Photo Credit: Alex Chis

December 11, 2019; Guardian, New York Times, and Chronicle of Higher Education

Last Wednesday’s very controversial executive order came with a statement that, on the surface, seems anything but: “The vile, hate-filled poison of anti-Semitism must be condemned and confronted everywhere and anywhere it appears.” So why did the president’s action, once released, set off a heated debate about its intent and meaning and strong expressions of concern for the harm it would do to schools, colleges, and beyond?

The order, the president said, was necessary to counter the increasing number of anti-Semitic acts taking place in schools and on colleges and university campuses. It continues his administration’s weaponization of antisemitism in its fight to suppress voices supporting the cause of the Palestinian people.

The order uses the government’s power under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which “prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin in programs and activities receiving federal financial assistance,” and stretches it to include antisemitic acts. But the order, by adopting the definition of anti-Semitism put forward by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance in 2016, thrusts into the heated politics of the Middle East through such examples as “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor” and “drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.”

That definition, as presidential advisor Jared Kushner writes in a recent New York Times op-ed, “makes clear what our administration has stated publicly and on the record: Anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism.”

Schools receiving federal funds are now challenged to both protect their students’ and faculty’s free speech rights of expression, rights emphasized in an earlier presidential order, and protect their communities from the harms done under the new action’s broad definition of anti-Semitism. The level of disagreement between pro-Israel voices and those that advocate for Palestine is so high that this balance maybe hard to find.

Katherine Franke, a law professor at Columbia University, illustrated the dilemma in comment she made to the Chronicles of Higher Education: “If I raise the issue about the annexation of settlements, I am routinely hammered with criticism of being anti-Semitic. Even if I don’t mention the Jewish people, there is a body of activists on campus and in well-funded outside organizations who are poised to describe any criticism of the State of Israel as anti-Semitic.”

A student could go to the Equal Opportunity Office and say, “Hey, I’m being discriminated against, and I’m in a hostile environment because people are talking about BDS.” If the university doesn’t do anything about it, it exposes itself to the potential loss of funding.

From the other side, David Harris, chief executive of the American Jewish Committee, thinks these broad protections are needed and do not pose a threat to anyone’s rights. “Responses to anti-Semitism on many campuses have often fallen short, leaving Jewish students vulnerable. Existing federal policy has not been fully enforced, and today’s order merely gives Jews what other groups have long enjoyed—the right not to be subject to a hostile environment on campus.”

“We trust that a careful application of this directive will enable university administrators to avoid running afoul of free-speech protections as they seek to root out anti-Semitism on their campuses,” Harris adds.

The new order lends new weight to active efforts to tip the scale toward pro-Israel voices. Last September, NPQ covered the US Department of Education’s allegations that a conference sponsored by a Middle Eastern studies program jointly operated by Duke University and the University of North Carolina was “rife with radical anti-Israel bias,” “featured active members of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel,” and “featured panelists who distorted facts and misrepresented the complex situation in Gaza.” Even without the new executive order, the threat to continued funding had been enough to push UNC to settle the dispute and agree to, according to the Times, “hold a series of community meetings, conduct anti-Semitism training and make clear in its anti-discrimination policy that Jewish students shared a national origin ‘on the basis of their actual or perceived shared ancestry or ethnic characteristics.’”

Kenneth Stern, director of the Bard Center for the Study of Hate and lead author of the definition of anti-Semitism being used by the president, writing for the Guardian, challenged those who seek, as the president has, to use charges as Semitism as a political weapon.

Historically, anti-Semitism thrives best when leaders stoke the human capacity to define an “us” and a “them”, and where the integrity of democratic institutions and norms (such as free speech) are under assault. Rather than champion the chilling of expressions that pro-Israel Jews find disturbing, or give the mildest criticism (if any) of a president who repeatedly uses antisemitic tropes, why weren’t those Jewish officials who were present when Trump signed the executive order reminding him that last year, when he demonized immigrants and called them “invaders,” Robert Bowers walked into a Pittsburgh synagogue because he believed Jews were behind this “invasion” of brown people?

Anti-Semitism is a serious problem. The killing of Jews because they are Jews is shocking, draws headlines, and deserves strong action. And anti-Semitism is alive and well in more subtle forms, too. Ex-NSA official Fiona Hill recently illustrated this when she testified before the House Intelligence Committee that, as reported by the New York Times, “both she and ousted US ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch were threatened by ‘what is frankly an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory’ tying them to [Philanthropist George] Soros. Hill told lawmakers that one GOP lobbyist attempted to get her fired by slamming her as ‘a Soros mole in the White House.’”

It, too, deserves a strong push back. However, what the president has done, turning the fight into a weapon to be selectively used for political purposes, is the exact wrong response.—Martin Levine