House vote on IHRA codification likely to divide Democrats

The run-up to the vote has also appeared to pit two antisemitism bills, which major advocacy groups see as complementary, against each other

Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY) leaves a House Democratic caucus meeting on February 14, 2024, in Washington, D.C.

The House is set to vote on Wednesday on the Antisemitism Awareness Act (AAA), which would codify the Trump administration executive order declaring that antisemitism is a prohibited form of discrimination on college campuses, as defined by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism.

The vote is one in a series of moves by House Republicans to respond to escalating anti-Israel protests on college campuses. Though the legislation has 15 Democratic co-sponsors in the House, the support of more than 30 Jewish organizations, including Democratic Majority for Israel, and strong bipartisan support in the Senate, the bill is likely to see opposition from a significant number of Democrats due to the codification of the IHRA definition and its affiliated examples.

Discussion in the run up to Wednesday’s vote has also appeared to pit the AAA and another bipartisan antisemitism bill, the Countering Antisemitism Act (CAA), against each other, even though major Jewish advocacy groups and some of the bills’ sponsors see the two bills as complementary.

Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY), the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, who is Jewish, said this week the AAA “sweeps too broadly” and would “chill constitutionally protected speech” critical of Israel — a frequent concern among progressives about the IHRA definition.

Nadler’s view is likely to hold sway with a significant number of other Democrats. In December, a nonbinding resolution declaring that anti-Zionism is antisemitism and endorsing the IHRA definition split the Democratic caucus after Nadler and other progressive Jewish Democrats expressed concerns about it.

House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) also blasted House Republicans’ approach, accusing them of taking up only “symbolically meaningful” resolutions on antisemitism, instead of “comprehensive legislation to combat antisemitism.” 

Jeffries urged House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) to call up the CAA, which would create a national coordinator for combating antisemitism, among a range of other oversight and accountability steps. A spokesperson for Jeffries declined to clarify his position on the AAA. 

Some subsequent news coverage has framed the two proposals as competing, even though there’s overlap among their supporters on and off Capitol Hill.

The CAA is also bipartisan and also strongly supported by some of the largest and most influential mainstream Jewish organizations, including the Jewish Federations of North America, Anti-Defamation League, American Jewish Committee and Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

Like the AAA, the CAA also endorses and utilizes the IHRA definition, albeit without its examples, and states that it “should be utilized by Federal, State and local agencies.” CAA also has strong bipartisan support in both chambers, as well as the backing of some more liberal-leaning Jewish groups that haven’t endorsed the AAA.

Rep. Kathy Manning (D-NC), the lead House sponsor of the CAA who is also a co-chair of the House Bipartisan Task force for Combating Antisemitism, told Jewish Insider she’ll vote for the AAA.

“I support passage of H.R. 6090, the Antisemitism Awareness Act, which would require the Department of Education to continue considering the IHRA working definition as it investigates anti-Jewish discrimination and enforces federal civil rights law,” Manning told JI. “Making use of this definition would enhance the Department’s ability to respond to antisemitism on college campuses.”

She added that “at this urgent moment we must use every tool available to strengthen the federal government’s response to antisemitism on campuses and beyond,” including also passing the CAA.

“Our bipartisan, bicameral bill takes a comprehensive approach to address antisemitism across the U.S., including by establishing the first-ever National Coordinator to Counter Antisemitism and appointing a senior official within the Department of Education responsible for countering antisemitism on college campuses,” Manning continued. “Republicans and Democrats should help advance both bills to make a real difference in the fight against antisemitism.”

Rep. Pat Ryan (D-NY), a Democrat who is co-sponsoring both bills, likewise called on the House to pass both of them.

“There’s absolutely no place for antisemitism on college campuses — we need to take an aggressive and multifaceted approach to keep our Jewish students safe, and that means passing the Antisemitism Awareness Act immediately,” Ryan said in a statement to JI. “I’ll continue to push for the passage of the Countering Antisemitism Act, which is another critical tool in our efforts to combat antisemitism on campuses and across the country.”

Major Jewish groups are also urging passage of both bills.

“ADL strongly supports both the Countering Antisemitism Act and the Antisemitism Awareness Act,” Dan Granot, a director of government relations for the ADL, told JI. “These legislative measures are complimentary, run in parallel, and are essential tools in the fight against antisemitism… In a moment of crisis, attempts to pit these initiatives against each other only seek to fracture our collective efforts to fight hate.”

“The Antisemitism Awareness Act reinforces the use of the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism in addressing campus harassment and discrimination, in line with policy that has been in effect since at least 2019,” Granot continued. “The Countering Antisemitism Act offers a comprehensive approach that is the culmination of years of advocacy and will ensure a whole-of-government effort to combat the multifaceted nature of this hate.”

Nine new co-sponsors, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Susan Collins (R-ME), Martin Heinrich (D-NM), Katie Britt (R-AL), Ben Cardin (D-MD), Josh Hawley (R-MO), Tim Kaine (D-VA) and Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), joined the Senate version of the CAA yesterday evening, JI has learned, some of whom are also sponsoring the Senate version of the AAA. 

Meanwhile, the Union for Reform Judaism is pushing for Congress to prioritize the CAA, arguing in a statement to JI that it’s a more comprehensive bill than the AAA, which “only reiterates what is already the case: the Department of Education should use the IHRA definition of antisemitism in cases of discrimination in the education realm.”

“We are NOT opposing the AAA bill,” the URJ continued. “But if, as is likely, Congress has the appetite to consider only one bill at this crucial moment in American Jewish history, it should be a bill that will make a difference for our children and for every Jew in America on campuses, in our synagogues, and in our communal and cultural institutions. The CAA holds that potential; AAA does not.”

Progressive groups, including J Street, have long opposed AAA and the prospect of codifying the IHRA definition, arguing that they restrict free speech and criticism of Israel.

Subscribe now to
the Daily Kickoff

The politics and business news you need to stay up to date, delivered each morning in a must-read newsletter.