Ironically, President Trump signed an executive order intended to combat the rise of anti-Semitism in the United States at a recent White House Hanukkah party. With the hope of being “enlightened” by the eight candles of Hanukkah, here are eight reasons why this order may have the opposite of its intended effect.
1. Let’s start with Hanukkah, a Jewish civil war involving several Jewish factions in ancient Israel. Hanukkah was an internal ideological war over how much assimilation Judaism could tolerate. One group had a zero-tolerance assimilation policy, a second was open to some, and a third group favored maximum Jewish assimilation into the then-dominant Greek-Hellenistic culture. Things got messy when one of these factions appears to have invited the Greco-Syrian king, Antiochus Epimanes, into the fraternal fray. Antiochus ( who reigned from 175 B.C.E. – 164 B.C.E.) who wanted to assert his “one culture” policy in the neighborhood, was happy to comply. American Jews feel vulnerable to anti-Semitic incidents for a good reason. According to the ADL, “The 2018 total (of anti-Semitic incidents) is 48% higher than the number of incidents in 2016 and 99% higher than in 2015” and the number of physical assaults against Jews increased by 105% between 2017 and 2018. But, endorsing a presidential order that defines the meaning of Jewishness, which is an issue for the Jewish community and not the government, is clinging to a historical losing strategy and here’s why:
2. This new executive order wouldn’t have stopped the deadly shootings at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018, the Poway, San Diego synagogue, and the most recent lethal shooting at a kosher market in Jersey City, New Jersey. Strengthening existing gun laws, enacting mental health background checks, and prohibiting assault weapons might make a difference for American Jews and for that matter, all Americans.
3. Existing hate crime laws already afford protection against anti-Semitic acts. The U.S. Department of Justice’s definition of a hate crime is, “At the federal level, a crime motivated by bias against race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, or disability. Unlike presidential executive orders, hate crime laws at the federal and state level cannot be easily overturned. President Trump would better direct his efforts toward monitoring and enforcing clear hate laws than a new murky executive order (see next item).
4. This new executive order rests upon Title VI. Anti-Semites don’t need legal justifications for their irrational hatred of Jews. What concerns me is that this executive order reinforces a broader and dangerous perception of American Jews as being a separate and distinct nationality from other Americans. Here is the language from the order that is troubling: “Discrimination against Jews may give rise to a Title VI violation when the discrimination is based on an individual’s race, color, or national origin. (Title VI of the Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination based on race, color, and national origin in programs and activities receiving Federal financial assistance, but not religion).” My grandchildren are fifth-generation Americans, and I was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Granted, some may think that Philly is in another country, but Pennsylvania is on the map of the United States. When people ask me from time to time, “What nationality are you,” now that my government has cast my American “national origin” in doubt, it will be more challenging to explain that my “nationality” is American.
5. Title VI, then, excludes the protection of any religious class. But somebody better let the anti-Semites know as the most recent killing of Jews occurred at a kosher market where you’re guaranteed to find religious Jews. While secular Jews and all people are welcome at kosher markets and Jewish houses of prayer, these aren’t gathering places for Jews who share a “national origin” but a religious orientation.
6. Some critics rightfully worry that this executive order may infringe upon the First Amendment’s guarantee of “freedom of expression,” as it potentially blurs the distinction between anti-Israel and anti-Semitic rhetoric. So here’s an interesting question: when Jews and Jewish groups protest against policies of the government of Israel on college campuses, will their schools lose federal funds if the Justice Department believes they violated this executive order? Oh wait, American Jews receive greater protections under this new executive order, so their protesting against Israel shouldn’t be a problem unless the loss of federal funds provokes anti-Semitic acts against them from their classmates….
7. Even a half-wit who glances at a respectable demographic study of the American Jewish community like the Pew Research Center’s 2013 “Portrait of Jewish American” quickly learns that the vast majority American Jews equate being Jewish with “leading an ethical/moral life, working for justice/equality, being intellectually curious, and having a good sense of humor.” While they also believe that “remembering the Holocaust” and “caring about Israel” are important Jewish behaviors, “caring about Israel” doesn’t resonate as much with younger Jews as it does with older Jews. Many Americans who aren’t Jewish also care about “remembering the Holocaust.” Additionally, “being part of a Jewish community” scored toward the bottom of Pew’s list of essential categories of Jewish identity. It turns out that many of the behaviors that American Jews self-define as “Jewish” aren’t distinctively Jewish, but are compatible with “progressive values” that many religious and secular Americans hold. Jewish demographic studies again undercut the assertion of Jews as having a unique “national origin.”
8. And my favorite: Donald Trump, the man who speaks about protecting American Jews out of one side of his mouth, routinely uses anti-Semitic stereotypes when talking about Jews! When speaking to a Jewish audience at the Israeli-American Council Summit in Florida on December 7, only four days before signing this new executive order, Trump said, “A lot of you (Jews) are in the real estate business because I know you very well. You’re brutal killers, not nice people at all. But you have to vote for me, you have no choice.” He has previously accused American Jews of dual loyalty, referred to them as “you people,” and to Israel’s prime minister, Bibi Netanyahu, as “your prime minister.” The person who signed the executive order thinks that Jewish Americans aren’t like other real Americans.
For these eight reasons and more, “thanks but no thanks,” President Trump for your executive order. It’s no Hanukkah gift. I’m going to eat some good Hanukkah comfort food like latkes and jelly donuts to make myself feel better about this misguided effort.