Speaker Johnson To Columbia Protestors: ‘Go Back To Class And Stop The Nonsense’

House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.), backed by a small group of fellow Republican House members, had a simple message Wednesday for Columbia University students who have set up a protest in the college’s main square.

“Go back to class and stop the nonsense,” Johnson said in a press conference on the steps of the university library, as he and his fellow lawmakers were forcefully booed by some students.

“If we want to have a debate on campus about the merits of these things, let’s do that. But you can’t intimidate your fellow students and make them stay home from class,” he said.

Columbia has been one of several elite colleges in recent weeks to see its campus roiled by activists angry at Israel’s invasion of Gaza, which it launched after a bloody Hamas-led attack on Oct. 7.

At Columbia, protestors created the “Gaza Solidarity Encampment” to demand the school divest from financial interests in Israel amid the military campaign in Gaza, which has so far killed some 34,000 Palestinians and led to famine. The continuing protests have led the university’s president, Nemat Shafik, to announce students could attend virtual classes until the end of the semester.

The demonstrations have attracted both defenders and critics: Protesters have been accused of antisemitism and harassment of Jewish students, with some saying they feel unsafe. However, some of the demonstrators are Jews protesting in solidarity with Palestine, a sign of the American Jewish community’s split on the issue of Israel’s campaign in Gaza.

Columbia’s administration has been trying to negotiate with the protestors to take the encampment down. On Thursday, the New York Police Department arrested more than 100 activists in a sweep of the encampment.

As he spoke within view of the protestors, Johnson was audibly heckled by students shouting “We can’t hear you!” and “Mike, you suck!”

Johnson said the protests were part of a larger tide of antisemitism that he said is overtaking U.S. campuses. He urged Shafik to resign “if she cannot immediately bring order to this chaos.”

Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), chairwoman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee and onetime president of Mayland Community College in North Carolina, urged Shafik to take stronger action to quell the protests.

“If not, the committee will pursue every possible avenue to create a safe learning environment for Jewish students,” she said.

Practically, there is little Foxx’s committee or Congress could do immediately. Johnson said the House had already passed bills dealing with antisemitism but they have not come up in the Senate.

Johnson’s appearance, where he was also backed by New York GOP Reps. Nicole Malliotakis, Anthony D’Esposito and Mike Lawler, comes at a perilous time for the speaker. Johnson relied on Democratic votes to pass an aid package for Ukraine Saturday, which President Joe Biden signed Wednesday. That move was the latest in what some ultraconservative House Republicans see as a series of policy betrayals by Johnson.

In addition to potentially bolstering his reputation for being willing to fight progressives publicly, Johnson’s visit could also boost the political profiles of the New York members who appeared with him.

Kathy Hochul, the Democratic governor of New York, earlier in the day urged Johnson to not inflame the situation with a visit.

“I think politicizing this and bringing the entourage to put a spotlight on this is only adding to the division,” she told reporters in Albany, according to Politico.

“A speaker worth the title should really be trying to heal people and not divide them, so I don’t think it adds to anything.”

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