A blow to anti-Semitism or a blow to free speech? On Tuesday, The New York Times reported that President Donald Trump plans to sign an executive order defining Judaism as a nationality. The report provoked a huge amount worry and confusion, of course, Holocaust comparisons.
However, the draft text of the executive order does not define Judaism as a nationality, as the Times initially reported, and as this article originally stated. It turns out we were somewhat confused as well.*
The Trump order would effectively allow anti-Jewish discrimination to be covered under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination based on race, color, or national origin in any organization or program that receives federal funding.
Reports about the order generated heated debate and criticism.
"Hitler kicked off the Holocaust with the Nuremberg Laws that, among other things, declared German Jews weren't of German nationality. So Trump signing an executive order declaring Judaism it's own nationality is….well not great for us descendants of Holocaust survivors," commented science journalist Erin Biba.
A number of people have pointed out that defining Judaism as a race or ethnicity rather than a religion is a plank white supremacists promote.
"Anti-semites like David Duke say Judaism is not a religion, but a nationality/race," in order "to advance formation of a white ethnocentric state" that excludes Jews, tweeted author Kurt Eichenwald. "Trump just affirmed this trope by executive order."
To be clear, Trump has not signed the order yet but is expected to on Wednesday.
Not all critics of the order went right to Hitler-level racist motives.
The New York Times article first reporting on it describes the Trump administration's move as one targeting anti-Israel boycotts and protest movements on college campuses. (For many in Trump's orbit, support for free speech on college campuses stops where criticism of Israel begins.) In this framing, Trump is actually acting in support of Jewish people, or at least in support of pro-Israel politics, but doing so as a way to harm Palestine or squelch pro-Palestinian speech.
"This is using Jews and Judaism as a shield to go after Palestinians and anti-authoritarian professors and student activists," tweeted activist Sophie Ellman-Golan.
"The main thing you need to know about Trump's executive order is that he is using Jews as fodder to go after the Palestine solidarity movement, which hurts both communities and helps billionaire donors and weapons manufacturers who don't want lasting peace & justice in the region," suggested organizer Rose Fasa.
Trump supporters claim the order is needed to protect Jewish college students in the U.S. from anti-Semitism.
But tying Judaism to Israel (and anti-Semitism to criticism of Israel) is something many American Jews reject, despite strong support for such intimate linkage in establishment and right-leaning political circles.
1/ The road to Trump's EO on US Jews was paved - over yrs of effort - by US Jewish orgs/activists/politicos that legitimize/promote view that criticizing Israel=criticizing Jews, & that have led/backed escalating onslaught of laws & initiatives codifying this as US policy & law.
— Lara Friedman???? (@LaraFriedmanDC) December 11, 2019
"If opposition starts & stops with the EO & doesn't extend to recognizing the fundamental error/danger in the equation that underlies it—the conflation of criticism of Israel with antisemitism—opposition to the EO is meaningless," said Lara Friedman, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace.
"The notion that Jewish students on college campuses are being "marginalized" [presumably by BDS resolutions?] and therefore need *the President of the United States* to intervene on their behalf by threatening to cut off federal funding to universities is an astounding position," tweeted Harry Reis, director of policy and strategy for the New Israel Fund.
Yousef Munayyer, executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights, told the Times:
Israeli apartheid is a very hard product to sell in America, especially in progressive spaces, and realizing this, many Israeli apartheid apologists, Trump included, are looking to silence a debate they know they can't win.
Some see less cynical motives. Jonathan Greenblatt, chief executive of the Anti-Defamation League, told the paper:
the fact of the matter is we see Jewish students on college campuses and Jewish people all over being marginalized. The rise of anti-Semitic incidents is not theoretical; it's empirical.
Greenblatt said he hopes the new Trump order would "be enforced in a fair manner."
If our experience with the Obama administration's expansion of Title IX (which governs sex and gender discrimination at educational institutions and is also tied to federal funding) has been any indication, expanding the power of the executive branch to micromanage school speech policies across the country—and impose huge sanctions on those in violation—only leads to a huge chilling of campus expression and activism across the board, and a lot of lives interrupted over administrators' "abundance of caution."