AAA issues

House-passed antisemitism bill faces initial objections in Senate

Republican opposition to the IHRA codification on and off Capitol Hill has appeared to gain steam in the wake of the bill’s passage in the House

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) stand for a photo before a meeting with Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni at the U.S. Capitol July 27, 2023 in Washington, D.C.

The fate of the House-passed Antisemitism Awareness Act (AAA) in the Senate remains unclear after a bipartisan effort to unanimously fast-track passage of the bill encountered objections on both sides of the aisle.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) told reporters on Thursday, “There are objections on both sides, so we’re going to look for the best way to move forward.” He was unable to offer a timeline on when he would announce next steps.

One senior GOP senator who serves on Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-KY) leadership team, speaking on condition of anonymity, told JI on Thursday afternoon that the AAA was “in a holding pattern” after it became clear midday that the bill would not pass by unanimous consent. 

The bill will likely have to be included in a broader package of legislation if it is to move forward through the Senate.

Objections to the bill on the right have been growing on and off the Hill, with conservative influencers Tucker Carlson and Charlie Kirk on Thursday echoing Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) and Matt Gaetz’s (R-FL) accusations that the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism would label the Bible as antisemitic, claiming that Christian scripture dictates that Jews are responsible for Jesus’s death.

Ben Shapiro, the influential Orthodox Jewish conservative commentator, said on his podcast on Thursday that he also opposes the AAA, arguing that it improperly broadens what he described as an already unconstitutional civil rights law.

He argued that some of the examples included in the IHRA definition, including the language around the death of Jesus, are “obviously are vaguely worded, to say the least, and almost certainly encroach on free speech concerns.”

“I think it’s overbroad, and I think the definition should not be applied in American law in this way,” Shapiro continued.

The bill codifies a 2019 executive order directing the Department of Education’s to treat antisemitic discrimination on campuses as a violation of the Civil Rights Act, and to evaluate antisemitism using the IHRA definition. Shapiro argued that further legislation beyond this isn’t needed.

“We probably need to make a couple tweaks to it, [that] is where I’m at,” Sen. Roger Marshall (R-KS) told JI. “It sounds like there’s some issues back home with what they did with scripture, and we’re looking into that to see where it all shakes out, but it probably needs to be tweaked just a little bit.”

Sen. James Lankford (R-OK), an ordained Baptist minister and co-sponsor of the bill, rejected that narrative as “absurd.”

“IHRA is just making it very clear what antisemitism is and gives some very clear examples of that,” Lankford continued. “It’s not something contrary to scripture, contrary to the First Amendment protections of free speech. You still have free speech, but it provides clarity.”

Other Republicans opposing the bill, claiming it limits free speech, include Sens. Rand Paul (R-KY), Ron Johnson (R-WI) and, reportedly, Mike Lee (R-UT).

“An appropriate response by the Senate would be to condemn the murderous rampage of October 7th and condemn the voices on campuses across America who are shouting their support for the carnage committed by Hamas,” Paul said in a statement to JI. “But what would be inappropriate is for the Senate to rush, in reactionary fervor, to place new limits on speech in America.”

At the same time, Paul said it is “intellectually and morally repugnant” for college students to express support for Hamas and that “civilized people across the political spectrum” have, and should, condemn the bill.

Johnson told JI in a statement, “I believe in free speech, even speech I vehemently disagree with. This bill unconstitutionally limits free speech.”

Kenneth Marcus, the founder and president of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law who implemented the executive order as the head of the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights under the Trump administration, told JI that it hasn’t been unusual to see some initial conservative concerns during state-level legislative battles over IHRA.

“Sometimes they are persuaded, and sometimes they’re outvoted, but more often than not, cooler heads will prevail,” Marcus said. 

He said he thinks some senators are just starting to give thought to the bill and that, given sufficient time, supporters will be able to bring them onboard.

Marcus added that those claiming the bill would encroach on free speech “really have a misunderstanding of the way the statute would work.

“The fact is that Jewish college students are being repeatedly and seriously silenced through intimidation tactics and efforts to exclude anyone for whom Zionism is a part of their identity,” he argued. “If anything, the Antisemitism Awareness Act is a powerful pro-free speech tool.”

Addressing the claims around Christian scripture, Marcus said that he thinks “there are Senate Republicans who are serious enough that they’ll actually read the text closely and carefully and realize that they have been sold a misinterpretation. Nothing is being criminalized here, and there is no reason for them to be afraid.”

Some members, he acknowledged, might follow their base’s concerns without examining the bill further, but other senators and their staff, Marcus said, will “have the seriousness [to] actually look at what the definition says and realize that this is a misrepresentation.”

He said it’s too soon to say if the emerging opposition in the conservative influencer and thought-leader space will sway current supporters of the bill against it.

Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL), another co-sponsor of the bill, said that he remains supportive of the AAA.

“From everything I’ve seen, I support it,” Scott said. “Antisemitism is horrible, hatred is horrible. I was just at The George Washington University supporting the students there. They don’t feel safe anymore. So I’m going to support the bill.”

“I’m in favor of what it’s trying to do,” Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) said of the bill, adding that he planned to review legislative text “if we do indeed vote on it over here.” He said he was “for addressing antisemitism” but wanted to read the bill before commenting further.

Hawley was a co-sponsor of the Senate’s version of AAA when it was introduced in the upper chamber last month.

The bill has also faced predictable opposition among some Democrats, who share concerns about free speech.

Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) said that he worries “about creating a statutory thoughtcrime, even thoughts that I find personally offensive.”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) didn’t speak to the particulars of the AAA but said following the effort to bring up the AAA, “I think there may be a different bill that comes to the floor.”

Sen. Peter Welch (D-VT) said he hasn’t yet reviewed the bill, but wants to ensure it protects free speech rights. “You’re talking about [the] First Amendment, so you always want to take that very seriously,” he said. “But we’re all incredibly concerned about increasing antisemitism.”

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), a co-sponsor of the Senate version of the AAA, said that its supporters are “all for free speech.”

“We want to make sure it does not infringe upon the rights of others. I think that’s the critical point,” Cardin continued. “We see that on campuses today. I encourage the debate on college campuses as long as it doesn’t interfere with a student’s right[s] on campus, it doesn’t intimidate other students, it doesn’t call upon violence — that’s fine.”

Marcus suggested that opposition from prominent right-wing figures could ultimately help the bill among Democrats.

“To the extent there are strongly conservative voices that misunderstand the legislation, it might, if anything, create space for members of the Democratic majority to support it,” Marcus said. “It’s not clear that it will be harder for the Democratic Senate majority to support a bill that’s now being opposed by some on the far right.”

A Jewish Federations of North America spokesperson said the group is pushing for the Senate to consider the bill “regardless of how it gets there.”

“America is watching in real time what is happening on college campuses across the country. Jewish students are being harassed, intimidated, and assaulted on property where they should feel safe and secure,” the spokesperson said. “The Antisemitism Awareness Act will make it clear that Jewish students must be protected under title VI, which would incorporate the IHRA definition of antisemitism.”

Marcus also emphasized that “it’s extraordinary that we’ve come so close, so fast” to passing the bill. 

“I don’t think anyone could reasonably have supposed that there would be no battles ahead. It’s always a fight,” Marcus said. “Over the last few years, more than half of our states have embraced the IHRA definition, but it has seldom been easy. These sorts of debates and misunderstandings and confusions are simply part of the process, which in the end has worked out more frequently for the better than for the worse.”

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