At Columbia, Speaker Johnson booed and heckled, calls on its president to resign if she can't 'bring order' to protests

He also met with Jewish students during his visit to the university.

April 24, 2024, 6:11 PM

During a visit to Columbia University on Wednesday, Speaker Mike Johnson joined his New York House Republican colleagues in calling on the school's president, Minouche Shafik, to resign unless she can improve what he called her failure to handle the anti-Israel protests on campus.

In a news conference on the university's campus, Johnson said Shafik should step down "if she can't immediately bring order to this chaos."

"As speaker of the House, I am committing today that the Congress will not be silent as Jewish students are expected to run for their lives and stay home from their classes -- fighting in fear," Johnson said.

The scene at the news conference was rowdy itself, as Johnson and other House Republicans got booed and heckled throughout -- sometimes nearly drowned out by shouting from the crowd.

"The cherished traditions of this university are being overtaken right now by radical and extreme ideologies. They place a target on the backs of Jewish students in the United States and here on this campus," Johnson said.

He said he planned to speak to President Joe Biden, whose administration has also condemned any antisemitic demonstrations, once he departed the campus to "share with him what we have seen with our own two eyes and demand that he take action."

"There is executive authority that would be appropriate," Johnson said.

"If this is not contained quickly, and if these threats and intimidation are not stopped -- there is an appropriate time for the National Guard. We have to bring order to these campuses. We cannot allow this to happen around the country. We are better than this. We are better than this. And I will ask the president to do that, and I will tell him the very same thing," Johnson said.

In an interview with Hugh Hewitt on Wednesday morning, ahead of his trip, Johnson said Shafik had "shown to be a very weak, inept leader."

PHOTO: Speaker of the House of Representatives Mike Johnson attends a news conference at Columbia University in response to demonstrators protesting in support of Palestinians in New York, April 24, 2024.
Speaker of the House of Representatives Mike Johnson attends a news conference at Columbia University in response to demonstrators protesting in support of Palestinians, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in New York, April 24, 2024.
David Dee Delgado/Reuters

"They cannot even guarantee the safety of Jewish students? They're expected to run for their lives and stay home from class? It's just, it's maddening. What we're seeing on these college campuses across the country is disgusting and unacceptable," Johnson said to Hewitt.

Last week, more than 100 pro-Palestinian protesters were arrested at Columbia as they called for the divestment of college and university funds from Israeli military operations.

Other participants in Columbia's ongoing, encampment-style protests were suspended and removed from campus.

The demonstrations, which began on April 17, followed Shafik's testimony to the House Committee on Education and the Workforce about antisemitism on college campuses. New York Rep. Elise Stefanik, a leading conservative, called for Shafik's resignation days later, writing in a post on X that Columbia "failed to enforce their own campus rules and protect Jewish students on campus."

Testifying before the congressional committee last week, Shafik said she has taken actions to combat antisemitism on campus since a terror attack on Oct. 7 sparked Israel's war with Hamas, including enhancing Columbia's reporting channels, hiring staff to investigate complaints and forming an antisemitism task force.

"Safety is paramount and we would do whatever is necessary to ensure the safety of our campus," Shafik said. "We must uphold freedom of speech because it's essential to our academic mission, but we cannot and shouldn't tolerate abuse of this privilege to harass and discriminate."

The presidents of Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania resigned their positions after testifying about campus culture and antisemitism before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce earlier this year.

Shafik, who met with Johnson on Wednesday, and the rest of the university administration are committed to ensuring the safety of the campus community and ending the encampment, Columbia spokesman Ben Chang said in a briefing with reporters later on Wednesday.

The student encampment on campus has raised serious safety concerns, Chang said.

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The university and some of its representatives have been in dialogue with students on ending the encampment and Chang said the university believes those discussions will ultimately be "successful."

PHOTO: President of Columbia University Nemat "Minouche" Shafik testifies before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce hearing on "Columbia in Crisis: Columbia University's Response to Antisemitism" in Washington, Apr. 17, 2024.
President of Columbia University Nemat "Minouche" Shafik testifies before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce hearing on "Columbia in Crisis: Columbia University's Response to Antisemitism" in Washington, Apr. 17, 2024.
Jose Luis Magana/AP

Following the arrests at Columbia, student protests have appeared elsewhere in the U.S., including at Yale University, New York University, Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Tufts University and across the country -- at the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Southern California.

Criticism of Israel in the U.S. and internationally has been mounting as a humanitarian crisis unfolds in Gaza amid Israel's attempt to destroy Hamas terrorists.

Johnson, who also met with Jewish students at Columbia, said "their bravery is inspiring, much more inspiring than some of the activities we're seeing here. They should never have to confront such hate on an American college campus instead of such a revered institution."

His visit comes as the Israel-Hamas war continues to be highly politicized. Johnson earned bipartisan praise for his reversal on a foreign aid package that Biden signed into law Wednesday that included roughly $26 billion for Israel as its war with Hamas rages on in Gaza.

Hamas is thought to still be holding dozens of hostages taken in its October terror attack, which killed 1,200.

More than 34,000 people have died in Gaza since the war began, according to the Hamas-run health ministry there.

The protests on U.S. campuses have been largely peaceful, according to school administrators, with some, including New York police, as well as protesters blaming individuals not affiliated with the schools for instances of violence and offensive or antisemitic rhetoric.

Johnson said on Wednesday that federal funding should be revoked if universities cannot maintain control of the protests and prevent violence.

"We need to revoke these student visas for these violent protestors. You don't have a right to be here and to do this. But Jewish students have a right to be able to peacefully attend classes," Johnson said to Hewitt.

"I mean, this is outrageous," he said. "We have Jewish students who have actually been physically assaulted. They've been harassed. They've been intimidated and threatened."

PHOTO: Pro-Palestinian protesters hold a rally outside of Columbia University, April 24, 2024, in New York.
Pro-Palestinian protesters hold a rally outside of Columbia University, April 24, 2024, in New York.
Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

Johnson also criticized Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, the highest-ranking Jewish elected official in the U.S., for a scathing speech he delivered on the Senate floor last month where he called for a new election in Israel.

During the speech, Schumer was highly critical of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, saying he is an "obstacle to peace" and that he has "lost his way" as Israel bombards Gaza amid the humanitarian crisis there.

"[Schumer] is so focused on calling for new elections in Israel, he can't be bothered to protect Jewish students here at home," Johnson said.

Johnson claimed the White House and Democrats in Congress are "caving to [the] antisemitic ... wing of the party."

"It's really become a serious problem," he said.

ABC News' Victoria Arancio contributed to this report.

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