Skip to content

‘It must stop’: Biden denounces antisemitism on college campuses

President describes ‘ferocious surge of antisemitism in America’ in Holocaust remembrance speech

President Joe Biden speaks during the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum's annual Days of Remembrance ceremony in the Capitol Visitor Center on Tuesday.
President Joe Biden speaks during the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum's annual Days of Remembrance ceremony in the Capitol Visitor Center on Tuesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Speaker Mike Johnson and Republicans have sought to claim the moral high ground when it comes to recent pro-Palestinian campus protests sweeping the country, throwing barbs at President Joe Biden and highlighting sharp divisions within the Democratic Party over Israel and Gaza.

But at Tuesday’s Holocaust remembrance ceremony at the Capitol, Biden and Johnson were mostly unified in their unambiguous reproach of campus protests that critics say have devolved into antisemitism.

“I understand people have strong beliefs and deep convictions about the world. In America, we respect and protect the fundamental right to free speech. To debate and disagree. To protest peacefully and make our voices heard. … But there is no place on any campus in America, any place in America, for antisemitism and hate speech, or threats of violence of any kind,” Biden said to applause at the event, hosted by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in the Capitol Visitor Center’s Emancipation Hall.

“Violent attacks, destroying property is not peaceful protest. It’s against the law. And we’re not a lawless country, we’re a civil society. We uphold the rule of law,” Biden continued.

The event featured congressional leaders, Holocaust survivors and their descendants. Biden hugged the survivors and dabbed at his eyes with a tissue as he spoke with them. 

His keynote address amounted to an unequivocal statement of support for Israel, delivered at a politically fraught moment. Biden has attempted to strike a delicate balance in recent weeks, at times criticizing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the counteroffensive Israel launched after the Oct. 7 Hamas attack. 

That attack killed around 1,200 people, according to the Israeli government. Meanwhile, officials in Gaza say Israel’s military campaign has killed more than 34,000. On Monday, Israel appeared poised to invade Rafah, a southern Gazan city where it’s estimated more than 1 million people are sheltering, despite concerns from the international community and opposition from Biden.

Nevertheless, Biden rallied support for Israel as he denounced antisemitism in all forms in his remarks, urging people to remember the horrors of the Holocaust and of Oct. 7.

“Here we are, not 75 years later, but just seven-and-a-half months later, and people are already forgetting … that Hamas unleashed this terror,” Biden said. “That it was Hamas that brutalized Israelis. It was Hamas that took and continues to hold hostages. I have not forgotten and nor have you. And we will not forget.”

“We’ve seen a ferocious surge of antisemitism in America and around the world,” the president said. “On college campuses, Jewish students blocked, harassed, attacked while walking to class. … It’s absolutely despicable, and it must stop.”

But Biden’s steadfast support of Israel, even as he splits with Netanyahu, has angered progressive Democrats and done little to assuage Republicans, who’ve seized on the chaos and at times characterized Biden’s response to reports of antisemitism on campus as tepid. 

Without naming names, Johnson on Tuesday took aim at those trying to “downplay and justify what happened on Oct. 7.”

“There are some who would prefer to criticize Israel and lecture them on their military tactics — they would rather do that than punish the terrorists who perpetrated these horrific crimes,” Johnson said. 

But Johnson also went further, attempting to draw a straight line between Nazism and American college campuses. He recalled the rise of antisemitism among academia and students during the Third Reich and the Nazis’ takeover of the University of Strasbourg during World War II.

“We remember what happened then, and now today, we are witnessing American universities quickly becoming hostile places for Jewish students and faculty. The very campuses which were once the envy of the international academy, have succumbed to an antisemitic virus,” said Johnson.

House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries offered a slightly more nuanced take, calling for an end not only to antisemitism, but to “racism, sexism, Islamophobia, xenophobia, homophobia, and all other forms of hatred together. That’s the American way.”

Antisemitic incidents have been documented at colleges across the country. In a report last week, the Anti-Defamation League and Tel Aviv University found a “steep” increase in antisemitic incidents in Western countries since Oct. 7. 

But supporters of the protests argue those engaging in antisemitism are small in number and are not representative of the larger effort. They also point out that progressive Jewish students, professors and activists have played an active role in the pro-Palestinian campus movement. 

Those protesters, as well as some progressive congressional staffers, have sought to highlight how Israel’s military response has created a humanitarian crisis in Gaza. 

Congressional Staff for a Ceasefire Now, an anonymous group of aides calling for an end to the war, exhorted American leaders to intervene in a statement on Monday. The group said congressional staff have received many messages “from constituents demanding an immediate ceasefire, a surge of humanitarian aid, and the release of all hostages.”

“As over 1.5 million Palestinian civilians await a brutal invasion of Rafah, as Gazan children starve from a man-made famine, and as over 100 unaccounted-for Israeli hostages may be in the line of fire, we are calling on President Biden and our bosses in Congress to listen to their constituents as we have: Demand an immediate end to Israel’s assault on the civilians of Gaza before it is too late,” the group wrote.

Recent Stories

Spared angry protests at Morehouse, Biden pushes post-war Gaza plan

Capitol Lens | Duck dodgers

Election year politics roil the EV transition

Thompson’s animal welfare, whole milk priorities in farm bill

Schumer plans vote on border security bill that GOP blocked

Republicans look to reverse rule based on gun law they backed