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GOP lawmakers plan to keep focus on antisemitism to divide Democrats

Representative Elise Stefanik, a Republican from New York, grilled leaders of universities during a House Committee on Education and the Workforce hearing on May 23.
Bloomberg/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Representative Elise Stefanik, a Republican from New York, grilled leaders of universities during a House Committee on Education and the Workforce hearing on May 23.

For months, House Republicans have summoned university leaders to testify on Capitol Hill over allegations of antisemitism on their campuses with students calling for institutions to divest from Israel as it prosecutes its war against Hamas.

Republican lawmakers say they are holding hearings to get answers to reports of students saying they’ve been harassed on and around campus for being Jewish. So far, their efforts have led to resignations from university leaders and ongoing attention to campus protests. But the probes have also become a political tool in the GOP campaign to draw attention to divisions within the Democratic party.

Hearings like the one held this past week have fallen into a familiar rhythm. GOP members accused the leaders of Northwestern and Rutgers for negotiating with the protesters and criticized the chancellor of UCLA for not having police take action sooner.

“Here we are [again] holding another hearing to complain about the problem of antisemitism,” said Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., as the latest hearing with the heads of UCLA, Northwestern and Rutgers got underway. “But no work is being done to find a meaningful solution to address animus on college campuses. Complaining about a problem is not a solution – certainly it riles people up, generates a lot of media coverage, but it doesn’t solve anything.”

Although there were a few heated exchanges, the university heads largely seemed to have learned the lessons from their predecessors. At times, they conceded there were missteps and would do things differently in hindsight, acknowledging the difficulties of navigating the line between protected speech and actions that violate campus policy. All three said the schools are investigating allegations of antisemitic speech and harassment. And all three appear to have avoided the viral moments that marked earlier contentious hearings, none so memorable as New York Rep. Elise Stefanik’s grilling of the presidents of the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard in December, where both hedged answers on whether calls for the genocide of Jews violated campus policies.

‘This is a political gift for Republicans’

“Watching the first hearing [in December], you knew – wow, this is a political gift for Republicans,” said Doug Heye, the former communications director for the Republican National Committee.

He told NPR the unrest on college campuses has given Republicans another arrow in their quiver as they make the case to American voters that the Biden administration and Democrats writ large are the party of chaos.

“This is a way for Republicans to campaign to Jewish voters in a way they haven't before,” he said. “And then it also fits into the larger chaos narrative that Republicans have been pushing. And because of the mistakes that had been made on college campuses, and in congressional testimony, Republicans are able to capitalize on that.”

He said the strategy has also been hugely beneficial for GOP fundraising.

“The colleges and universities are fundamentally unprepared to explain what's happened and or defend it,” he said. “What that also meant for Republicans was a huge political and fundraising bonanza.”

Stefanik, number four in House GOP leadership, has shattered her own fundraising records after interrogating college presidents. Her political arm brought in a record $7 million in the first quarter of 2024.

“I don't think we can underestimate what a boon this has been for Elise Stefanik. It's a big part of why she's in the conversation for vice president,” Heye said, nodding to speculation that she could be tapped by former President Donald Trump as his running mate. “But also within her conference, she's in a much stronger position, because she has been able to raise millions of small dollar donations, a lot of which she then transfers to the congressional committee.”

These hearings are part of a multi-layered approach for House Republicans — they’re holding votes to force Democrats to go on the record on issues that divide them, like supporting sending arms for Israel and voting on the definition of antisemitism.

Heye acknowledged he doesn’t expect the strategy to necessarily change a massive amount of votes.

“But what we've seen is if you move one or two percent here or there, you change the political map very quickly,” he said. “That may not mean millions of votes, but may mean a few thousand votes in this area or this community and that can become very important.”

Democrats downplay the threat

But Kristen Hawn, a Democratic strategist and partner at ROKK Solutions, said she thinks the hearings don’t actually move the needle for Democrats — even those frustrated by what they see on campuses.

“I don't believe that because the House Republicans have a couple of hearings and a big PR push trying to tell them that the Democrats are not with them, that that's necessarily going to change minds,” she told NPR.

She sees the issues that actually change voters' minds being more tangible things like healthcare, abortion and the economy.

“I have a hard time believing that the Republicans will be able to paint the Democratic Party as the party of unrest more generally.”

Plus, she said it’s hard for Republicans to own the issue of combating antisemitism when Trump — the presumptive GOP presidential nominee — didn’t wholly condemn white supremacists chanting 'Jews will not replace us' in Charlottesville in 2017 and more recently posted a social media video portraying hypothetical headlines about his next term, including one that referenced “the creation of a unified reich.”

“There is a lot of hypocrisy there. And they - particularly with Donald Trump - are willing to overlook so much. You know, ‘there are good people on both sides’ when we're talking about people who are spewing hate,” Hawn said.

Many students are leaving campuses for the summer break, but the House committee says that doesn’t mean their investigation is slowing down anytime soon.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Barbara Sprunt is a producer on NPR's Washington desk, where she reports and produces breaking news and feature political content. She formerly produced the NPR Politics Podcast and got her start in radio at as an intern on NPR's Weekend All Things Considered and Tell Me More with Michel Martin. She is an alumnus of the Paul Miller Reporting Fellowship at the National Press Foundation. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Pennsylvania native.