The list of things in the Trump presidency that have not stirred controversy is a small one – if any such list does exist. Certainly, the recent Executive Order on Anti-Semitism on America’s college campuses leads the other list, those considered most controversial.
Defining the Terms
With no advance warning, the President announced in December that, “My Administration is committed to combating the rise of anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic incidents in the United States and around the world.”
The executive order went on to define the problem with language formulated by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. This definition includes the statement that “Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward 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”
Multiple Points of Controversy
The first issue that attracted the attention of many is the use of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act as the vehicle for the enforcement of the order. The peculiarities of this section of the Act “prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin in programs and activities receiving Federal financial assistance.” There is no consideration of discrimination based on religious views.
To use Title VI to fight discrimination against Jews requires that they be defined under that law as a nationality or a race, especially since Title VI does not include discrimination against religious groups as part of its test.
This addresses a continual question for Jews, especially over the past 250 years. The struggle to define Jews as a group has tackled the issue of what Jewishness means. Does one consider that Jewishness a religious identity, a nationality, an ethnicity or a race? Or, as is more likely, multiple elements of this categorization.
While this issue is not addressed in the order, it leaves those responsible for implementing it asking for further clarification.
The Significance to Israel
A second and more immediate impact of this new policy has a direct bearing on the relationship with Israel. This is because one of the most heated topics of current campus activism is the BDS movement against the nation. Regardless of one’s stand on either side of the issues, the potential of political conflict exists in deciding how to respond to the movement in future campus actions in the context of the new executive order.
The Palestinian-led BDS action is represented to be a campaign against the actions of the nation of Israel, not against Jews. While many will argue that is a semantical hair-splitting process, it may be a real conundrum to a college administration. As the impact of the new order is being evaluated, some on both sides of the issue are struggling over this aspect as a core issue.
Based on this new directive, if one classifies any views that are critical of Israel as a nation as Antisemitic, those views are actionable under Title VI if expressed on a campus. Of course, most such attacks include some vitriol toward Jews and the Jewish identity. Such additional content would then add fuel to the claim of going beyond politics and moving into the realm of Antisemitism.
The confusion this situation creates in the mind of a range of commentators on both sides of the issue raises concerns over a chilling effect on protected free speech. It is also intriguing that even some ultra-Orthodox and ultra-liberal Jews oppose the existence of the state of Israel. Is it possible they could, by attacking the nation of Israel, find themselves facing a charge of Antisemitism?
Israel and the Critics
From a purely pragmatic perspective, any step that affords any additional protection of the nation of Israel and the Jewish people, even indirectly, from its critics has some desirable elements. Perhaps, however, this highly visible and overt act by the President is the most important of the considerations. Letting the world know that the administration is willing to take such a strong stand has ripple effects at many levels and in many compartments of governments and societies