WASHINGTON — Kenneth Stern drafted the “working definition of anti-Semitism” that US President Donald Trump used in an executive order to target anti-Semitism on college campuses. He’s also one of the recent order’s most vociferous critics.
“It’s not the definition that’s the problem,” Stern told The Times of Israel. “It’s the abuse of it.”
Fifteen years ago, as an anti-Semitism expert at the American Jewish Committee, Stern took the lead on formulating a definition that would help disparate countries have a unified understanding of the world’s oldest form of hatred. The purpose, he said, was to better track anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic incidents worldwide.
“It’s really hard for people in different countries to know what to look for without some certain guidelines and a definition,” he said. “There was clearly a need to have some kind of roadmap.”
Now, Stern argues, the Trump administration is using that definition to silence pro-Palestinian speech on college campuses.
“There was never any idea that this would be used as a de facto hate speech code on campus,” he said. “You wanted to train police officials on it and so forth. But to curtail speech on a campus, in particular, is something that was never contemplated.”
Last month, Trump signed an executive order targeting anti-Semitism by threatening to withhold federal dollars from institutions of higher learning if they didn’t sufficiently combat anti-Jewish discrimination.
It will use the working definition of anti-Semitism— adopted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) — as the measure for what kind of behavior constitutes a violation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act’s Title VI, which protects against discrimination based on race, color and national origin.
The move sharply divided the US Jewish community, with some corners praising the measure as a necessary action to combat a rising tide of anti-Semitism and others castigating it as a cynical attempt to suppress speech critical of Israel.
The definition includes language that details the following behavior as anti-Semitic: “holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel”; “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor”; “and drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.”
Stern, who now directs the Bard Center for the Study of Hate, said that right-leaning Jewish leaders had been pushing for the adoption of the definition in educational settings for a decade.
“Since 2010, people on the Jewish right have been trying to take the definition, marry it with the powers under Title VI and use it as a way to try and suppress pro-Palestinian speech on campus,” he said. “As much as I might agree with some of the criticisms of that speech, there’s a way you deal with that on a campus: You think critically about it and push back.”
Stern warned against the bind it will put colleges and universities in when students demonstrate in favor of the Palestinian cause, or critically of Israel.
“The problem for me is not just how the definition is going to be used under Title VI cases,” he said. “It’s more that it sets up a system in which administrators have a reason to either condemn or try to suppress pro-Palestinian speech because their job is to keep the university from being sued under Title VI. That’s what I see as a major danger.”
It sets up a system in which administrators have a reason to either condemn or try to suppress pro-Palestinian speech because their job is to keep the university from being sued
Others disagree. The Anti-Defamation League welcomed the executive order as an important step toward combating anti-Semitic incidents on campus.
“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,” said the group’s CEO, Jonathan Greenblatt, in a statement.
But Stern thinks the order will do little for Jewish students.
“I don’t think it protects Jewish students from harassment,” he said. “A lot of this comes to whether anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism or not. It’s part of this internal debate in the Jewish community about who’s inside the tent and who’s outside the tent. I don’t like government putting its thumb on the scales inside of a debate inside the Jewish community.”
Ultimately, Stern argued that the biggest consequence of the order will be more pressure on silencing certain students from speaking their minds.
“Do I think ultimately a student is going to get kicked out for saying something anti-Zionist? No. Do I think it’s going to chill speech? Yeah, and I think that’s the purpose,” said Stern.
Does The Times of Israel give you valuable insight into Israel and the Jewish world? If so, please join The Times of Israel Community. For as little as $6/month, you will:
We’re really pleased that you’ve read X Times of Israel articles in the past month.
That’s why we come to work every day - to provide discerning readers like you with must-read coverage of Israel and the Jewish world.
So now we have a request. Unlike other news outlets, we haven’t put up a paywall. But as the journalism we do is costly, we invite readers for whom The Times of Israel has become important to help support our work by joining The Times of Israel Community.
For as little as $6 a month you can help support our quality journalism while enjoying The Times of Israel AD-FREE, as well as accessing exclusive content available only to Times of Israel Community members.