More than a week has passed since President Donald Trump signed an executive order addressing anti-Semitism on college campuses, and people from across the political spectrum have weighed in.
Much of the initial conversation, particularly on social media, was focused on the pros and cons of defining Judaism as a nationality. But the executive order does not actually define Judaism that way.
Rather, the “Executive Order on Combating Anti-Semitism,” signed Dec. 11, says that Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 should prohibit anti-Semitic discrimination. Title VI requires that programs and activities receiving federal funding not discriminate based on race, ethnicity or shared national origin. The executive order says that Title VI should be enforced against discrimination rooted in anti-Semitism “as vigorously as against all other forms of discrimination.”
Many Jewish organizations — including the Anti-Defamation League, AIPAC, the American Jewish Committee, the Zionist Organization of America, B’nai B’rith International and StandWithUs — hailed the executive order, which was signed at the first White House Chanukah party.
“In a climate of rising anti-Semitism, this executive order provides valuable guidance on anti-Semitism, giving law enforcement and campus officials an important additional tool to help identify and fight this pernicious hate,” ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt said in a statement.
“The executive order is modeled on language in the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act, which has benefited from bipartisan support in the U.S. Congress,” a statement from the Jewish Federations of North America said. “It bolsters tools that help prevent discrimination on college campuses, which have been hard hit by a near 90% increase in anti-Semitic incidents over the past three years. It is deplorable that Jewish students continue to experience hate and hostility.”
The executive order reiterates 2010 guidelines from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights that state, “While Title VI does not cover discrimination based solely on religion, groups that face discrimination on the basis of actual or perceived shared ancestry or ethnic characteristics may not be denied protection under Title VI on the ground that they also share a common faith.”
The executive order also notes that First Amendment rights shall not be infringed. But some pundits and Jewish organizations are concerned.
“This executive order, like the stalled congressional legislation it is based on, appears designed less to combat anti-Semitism than to have a chilling effect on free speech and to crack down on campus critics of Israel,” said J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami. “We feel it is misguided and harmful for the White House to unilaterally declare a broad range of nonviolent campus criticism of Israel to be anti-Semitic, especially at a time when the prime driver of anti-Semitism in this country is the xenophobic, white nationalist far-right.”
But both the ADL’s Greenblatt and JFNA see it differently.
“It reaffirms protection of Jews under Title VI without infringing on First Amendment rights,” Greenblatt said of the order.
“These new tools are not inconsistent with First Amendment protections,” read the JFNA statement.
In a New York Times opinion piece, White House advisor Jared Kushner elaborated on the fact that the order charges executive departments and agencies to consider the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism, as well as the contemporary examples of anti-Semitism identified by the alliance.
The latter includes, Kushner writes, “‘the targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity,’ and those who deny ‘the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a state of Israel is a racist endeavor’ or those who compare ‘contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.’”
On local campuses, students have divergent opinions about the executive order.
Noah Werksman, a senior at the University of Pennsylvania studying economics with a concentration in marketing and operations, said he thinks university administrators will be more cautious about allowing BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) activity and anti-Semitic rhetoric to spread.
“In the last 11 months before the next election, (Trump is) going to be making these kinds of moves that make him look more popular, and my perception of it is that this move was very popular,” Werksman said. “The New York Times can say as much as they want about how people are worried about it — but for someone who is middle-of-the-line, who’s informed, has friends on both sides, this was a major win for him.”
Madeleine Fortney, a Drexel University senior studying communication who is president of the Drexel Hillel student board, opposes the order.
“Jared Kushner claims that anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism, and I believe that those two things are entirely different,” Fortney said. “I believe that Zionism allows for critiques of Israel and its politics, and caring about Israel in any form means struggling with Israel and its actions. I think that this is an attempt to suppress college students’ freedom of speech rather than mitigate the rise of anti-Semitism.”
Fortney thinks universities wary of losing government funding may change their behavior as a result of the order. “It’s possible that administrators will want to punish student and faculty speakers in order to avoid federal investigation.”
Werksman doesn’t think the order will have much of an impact on students.
“I think the only reason why it won’t affect students is because a lot of people don’t read the news or don’t care,” Werksman said.
Bend the Arc: Jewish Action and the Jewish Democratic Council of America, among other groups, released statements opposing the executive order.
“This is truly the arsonist attempting to serve as the firefighter, and we’d prefer Trump stop inciting the flames of hatred against Jews,” JDCA Executive Director Halie Soifer said. “It’s not up to Donald Trump to define, stereotype or use Jews for his own political advantage, and we reject his attempts to do so.”
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