do.”

Alongside Johnson were Reps. Nicole Malliotakis (R-NY), Anthony D’Esposito (R-NY), Mike Lawler (R-NY), and Virginia Foxx (R-NC), the latter of whom chairs the House Education and Workforce Committee. 

All five were met with chants of “from the river, to the sea, Palestine will be free” seen by many as a call for Israel’s elimination, and people shouting their support for Hamas. Dozens of students cheered gleefully whenever the Oct. 7 attacks were mentioned. 

A group of Jewish students who had met with Johnson at the campus Chabad house earlier in the afternoon stood holding hands with one another behind the lawmakers at the press conference. 

Two of those students, who requested anonymity, provided JI with a flier one of them found on a bulletin board in their dorm warning about “skunks on campus.” The flier includes a skunk with the Israeli flag digitally imposed on its fur. The paper also advertised that it was created “in collaboration by Columbia University and the IOF,” their way of describing the Israeli Defense Forces. 

One of the students told JI that she and a few other Jewish students warned one of Johnson’s Jewish staffers to not wear her Star of David necklace too visibly on campus, especially not after nightfall. 

A Johnson spokesperson confirmed the incident to JI, saying that a junior Jewish staffer was warned not to wear anything visibly confirming her Judaism on Columbia’s campus. The spokesperson said that the staffer was told doing so may spark an angry or potentially violent reaction from protesters.

“I was embarrassed for our city and for this institution,” Malliotakis told JI of what she saw. “If this is the future of America, then we have a much bigger problem on our hands. This is one of the best schools in the country and that’s how students here are acting? Yeah, we have a real problem.”

Columbia has faced nearly a week of anti-Israel protests from students on campus that escalated into multiple instances of physical assault and harassment against Jewish students. More than 100 anti-Israel activists were arrested last week, though all have since returned to the campus.

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