How do we tackle big problems without identifying who they affect and how?
President Trump’s executive order last week brought unusual attention to the public university arena, concerning Jewish college students such as myself. Getting through final exams at UCLA and reading the headlines, I felt both a sweeping curiosity to evaluate the law and the need to respond to the clamor of primarily gut-reactions.
The legitimate fears of some fellow Jewish Americans are not hard to fathom, but must be balanced out with sensible and nuanced analysis of yet another unpredictable political move. On the surface, this executive order, which recognizes the resurgence of antisemitism, lays out its intentions word for word by “combating the rise of anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic incidents in the United States and around the world”.
So why does the document define Jewish identity to include “race, color, or national origin”? Is Trump now saying Jews are a “race”? Are Jews not “truly American”? Sound the alarms. Not quite. In fact, with specific enumeration regarding Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, the executive order demonstrates that Jews who may be discriminated against on such a notion, are legally protected.
As some have highlighted, Presidents Bush and Obama had previously expanded what legal defense Jewish students debatably could have. Such protection is now enshrined explicitly within federal anti-discrimination policies. Despite our qualms with many things ‘Trump’, one ought to say “todah rabah” and “mazal tov”.
Was it necessary for the president to ‘single out’ Jews in this reform? Couldn’t he have defined the change solely with the inclusion of religion as a basis of discrimination? Contrary to other marginalized groups, the conditional white-passing nature of many Jewish Americans has often been an exploited pretext for excluding us from the benefits of solidarity. Such exclusion occurs in both social justice spaces and in institutional settings, leaving the wounds of antisemitism ripe without social or legal recourse. This wide-reaching policy change effectively is the start of closing that controversial systemic gap.
Despite the legislation refraining from mention of recent violent antisemitism (such as in Pittsburgh, Poway, or New Jersey), the essence of this act in addressing campus-based antisemitism, which has distinguished itself over the past fifteen years, reflects the need for Jews of all diaspora backgrounds to unite around every aspect of our Jewishness. In our long and enduring history, us Jews have been persecuted on the basis of our spiritual difference, our ethnic difference, and (especially now on campuses) our difference of Israeli cultural ties or national origin. If you aren’t keen on embracing the reality that Jews worldwide share genealogical, cultural, and geographical bonds, take a 23 & Me test. Today, it’s much easier to celebrate our legitimate place in America’s diversity than it is to repeat the painful ironies brought by failed ‘enlightenment’ promulgations of full acceptance through assimilation.
Jews are not a race. We are an ethnic group with a national heritage that goes back millennia, with tribal and spiritual traditions even predating Western notions of “religion”. Reducing our identity to being solely “religious” is also a regressive internalization of the hatred that devalues the full breadth of our innate cultural experiences. Contrary to what some Jews have believed to be helpful for integration, such exclusivist branding actually fuels both right-wing and left-wing elements of antisemitism, and is far from sustainable.
What all folks should recognize is that the difference between acknowledging and stigmatizing diversity, depends on what one is highlighting the difference for. Differences are not inherently bad. Humans share inherent diversity. Indeed, we cannot alleviate any societal disparities if we choose to ignore that exploited differences have been a key factor in creating them. Nor can we blame differences alone.
When you are too paralyzed by the fear of seeming “different”; when every other person of color around you in the age of Trump is told on campus to be proud of it, it’s you that needs to take charge and reject any double standards. The ethno-religious experience of Jewish identity, like Hindu or Sikh identity, must not be an exception to the celebration of marginalized communities.
Simultaneously, we also ought not to get too excited about reforms delivered by a brazen and sanctimonious leader lacking much public legitimacy, but we can praise it as a step forward – despite any hypocrisies and political motives that may exist. The definitive language of this executive order, doesn’t call Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), “shifty Schiff”, but it does empirically rule that Jews should not be disenfranchised from claims of discrimination on their university campuses.
The need for change is still evident. We know about the decades-long quotas on Jewish admittance to American universities and systematic exclusion from various roles and administrative positions. It was just four years ago that a Jewish student government candidate on my campus had her eligibility publicly questioned on the basis of her Jewishness and affinities with Israel. As the UC-wide “Principles Against Intolerance” recognized following, it is absolutely possible for anti-Israel rhetoric to veer into antisemitism.
Furthermore, with multiple recent Title VI cases involving matters like UCLA’s handling of a guest lecturer blaming Jews (overwhelmingly in favor of our self-determination) for white supremacy, and the intimidation of students who filed the case, there is much room for change. The fact that our student government — like University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign’s — has defined antisemitism contrary to the lived experiences of the Jewish community in the past year alone, only affirms the need for our action.
Emphasizing the political alienation Jews are currently experiencing is plainly an exhausting pursuit. It appears dubious to obtain basic human sympathy when both white supremacist and black supremacist or anti-Zionist fringes are joining hands in targeting Jews — that unique nexus of “political extremes” reeks of rising fascism and the decline of democracy, as British activist Maajid Nawaz has eloquently signaled.
The bitter inconvenience that such attacks are politicized by various RNC and DNC reps for smearing and self-indulgence shows that solidarity for Jews is seldom unaccompanied by self-interest. Everyone wants to use anti-Jewish hate crimes to bolster their electability when the perpetrators are conveniently opposing them on the political spectrum. No one is taking accountability when the hate is fueled by their own side. That’s why welcoming productive legislation, with the right to criticize motives on either wing, is crucial. Combating hate is far from a zero-sum game. Let’s stop feeding into the narrative that it has to be.