Jonathan Tobin explains why President Trump’s executive order focusing on anti-Semitism provides a test for American Jews.
Demographers have spent a great deal of time in recent decades trying to learn more about the changing demographics of American Jewry. But whatever else he has accomplished, President Donald Trump has, albeit unwittingly, gone above and beyond those efforts.
In signing an executive order extending protections to Jewish students against anti-Semitic hate on college campuses due to vicious incitement and discriminatory actions promoted by the BDS movement, Trump has, in effect, provided us with a sanity test for Jews.
It consists of the following formulation: If you are so deranged with hatred of Trump and rabid partisanship that you are even prepared to denounce administration efforts to stop anti-Semitism, then you should immediately seek help.
Unfortunately, some Jews are flunking that test, though to be fair, their deluded reaction to the executive order has been influenced by biased media reports and statements coming from left-wing groups that are the product not so much of madness as of partisanship and anti-Zionist sympathies.
The best example of this was an article in the New York Times that asserted that Trump wanted to redefine Jewish identity. In reporting about his executive order concerning the enforcement of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the paper said that Trump is “effectively interpreting Judaism as a race or nationality.”
The upshot of the slanted report was that the president’s motive was to distract the country from his own alleged anti-Semitism and to silence criticism of the State of Israel. That was echoed by another report from CNN. Moreover, the Times and articles published elsewhere intimated that it was “inherently anti-Semitic” for Trump to treat Jews as a separate nationality since it somehow fit in with the views of white nationalists to whom he has supposedly been dog-whistling.
Along the same lines, still other commentaries claimed that the action was “bad for the Jews” because it “separated us from other religious groups and saying that we are something other than American.” If that wasn’t enough, it was also asserted that even actions beneficial for Jews would be terrible if they came from Trump.
Others carped that the president was suppressing the free speech of principled critics of Israeli policy. These arguments are all rooted in false premises about the executive order, the reality of contemporary anti-Semitism and the nature of Jewish identity.
The notion that Trump was trying to redefine Judaism is just nonsense. As even the left-wing magazine Slate pointed out, Trump’s order was in line with past rulings by the George W. Bush Department of Education and Barack Obama Justice Department (in an opinion written by then Assistant Attorney General and current Democratic National Committee chair Tom Perez) about extending Title VI protections.
The original language of the act did not extend protection against discrimination to members of religious groups when based on shared ancestry or religion. That means that when groups of people are discriminated against on the “perception of shared race, ethnicity or national origin”— as is the case with Jews as well as Muslims and Sikhs — the law offered them no help. Both the Bush and Obama administrations agreed that was wrong.
Trump’s effort orders that the government use the definition of anti-Semitism promoted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, which is also the one recognized by the U.S. State Department and many other countries. That definition correctly states that “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, applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation, using the symbols and images associated with classic anti-Semitism … to characterize Israel or Israelis” and “drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis” and “holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel” are anti-Semitic.
The BDS movement routinely violates every one of those points. That means that while it is not anti-Semitic to criticize Israel’s policies, it is an act of hate to support Israel’s elimination or to engage in rhetoric that is drenched in hatred for Jews. Universities that don’t protect their students against that are now going to hear about it from the federal government.
Moreover, this effort has long had bipartisan support, as both Democrats like former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Republicans sought to remedy the loophole in the law that got anti-Semites on campus off the hook. Legislative fixes failed due to congressional gridlock.
There is nothing new in Trump’s order. But the difference is that although the Obama administration was on record agreeing in principle to extending Title VI protections to Jews, it chose not to act, leaving Jewish students vulnerable. Trump’s Department of Education has reversed that policy, calling for investigations into anti-Semitic activity at Rutgers University, the University of North Carolina and Duke University to revise curricula that were anti-Semitic. Trump’s measure merely makes that shift official.
Even those partisans whose bias against Trump has undermined their organization’s missions, like Anti-Defamation League CEO and national director Jonathan Greenblatt, recognize this and have endorsed the executive order.
Left-wing groups like J Street and the anti-Zionist IfNotNow oppose it. The latter is apparently worried that the thuggish behavior of their anti-Semitic allies in the ranks of Students for Justice in Palestine and on college faculties will now actually be held accountable for their actions.
It’s not surprising that anti-Zionists don’t wish to acknowledge that although Jews are not a race or a specific nation under American law, they are more than merely a faith. Jewish peoplehood is not an invention of white supremacists; it is integral to Jewish identity. But if the goal is to deny Jews rights that are given to any other group — as is the case with anti-Semites — then efforts like those of Trump to defend Jews being attacked, marginalized, silenced and shunned on campus must be denounced.
The knee-jerk reaction of so many left-wingers to this move says more about them than the president. Trump’s order, as well as his administration’s exemplary policies about anti-Semitism and support for Israel, doesn’t obligate anyone to vote for him. But if you are so crazed by hatred that you reject or denounce actions that clearly help young Jews, then you are the one with the problem, not him.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate.