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Jewish students at Columbia meet with Speaker Mike Johnson

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

On yesterday's show, we talked to Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who defended the protests sweeping college campuses against charges of antisemitism.

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BERNIE SANDERS: When you have a significant majority of the American people who, among other things, do not support more U.S. military aid to Netanyahu's war machine, we're not going to suggest that all of those people are antisemitic.

DETROW: This evening, we are hearing from some of the Jewish students at Columbia University who met with House Speaker Mike Johnson last week. And as NPR's Barbara Sprunt reports, they have a different point of view.

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BARBARA SPRUNT, BYLINE: Mike Johnson stepped onto campus as tension remains high between the administration and students who have erected encampments, as they call for the university to divest from companies that operate in Israel. The crowd loudly booed the House speaker.

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MIKE JOHNSON: A growing number of students have chanted in support of terrorists. They have chased down Jewish students. They have mocked them, and they reviled them. They have shouted racial epithets. They have screamed at those who bear the Star of David.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) We can't hear you. We can't hear you.

JOHNSON: Enjoy your free speech.

SPRUNT: While protesters chanted over Johnson, Jewish students at an earlier private meeting with him and other GOP lawmakers said they were grateful a leading political figure listened to their stories in person.

XAVIER WESTERGAARD: For him to hear them firsthand and not just to see third-party videos was very powerful.

SPRUNT: That's Xavier Westergaard, a Ph.D. student. He said Johnson told the group he'd call President Biden to ask what executive action could be taken to help Jewish students who feel unsafe because of various antisemitic speech and harassment they say they faced on and off of campus from protesters.

WESTERGAARD: Jewish students, including myself, have been the victims of physical violence, intimidation. This goes from shoving, spitting, being told to go back to Europe. And this is not just happening outside the gates. This was actually on campus.

SPRUNT: Protesters say their demonstration has been peaceful and that some of the antisemitic events that have gotten online attention are coming from actors outside of campus. But Westergaard says he's experiencing antisemitism on campus.

WESTERGAARD: I've heard, we want all Zionists off campus. I've heard, death to the Zionist state, death to America, death to Zionists. And as a Jew, I feel that Zionism and Judaism can be teased apart with a tremendous amount of care and compassion and knowledge, but it's also just a dog whistle that people use when they're talking about the Jews.

SPRUNT: Juliana Castillo, a history and philosophy major, was also in the meeting with lawmakers. She said the concerns of some Jewish students aren't only about physical safety.

JULIANA CASTILLO: There are things like intimidation, like feeling uncomfortable being openly Jewish or feeling uncomfortable taking a direct route across campus. And it doesn't always manifest as a lack of physical safety. Sometimes it manifests as feeling unwelcome in a class or feeling like people's viewpoints or perspectives are not respected.

SPRUNT: Eliana Goldin, a junior, was part of a group of Jewish students who received a message from a rabbi associated with Columbia, saying he recommended they go home and stay there until the situation on campus improves.

ELIANA GOLDIN: It was definitely wild to receive that text, but I think he did the hard thing and made the right call because I witnessed it myself.

SPRUNT: She said some Jewish students are debating whether to return to campus after the Passover holiday.

GOLDIN: I know some people who are very, very afraid and don't want to come back to campus and who want to transfer.

SPRUNT: New York Republican Congressman Anthony D'Esposito, who joined Johnson on campus, said the administration has failed to make all students feel they are safe and welcome.

ANTHONY D'ESPOSITO: They are really concerned that their voices are not being heard when they make complaints about, again, being assaulted, being spit on, being told that all Jews should die. And they are not getting any response from the individuals who are literally being paid to protect them.

SPRUNT: A group of Democrats also visited Columbia this week, including North Carolina Congresswoman Kathy Manning. She wants Congress to take action to address antisemitism and says it's not limited to universities.

KATHY MANNING: I find that deeply disturbing, that in the United States of America people are now afraid to be recognized in public as being Jewish.

SPRUNT: There's a variety of measures the House can take up addressing antisemitism, and the chamber already has one bill with bipartisan support slated for the week ahead. Barbara Sprunt, NPR News, Washington. 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.

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.