On the Hill

Bipartisan House coalition comfortably passes IHRA antisemitism bill

The Antisemitism Awareness Act, which codifies the use of the IHRA definition of antisemitism in evaluating cases of anti-Jewish hate on campus, was opposed by progressives and the far right

David Dee Delgado/Getty Images

Rep. Mike Lawler (R-NY) speaks during a press conference outside of Columbia University on April 22, 2024 in New York City.

The House passed the Antisemitism Awareness Act (AAA) by a 320-91 vote on Wednesday, with opposition coming largely from progressives and the far right, who cited concerns about free speech relating to the bill’s codification of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism.

The Antisemitism Awareness Act would codify the Trump-era executive order that designated antisemitism as a form of prohibited discrimination on campuses, as defined by the IHRA definition. Despite bipartisan support and the backing of many major American Jewish organizations, the bill was still the subject of controversy. It now faces an uncertain path forward in the Senate.

Seventy Democrats voted against the legislation. Progressives argued it would chill speech critical of Israel, including protests on college campuses, and that the federal government shouldn’t favor the IHRA definition — even though that’s the definition of antisemitism the Department of Education is already supposed to be using in evaluating antisemitism cases; it has also been adopted by the State Department.

“As someone who is also a longtime champion of protecting freedom of speech, I must oppose this misguided bill,” Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY) said. “While there is much in the bill that I agree with, its core provision would put a thumb on the scale in favor of one particular definition of antisemitism — to the exclusion of all others — to be used when the Department of Education assesses claims of antisemitism on campus… The problem is that [the IHRA definition’s affiliated] examples may include protected speech, in some contexts, particularly with respect to criticism of the State of Israel.”

On the right, 21 lawmakers opposed it. Two separate Republicans, Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) and Matt Gaetz (R-FL) voiced objections to IHRA’s classification of accusations that Jews killed Jesus as antisemitic, claiming that the IHRA definition would mark the Bible as antisemitic.

The Republican Jewish Coalition’s leadership said it is “disappointed in the Republicans who voted against the bill,” as well as blasted House Democratic leadership for not whipping support for the bill. 

The top Democratic leaders voted for the legislation.

But some Democrats who voted for the bill decried House Republicans’ decision to bring the bill forward as largely a political move.

Rep. Brad Schneider (D-IL), a co-sponsor of the AAA, called it “perfectly fine” legislation but accused Republicans of “bringing [AAA]… for political purposes” to “create a wedge” among Democrats and “win political points for Republicans.” But he added, “there are Democrats who are opposing this bill for the exact same reason.” He condemned what he described as the use of antisemitism as a political wedge issue on both sides.

Karen Barall, the vice president of government relations for the Jewish Federations of North America, which pushed for the AAA, said JFNA has been working on the issue since well before Oct. 7, and that the Hamas attack “highlighted the need” for the legislation.

Despite the executive order, Barall said the bill is important to apply pressure on college administrators to use the IHRA definition themselves, to ensure that the Department of Education is effectively applying the definition and to ensure that the executive order endures.

The IHRA definition is backed by most major mainstream American Jewish organizations and endorsed by a range of governments, businesses and other international bodies. It’s controversial among some progressives, who have pushed alternative definitions alongside or instead of IHRA, arguing that IHRA is overly restrictive of anti-Israel speech.

The Antisemitism Awareness Act, which has substantial bipartisan support in the Senate as well, faces an unclear path forward in the upper chamber. A spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said Schumer is waiting to formally receive the bill from the House before making a decision on the path forward.

Barall said there have been “lots of talks” with lawmakers on the Senate side and said she hopes that a strong House vote will “be something that motivates Senate leadership to move it forward.” 

A potential obstacle is that, through regular order in the Senate, the bill would come through the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, chaired by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT). Sanders has expressed support for anti-Israel protests on campuses, so it’s not clear that he’d be favorable to the legislation. 

“It is disgraceful to use the charge of antisemitism to distract us from the immoral and illegal war policies that [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu’s extremist and racist government is pursuing,” Sanders said in a Senate speech on Wednesday.

A Sanders spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Barall said JFNA is seeking to avoid the HELP Committee route and “look at other ways to have it passed in the Senate.”

Democrats, meanwhile, are continuing to push for the House to take up another bipartisan bill, the Countering Antisemitism Act, which would implement a national coordinator for antisemitism among a range of other steps across the federal government, describing it as a comprehensive approach to antisemitism on campuses and in other settings.

House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) on Wednesday characterized the Countering Antisemitism Act as the key element of House Democrats’ vision for addressing campus antisemitism and other antisemitism issues around the country in a comprehensive manner.

The bill, Jeffries argued, would help execute the Biden administration’s national strategy on antisemitism. He said he’s hopeful the bill will receive a House vote before the House’s next recess around Memorial Day.

Rep. Mike Lawler (R-NY), the lead sponsor of the AAA, said yesterday he’s also supportive of passing the other bill in the House.

”Any legislation that we can bring forward to combat antisemitism is critical, and I think [Rep. Kathy] Manning [D-NC] and [Rep. Chris] Smith [R-NJ] have done a great job working to bring a piece of legislation forward,” Lawler said.

Ahead of the Wednesday vote, some in Washington had framed the two bills as competing or conflicting bills, which Barall said she found surprising.

“That was never the intention or the plan,” she said. “That it was being brought up like [it was] one or the other didn’t make any sense to us. We support both. We think both are important.”

But some Democrats said they were frustrated by the House’s decision to prioritize the Antisemitism Awareness Act over the CAA. 

Schneider described the CAA as “an outstanding bill that will have immediate and important effect. I wish that’s the bill we were voting on… we would achieve real impact if we voted on that bill.”

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