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Politics

How Republicans turned reports of antisemitism at colleges into a political strategy

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

For months, House Republicans have summoned university leaders to testify on Capitol Hill over allegations of antisemitism during protests on their campuses. As NPR's Barbara Sprunt reports, the issue has become a political strategy for Republicans and one that is poised to endure beyond the school year.

BARBARA SPRUNT, BYLINE: Late last week, the heads of UCLA, Northwestern and Rutgers appeared before the House Committee on Education for what's now become a fairly familiar hearing. Here's chair Virginia Foxx, a North Carolina Republican.

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VIRGINIA FOXX: Each of you should be ashamed of your decisions that allowed antisemitic encampments to endanger Jewish students.

SPRUNT: Republican-led House committees have spent months holding hearings on reports of rising antisemitism on college campuses, as university staff navigate the line between protected free speech and actions that violate campus policy. Ranking member Bobby Scott, a Democrat, said Congress should do more to combat antisemitism but questioned the merits of yet another hearing.

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BOBBY SCOTT: Complaining about a problem is not a solution. It certainly riles people up, generates a lot of media coverage, but it doesn't solve anything.

SPRUNT: And while there were some fiery moments, the witnesses seemed to have learned the lessons from the drama of past hearings, including one in December when the presidents of Harvard and University of Pennsylvania hedged answers in heated exchanges.

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ELISE STEFANIK: Calling for the genocide of Jews violates Harvard Code of Conduct, correct?

CLAUDINE GAY: Again, it depends on the context.

STEFANIK: It does not depend on the context. The answer is yes. And this is why you should resign.

SPRUNT: That's Elise Stefanik, No. 4 in GOP House leadership. Her relentless questioning of the presidents and their struggle to answer clearly led to their resignations.

DOUG HEYE: Watching the first hearing, you knew, wow, this is a political gift for Republicans.

SPRUNT: That's longtime Republican strategist Doug Heye.

HEYE: They're able to fundraise massively on this. Just look at the donations that Elise Stefanik has been able to raise in recent months.

SPRUNT: Stefanik's political arm raised a record $7 million in the first quarter of this year. Heye says beyond fundraising, the unrest on college campuses has allowed Republicans to further their tried and true lines of attacks on elite institutions being out of touch and plays into a broader strategy this election cycle.

HEYE: This is a way for Republicans to campaign to Jewish voters in a way they haven't before. Then it also fits into the larger chaos narrative that Republicans have been pushing. It may not change a massive amount of votes, but what we've seen is if you move 1 or 2% here or there, you change the political map very quickly.

SPRUNT: These hearings are part of a multilayered approach for House Republicans. They're holding votes to force Democrats to go on the record on issues that divide them, things like support for sending arms to Israel and the definition of antisemitism. But Democratic strategist Kristen Hawn thinks the hearings don't actually move the needle for Democratic voters, even those frustrated by what they see on campuses.

KRISTEN HAWN: I don't believe that because House Republicans have a couple 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.

SPRUNT: She says the things that change minds are issues like health care, abortion and the economy. Plus, she said, it's hard for Republicans to own the issue of combating antisemitism when former President Trump, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, didn't wholly condemn white supremacists chanting Jews will not replace us in Charlottesville in 2017.

HAWN: 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.

SPRUNT: 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. Barbara Sprunt, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Politics
Barbara Sprunt
Barbara Sprunt is a reporter on NPR's Washington Desk, covering Congress. She's previously reported and produced NPR's political coverage at the White House, on the campaign trail, and for the NPR Politics Podcast. She is an alumnus of the Paul Miller Reporting Fellowship at the National Press Foundation. Sprunt got her start in radio at as an intern on NPR's Weekend All Things Considered and Tell Me More with Michel Martin. She graduated from American University in Washington, D.C. [Copyright 2024 NPR]