This week, a presidential executive order addressing anti-Semitism drew instant outrage from some members of the American Jewish community. News outlets reported that President Trump planned to declare Judaism a nationality. Many Jewish leaders and others compared it to the Nuremberg racial laws of Nazi Germany, and an example of further “othering” of Jews at a time when anti-Semitism is on the rise nationally and globally. The same day the White House announced the order, for example, a fatal shooting occurred at a kosher deli in Jersey City. People across the political spectrum flooded social media with discussions of nationality, religion, and what all this means for the Jewish community.
For some, the unease was conditioned by remarks from the Trump administration that reflect truly anti-Jewish sentiment. Recently while campaigning, the President drew on prejudicial tropes about Jews’ economic status when he told Florida Jews that they needed to vote for him to avoid losing their wealth. In that same speech, he railed against “Jews who don’t love Israel enough.”
This connection President Trump draws between all Jews and Israel is where things get messy. A careful reading of his executive order makes clear several things. First, the initial reporting was inaccurate — the order does not reclassify Judaism as a nationality. Instead, it places Judaism within the context of Title VI, which allows that no person will be discriminated against because of race, color, or national origin. This is especially important on college campuses, most of which receive federal funding and must comply with federal law. Although religion is not covered by Title VI, the order broadened its scope, placing Judaism in the same bucket as race and nationality.
There is no doubt that anti-Semitism on college campuses abounds — including in Pennsylvania. In 2017, neo-Nazi flyers were found across the University of Pennsylvania campus. In 2018, swastikas were found drawn in off-campus housing at Penn State Harrisburg.
If preventing such actions was the main purpose of the EO, it is hard to imagine there would be much pushback. But many fear the order has a different, hidden intent: targeting students and groups on campus who are critical of the Israeli government’s actions towards Palestinians.
Being critical of Israel is not the same thing as being anti-Semitic. While for some Jews, Judaism and Israel have always been inextricably intertwined, many others separate out Israel as a political entity. Some Jews believe in a two-state solution, others do not; the same can be said for non-Jews. Criticism of West Bank settlements and the treatment of Palestinians may challenge the government of Israel, but they are not always anti-Semitic.
Yet the president often conflates anti-Israel views with anti-Semitism and tries to define Jews as a monolithic group, distinct from other Americans. In 2018, his Department of Education sought to redefine anti-Semitism to include those who question or boycott Israel. Trump referred to the BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanction) movement explicitly as a reason behind this action. He has also labeled the Jewish community as “loyal” and “disloyal” based on their feeling about Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, and President Trump himself. But Jews, like any other religious group, are highly diverse in their beliefs and actions.
The President’s history on this issue leads us to believe that this executive order is primarily meant to target activism critical of Israel, or questioning the treatment of Palestinians by the Israeli government.
In that case, this order aims to silence legitimate speech. If the definition of anti-Semitism is expanded as proposed by the President, statements critical of Israel might very well leave colleges and universities vulnerable to defunding by the federal government.
An attempt to limit, by federal fiat, free speech on campus is against the mission of universities. Universities work to allow students and faculty to discuss and think through tough international issues, as well as to stand up for what they believe. Those critical of Israel are not inherently anti-Semitic. We seek to teach students to examine all sides of an issue and advocate for change when they believe it is needed in their own community and other communities that need support.
There are worrying anti-Semitic incidences on college campuses that warrant strong responses. Open debates about Israeli policy is not one of them.
Jennifer Rich and Debbie Sharnak are assistant professors at Rowan University, and have leadership roles within the Rowan Center for the Study of Holocaust, Genocide, and Human Rights.