The Electronic Intifada / December 11, 2019
Israel and its most extreme defenders are not bothered by the president’s anti-Jewish rhetoric as long as it comes wrapped in unquestioning support for Israel.
Trump’s order, which he signs today, is evidence of that support. It is also a dangerous escalation of the attack on basic free speech rights.
Initial reporting by The New York Times claimed that the order “will effectively interpret Judaism as a race or nationality, not just a religion, to prompt a federal law penalizing colleges and universities deemed to be shirking their responsibility to foster an open climate for minority students.”
Asserting that Jews belong to a separate national grouping has long been a theme of anti-Semitic white supremacist ideology – and it promotes the anti-Jewish smear of “dual loyalty.”
On Wednesday, Jewish Insider published what it says is the text of the actual order.
It is more subtle; it states that “Discrimination against Jews” may give rise to a violation of US civil rights law “when the discrimination is based on an individual’s race, colour, or national origin.”
But the core of the order is that it meets the demands of Israel lobby groups who wish to criminalize Palestine solidarity organizing – especially on US college campuses – by conflating criticism of Israel with anti-Jewish bigotry.
It states that it “shall be the policy of the executive branch to enforce Title VI [of the Civil Rights Act] against prohibited forms of discrimination rooted in anti-Semitism.”
There’s nothing wrong with fighting anti-Semitism. Indeed that is necessary. But that’s not the purpose here.
This controversial definition, promoted by Israel and its lobby, includes claims that it is anti-Semitic to say Israel’s foundation is a “racist endeavour” or “applying double standards” to Israel by requiring from it “behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.”
Crucially, the definition claims that “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination” is anti-Semitic. This does define Jews as a “nation.”
It also means the government could claim that it is a form of anti-Semitism to call for a single, democratic state in historic Palestine, in which Jews and Palestinians have equal rights – because Israel would no longer exist as a “Jewish state.”
In other words, the definition conflates bigotry against Jews, on the one hand, with criticism of Israel and its racist state ideology Zionism, on the other.
Even the definition’s lead author, former American Jewish Committee executive Kenneth Stern, strongly opposes efforts to enshrine it in legislation or university rule books, arguing that this would unconstitutionally infringe on free speech.
With this executive order, however, Trump has given the Israel lobby a way to circumvent the legislative process while opening the door for accelerated attacks on Palestinians and those who organize for their rights.
The order states that “the inquiry into whether a particular act constitutes discrimination … will require a detailed analysis of the allegations.” In other words, mere accusations of anti-Semitism against critics of Israel on campus are likely to result in lengthy inquisitions by the government.
Regardless of the outcome of such investigations, the prospect of being put through such an ordeal by the government is unpalatable to enough people that it will chill free speech and academic freedom.
“A bald-faced attempt to silence the movement”
For years, lobby groups have pushed US politicians to pass legislation effectively defining criticism of Israel as anti-Jewish bigotry – and therefore identifying all Jews with Israel.
For nearly a decade, as Palestine activism on campuses grew, Zionist groups began filing complaints under Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.
In these complaints, Israel supporters claimed that universities failed to protect Jewish students by not cracking down on Palestine solidarity activism.
The strategy was pioneered by Kenneth Marcus, who led the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, an Israel lobby group unaffiliated with Brandeis University.
The complaints were eventually thrown out by the Obama administration, citing lack of evidence.
However, Marcus is now in charge of the Office for Civil Rights – the body that investigates such complaints.
Last year, he announced that the Department of Education will apply standards that conflate criticism of Israel and Zionism with anti-Jewish bigotry.
Marcus has even called for students to be criminally prosecuted for protesting Israel.
Dima Khalidi, director of the civil rights group Palestine Legal, has previously warned that with Marcus leading the Office for Civil Rights, he would “do from the inside of the Department of Education what he has failed to do from the outside.”
On Tuesday, Khalidi called the executive order “a bald-faced attempt to silence the movement for Palestinian rights on college campuses.”
She added that “rather than providing any new protections to Jewish students against the rampant and deadly anti-Semitism of a resurgent white nationalism,” the order “aims to define the contours of what we can say about Palestine and Israel.”
“We won’t abide, and it will be challenged,” Khalidi remarked.
Fear and outrage
On Wednesday, US Congress member Bobby Rush condemned Trump’s move as a way to “stifle the speech of those they [the Trump administration] disagree with.”
The Illinois Democrat added: “What’s worse, is their exploitation of anti-Semitism in order to do so. [Trump] does not care about Jewish safety. Period.”
Notably, none of the major Democratic presidential candidates – including Bernie Sanders – has so far weighed in on Trump’s executive order.
Students, activists and civil rights defenders expressed outrage and concern, while warning university administrations not to cave in to intimidation.
Israel’s supporters, meanwhile, are hailing the move.
Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, welcomed the order, telling The New York Times that Jewish students are being marginalized on campuses.
He downplayed concerns that the order would re-classify American Jews, though noted that it adopts the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism:
AIPAC, a leading Israel lobby group, also praised Trump’s order:
Seffi Kogan, an official at the American Jewish Committee, deflected criticism by claiming that it would be entirely appropriate to assert that all Jews are part of a “Jewish nation”:
And Christians United for Israel – a group whose support for Israel is rooted in a theology that yearns for Jews to be gathered in one place where they will be killed in a coming apocalypse – also applauded Trump’s executive order.
While civil rights groups and student activists prepare to challenge Trump’s order, it can also be viewed as an indication of the Israel lobby’s desperation.
The legislation that lobby groups hoped to push through Congress has been hampered by relentless resistance.
Students have been at the forefront of Palestinian rights advocacy and expanding the boycott campaign, in spite of sweeping anti-BDS measures passed by state lawmakers and attempts by universities to shut down speech in support of Palestinians.
Activists should not be cowed by threats from university officials, Israel lobby groups or the president. Rather, the executive order and the fight to come validate that the movement for Palestinian rights is a force to be reckoned with.
“As a founder of two Students for Justice in Palestine chapters,” tweeted graduate student and activist Randa Wahbe, “I can say that despite the decade-long threat to shut us down, our movement just keeps getting stronger, larger and more diverse.”
Nora Barrows-Friedman is a staff writer and associate editor at The Electronic Intifada, and is the author of In Our Power: US Students Organize for Justice in Palestine (Just World Books, 2014).