Lawler: Antisemitism on college campuses 'not a free speech issue'

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Rep. Mike Lawler (R-N.Y.) held up his new bill as a possible solution to antisemitism on college campuses, saying the debates in colleges and universities across the country are “not a free speech issue.”

Lawler, alongside Reps. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.), Max Miller (R-Ohio) and Jared Moskowitz (D-Fla.), introduced the Antisemitism Awareness Act in late October, which they hope will enable universities and law enforcement to go after antisemitic speech, which he described as hate speech.

“We have seen a rapid rise in antisemitism on these college campuses, and we need to crack down on it,” Lawker said in a CNN interview Friday. “This is not a free speech issue. This is hate speech.”

The bill would force the Education Department to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of antisemitism for use in enforcing federal anti-discrimination laws.

The IHRA definition, which is not currently universally accepted, includes anti-Zionism, a belief against the state of Israel, as a factor — which some contend is simply a political belief and has nothing to do with religious discrimination.

“The vocabulary is extremely contested here,” American University professor Lara Schwartz told The Hill last month. “What constitutes antisemitism, and when critiques of Israel as a country and a government crosses over into antisemitism, is a highly contested area. And it was before Oct. 7.”

Notable Jewish advocacy groups, like the Anti-Defamation League, consider anti-Zionism antisemitic, while other Jewish groups openly advocate for it politically.

Lawler said anti-Zionist language is “putting people in jeopardy” and is part of the reason why he voted to censure Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) in the House on Tuesday.

Tlaib, the only member of Congress of Palestinian heritage, called for a cease-fire in the Israel-Hamas war using the phrase “free Palestine from the river to the sea,” which some considered antisemitic.

“If we’re going to crack down on college campuses, it starts with holding members of Congress to a higher standard,” Lawler said. “Chanting ‘from the river to the sea’ was not aspirational. It was absolutely vile and intended to undermine Israel, and frankly, call for its extermination and that cannot be tolerated anywhere in this country.”

The Israel-Hamas war has led to rising tensions on college campuses nationally and an increased prevalence of both antisemitism and Islamophobia.

FBI Director Christopher Wray warned of “historic” levels of antisemitism late last month.

“The reality is that the Jewish community is uniquely targeted by pretty much every terrorist organization across the spectrum,” he said. “And when you look at a group that makes up 2.4 percent, roughly, of the American population, it should be jarring to everyone that that same population accounts for something like 60 percent of all religious-based hate crimes, and so they need our help.”

Arab and Muslim Americans also feel increased discrimination, advocates said.

“The level of anti-Arab hate and rhetoric hasn’t been this high since the aftermath of 9/11. It is far worse than the Trump years,” Abed Ayoub, the national executive director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, said on X. “We’ve received many calls for assistance in dealing with threats and intimidation.”

“Schools across the country are vilifying Palestinians, and elected officials are setting up the stage for hate crimes against Arabs,” Ayoub added.

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