Jewish groups divided on Trump order targeting college anti-Semitism

Legislation welcomed by some as a necessary measure, while others condemn it as anti-Semitic and a stifling of the freedom to criticize Israel

In October 2018 these anti-Semitic fliers appeared on college campuses and at organizations in at least six states: California, Iowa, New York, Virginia, Massachusetts and Illinois. (StandWithUs/via JTA)
Illustrative: In October 2018 these anti-Semitic fliers appeared on college campuses and at organizations in at least six states: California, Iowa, New York, Virginia, Massachusetts and Illinois. (StandWithUs/via JTA)

US President Donald Trump will sign an executive order on Wednesday targeting anti-Semitism on college campuses, the White House said.

News of the measure was met with applause by some as a necessary measure to combat rising anti-Semitism, but condemned by others as an attempt to silence pro-Palestinian freedom of speech and stifle criticism of Israel, as well as being inherently anti-Semtitic for declaring Judaism a nationality.

The order will broaden the federal government’s definition of anti-Semitism and instruct it to be used in enforcing laws against discrimination on college campuses, according to three US officials. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly preview the move.

Trump has been accused of trafficking in anti-Semitic tropes, including comments about Jews and money. But he has also closely aligned himself with Israel, including moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and taking a hard line against Iran.

US President Donald Trump walks onstage to speak at the Israeli American Council National Summit in Hollywood, Florida, December 7, 2019. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

In the order, Trump is expected to tell the Department of Education to consider the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism — which can include criticism of Israel — when evaluating discrimination complaints under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.

Title VI bars discrimination on the basis of race, color and national origin at colleges and universities that receive federal funding. One official said Trump’s order would make it clear that Title VI will apply to anti-Semitism as defined by the IHRA. That definition says anti-Semitism may include “targeting of the state of Israel conceived as a Jewish collectivity.”

Still, a second official insisted the order was not intended to limit freedom of expression and was not aimed at suppressing the boycott, divestment, sanctions movement known as BDS that aims to support Palestinian aspirations for statehood by refusing to purchase Israeli products or invest in Israeli companies. The movement is on the rise, sparking tension on many college campuses.

The Israeli government has urged allies to rein in the boycott movement, whose backers deny anti-Semitism charges and describe themselves as critical of Israeli decision-making, not Jews.

A third official said the order was a response to an alarming rise in the number of anti-Semitic incidents on campuses and would mean that Jewish students who are discriminated against for their religion have the same kind of recourse as black students who are victimized by racism.

The legislation will effectively recognize Jews as an ethnic minority and not exclusively as a religious group.

The Republican Jewish Coalition applauded the move, with the group’s chairman, former senator Norm Coleman, calling it “a truly historic and important moment for Jewish Americans” and hailing Trump as “the most pro-Jewish President” in the nation’s history.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center tweeted that it commended the order, which “will have immediate impact on US campuses plagued with antisemitic and anti-Israel acts. The Executive Order sends a global message at a time of surging antisemitism on both sides of Atlantic.”

However, the left-leaning J Street lobby group said in a statement that “Trump’s executive order is a cynical, harmful measure designed to suppress free speech on college campuses, not fight anti-Semitism.

“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,” J Street wrote.

Illustrative: Marchers against Israel walk from the Carnegie Mellon University campus in Pittsburgh on Wednesday, July 26, 2006. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

IfNotNow, a Jewish group of millennials that opposes Israel’s control of the West Bank, tweeted, “This is not about keeping Jews safe. It’s just more antisemitism.”

“The order defines Judaism as a ‘nationality,’ promoting the classically bigoted idea that American Jews are not, well, American,” the group wrote.

Halie Soifer, executive director of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, tweeted that the order was just an attempt by Trump “to gloss over his anti-Semitism and direct role in our rising insecurity.”

The Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism found white supremacist propaganda on campuses was up seven percent from the last academic year, which ended this May.

ADL chief executive Jonathan Greenblatt also welcomed Trump’s planned order saying, “We see Jewish students on college campuses and Jewish people all over being marginalized,” the New York Times reported Tuesday.

“The rise of anti-Semitic incidents is not theoretical; it’s empirical,” he said. “Of course we hope it will be enforced in a fair manner.”

Previous attempts to clarify and codify the application of Title VI to anti-Semitic acts have been bogged down in debates over whether Judaism should be seen as race or is indicative of a national origin. Free-speech advocates have also expressed concerns that a broader definition of anti-Semitism might be used to limit criticism of Israeli government actions.

The Trump administration has previously acted to constrain perceived campus anti-Semitism, last year reopening a case of alleged discrimination against Jewish students at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

The ADL and the Academic Engagement Network released model guidelines for faculty in November after two instructors at the University of Michigan declined to write letters of recommendation for students seeking to study abroad in Israel.

Trump delivered a speech on Saturday night that featured remarks from a recent New York University graduate who had accused the school of failing to protect its Jewish students from harassment.

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