The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlaws discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. It prohibits unequal application of voter registration requirements, and racial segregation in schools, employment, and public accommodations. There are eleven components to this law, known as titles. Specifically, Title VI prevents discrimination by programs and activities that receive federal funds. If a recipient of federal funds is found in violation of Title VI, that recipient may lose federal funding.
Earlier this week, President Trump signed an Executive Order on Combating Anti-Semitism. It states: “while Title VI does not cover discrimination based on religion, individuals who face discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin do not lose protection under Title VI for also being a member of a group that shares common religious practices. 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. It shall be the policy of the executive branch to enforce Title VI against prohibited forms of discrimination rooted in anti-Semitism as vigorously as against all other forms of discrimination prohibited by Title VI.”
In addition, the Executive Order states that agencies shall consider the working definition of anti-Semitism adopted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), as well as the IHRA list of Contemporary Examples of Anti-Semitism, “to the extent that any examples might be useful as evidence of discriminatory intent.” The Working Definition of Anti-Semitism is as follows: antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred towards Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.” This definition is utilized for internal use in a number of government and political institutions around the world, including in Israel.
There is also a concept known as New Anti-Semitism, which states that a new form of antisemitism has developed in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, tending to manifest itself as opposition to Zionism and criticism of the Israeli government. This concept is included in the IHRA Working Definition of Anti-Semitism.
I applaud this important decision to sign this Executive Order by the President of the United States. While the concepts of individual and communal identity, and self-determination, especially in this season of Hanukkah, are important to consider, having this Executive Order enshrined in the mechanisms of government and the legal recourse of our democracy will help to ensure that Jewish people and Jewish communities remain independent and strong. This Executive Order does not limit free speech – rather it asks all of us, especially in this terrible age of disinformation, reflexive hate, and with the strategic mustering of disrespect – known as cancel culture — to be mindful of the rhetoric that we use to advocate for our points of view.
As a student and a teacher of how pervasive anti-Judaism is embedded in our culture, and how antisemitism continues to contort, hybridize, and expand – this protective safeguard aids in the sanctification of life. By personal example, I see the radicalization of opinions on our college-campuses – just last year, at the University of Texas, a student walked out of a presentation that I was giving in a Religion and Journalism class, because I identified as a Zionist. She proceeded to malign a Jewish student in the class throughout the semester because the student volunteered that she had gone on Birthright. The offending student was removed from the class and then ultimately, reinstated. For the Jewish student, this caused a crisis of fear and anxiety about her burgeoning relationship to Israel and to organized religion. Had this Executive Order been in place, perhaps the administration of the school would have been able to better uphold the needs and support of the Jewish student.
Our students are to be protected from this cynical and violent commentating. While one can make a compelling case that the environment for toxicity and hate speech has increased in the last several years, and even because of the lamentable examples of this administration, this Executive Order goes a long way to help draw parameters about how far one can swing one’s fist before another person’s nose begins. We are witnesses to our history. Throughout our history, antisemitism and anti-Judaism have taken on insidious forms of representation, including physical assaults, pogrom, and organized murder, incited by the authority of governments. It is misguided to allow discrimination against Jews over the technical difference of whether Jewishness is a religious or a national characteristic. Boycott, Divest, and Sanction (BDS) and other forms of antisemitism should have no place in a civilized society. Any perceived dilemma in curtailing free speech should be tested in the court of law.
May our society be uplifted with our commitment to each other’s well-being and our mutual civic responsibilities. As Americans, may we tamp down prejudice, intolerance, scare-mongering and conspiracy thinking, and instead cultivate a kind, generous, compassionate, and noble heart. May we call our neighbor the names by which they would like to identify, and may we, as Jews, continue to enjoy that right, in kind. May terrorism in any form be called out, denounced, and outlawed and may the freedoms of self-expression continue to be protected — embedded in the principles of the United States. As Abraham Joshua Heschel has written: “indifference to evil is more insidious than evil itself. It is a silent justification affording evil acceptability in society.”