Let’s start with the good news. Trump’s new executive order doesn’t technically redefine Jews as a distinct nationality. No one’s making a list of Jews, and no one is outlawing criticism of Israel either. The executive order says that Title VI covers the discrimination of Jews beyond and inclusive of religion — in other words, Title VI protects us as an ethnic minority, which is something that’s already been legally established for a long time. In that way, it’s an extension of Obama-era (and before) doctrine, and mostly just re-affirms the current law. When people read the text and say, “Hold on, this isn’t so bad,” they have a point.
The bad news is that looking at this document in isolation is ignoring part of the problem. While the text itself isn’t nearly as terrible as many had initially feared (no thanks to initial shoddy reporting), the real problem lies in the wider context in which it exists: Trump’s actual political objectives and personal record.
The Problem with anti-BDS legislation
The executive order was signed in part to combat campus antisemitism, and more specifically, the Boycott, Divest and Sanction movement — a controversial but well-established pro-Palestinian advocacy movement that, true to its name, supports boycotting Israel and Israeli establishments, sanctioning Israeli companies and government initiatives, and divesting from Israeli companies. The BDS movement is not the only pro-Palestine movement that has trouble with combating anti-Semitism within its ranks, but it is among the most high-profile of such groups active on college campuses both in the US and abroad. It is also a very fragmented project, in that it covers a wide variety of programs, appeals and tactics.
Anti-Zionism is not always anti-Semitic, but there is a distressing prevalence of anti-Semitism within anti-Zionist circles. Anti-Zionism also is sometimes used to paper over, dismiss, bear up or propagate anti-Semitic norms. As a result, life on a campus with a strong BDS presence is often rather fraught for Jewish students.
This executive order is not the first time that pro-Israel advocates have attempted to push back against both anti-Semitic and pro-Palestine advocacy, with deeply mixed results. The problem inherent in this tactic is that legislation is entirely the wrong tool to combat anti-Semitism on campus or anywhere else. Efforts to legislate the Israel-Palestine conflict are illiberal and wrongheaded.
Many who oppose such anti-BDS legislation do so on grounds that such bills violate the First Amendment. One famous example occurred in Texas, which passed the Israel Anti-Boycott Act. Bahia Amawi, a speech pathologist and therapist at the Pflugerville Independent School District in Texas, was let go from her position until and unless she signed a pledge that she would not boycott Israel. She sued and won on the grounds that this law violated her First Amendment rights. The ACLU has concluded that this and similar Congressional Acts are a threat to free speech, and unconstitutional.
The executive order doesn’t go as far as the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, so it avoids violating anyone’s First Amendment rights directly. But its existence does contribute to chilling free expression on- and off-campus. By referencing the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, the government is invoking a non-legal definition that was designed for academic surveys and data-gathering, not law enforcement. The IHRA has itself come under fire for being overly broad in defining anti-Semitism, and its vagueness and imprecision can and does contribute to stifling free speech. If you care about liberal democratic values, this should worry you. However, this is exactly what Trump wants: to make his enemies shut up.
This is less about throwing a bone to his right-wing Evangelical and Jewish supporters — though currying favour with the most aggressive of Israel’s right-wing supporters is beneficial to him. It’s also about targeting higher education as a political enemy. Trump has aligned himself with people who distrust higher education and see universities as hotbeds of anti-conservative political activity. This executive order helps lay down some important groundwork to allow the federal government to cynically weaponize accusations of anti-Semitism to withdraw crucial funding for universities — and to Trump, that is a win in the ongoing culture war.
It also is free ammunition to bigots who are keen to paint Jews as malicious actors who infringe on their rights. By that measure, this order is already counter-productive at best.
Wider Social Repercussions
Trump is not a man who has our best interests at heart. Less than a week ago, he once again accused American Jews of insufficient loyalty to both Israel and himself, then insists that Jews will vote for him in 2020 in order to protect their own wealth. Appalling enough, but he has a long record of saying similarly noxious things: he told a previous gathering of American Jews that Bibi Netanyahu was “your prime minister,” refers to Israel as “your country” and explicitly defends white supremacists. President Trump conceives of American Jews not as fellow citizens, but as a foreign nation forever apart, as Israelis who are in the US on sufferance. They owe loyalty to Israel and the president who most strongly supports Israel. Trump is clearly complicit in engaging in overt, public anti-Semitism — and supporting Benjamin Netanyahu, the embattled Israeli Prime Minister, neither minimizes nor excuses it. Like a number of alt-right celebrities, Trump embraces Israel while promoting anti-Semitism at home.
It is not an accident. This is blood-and-soil nationalism. While absent in the text of this executive order, it is present in Trump’s words and actions — and it is red meat to white nationalists, coming straight out of the 1930s political playbook. Is it any wonder that American Jewry was so riled when referred to as a nation apart? Thanks to both initial shoddy reporting from the New York Times and Trump’s own words last week, the age-old question of “What is a Jew?” has been re-opened for public debate. This public debate only serves to prove how poorly Americans, in general, understand the distinctions between ethnicity, nationality and race. That ignorance can have disastrous consequences.
Jews both love and hate to debate our own identity. Are we a religion? A people? A tribe? An ethnic group? A culture? All the above? None? It’s hard to say. Being Jewish is an inherently intersectional identity, and this small group contains astounding diversity across race, culture, and practice. Different aspects of this identity have been stressed at different points in our history, so there is no clear answer — there never was. However, as an ethnoreligious diaspora group, Jews are subject to the whims of the majority. When the ruling class — be it a monarch, political group, or dictator — is reasonable enough, it’s alright. But we aren’t always so lucky.
Historically, blood-and-soil nationalism that ties specific groups to specific points on the globe treat us poorly, precisely because we exist outside their rigid definitions of peoplehood and citizenry. While Nazi Germany was certainly the worst expression of this phenomenon, it was not the only one of its kind. When regimes like that start legally classifying Jews as a foreign nation within the larger body politic, it was often enough presaging government-sanctioned expulsion and violence.
That does not mean the United States is fated to end up like Nazi Germany. However, with white nationalist violence on the rise and a president who both endorses and galvanizes those committing it, we are all right to worry when the President uses this sort of language. While this executive order does not reclassify us the way the Nuremberg laws did, everything else Donald Trump does indeed serve to inflame his white nationalist base and give them further rhetorical, though not legal, cover to commit more violence against us.
And that is reason enough to worry.