President Donald Trump recently issued an executive order aimed at combatting anti-Semitism on college campuses. The order emphasizes that Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which "prohibits discrimination based on race, color, or national origin in programs or activities which receive federal financial assistance," applies to certain kinds of discrimination against Jewish people.
Since then, staunch criticism of the order has come from a myriad of political directions. The liberal Jewish nonprofit J Street claimed that by equating anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism, the order targets the civil liberties of those who criticize Israel. The New York Times’ Peter Baker and Maggie Habberman understood the order as effectively categorizing Judaism as a race or nationality rather than a belief system or faith, prompting accusations that, despite its stated purpose of furthering protections for Jewish Americans, the order is anti-Semitic in and of itself.
In reality, many of the order’s critics have misinterpreted its content. Trump did not categorize Judaism as a race, nor does his order pose a legal threat to free speech. However, criticism of the order is not entirely unjustified, as it does display a troubling notion of what constitutes anti-Semitism and could inadvertently contribute to social (rather than legal) suppression of speech that is critical towards Israel.
To the first point, Trump’s executive order states that “discrimination against Jews may give rise to a Title VI violation when the discrimination is based on an individual’s race, color, or national origin.” Though the order expands Title VI to bar discrimination against Jews, it does so not by categorizing Judaism as a race or nationality, but by recognizing that Jews are often discriminated against by those who do view Judaism as such.
While most Jews do not see themselves as racially, ethnically, or nationally distinct from other Americans, many anti-Semites do. Trump’s order remains entirely agnostic on the question of Jewish identity. It specifies simply that Jewish people who are discriminated against on the basis of their perceived race or nationality are protected by Title VI, an assertion that takes no stance whatsoever on Judaism itself.
Later in the order, Trump states that the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) working definition of anti-Semitism should be considered by those charged with enforcing Title VI “to the extent that any examples might be useful as evidence of discriminatory intent.” The order’s reliance on the IHRA definition has prompted outrage over the rights of Israel’s critics, as it offers examples of discrimination that include “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.”
The notion that these kinds of claims about Israel are anti-Semitic is dubious, and the presidential endorsement of a definition that blurs the line between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism is indeed troubling. Speech that comes to be understood as bigoted, even if legally permissable, is often suppressed socially, and encouraging the equation of criticism of Israel with criticism of Judaism may render anti-Zionistic speech culturally unacceptable.
It is important to note, however, that while the order may encourage social censorship of anti-Zionism, it does not pose any explicit legal threat to free speech. Title VI, even as modified by Trump’s order, prohibits only discrimination against individuals, legally allowing the expression of critical or even hostile views about groups, including religions. In other words, it is not the case that anything deemed anti-Semitic under Trump’s order can be prohibited via Title VI.
Those who equate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism view criticism of Israel as criticism of Judaism. But prohibiting discrimination against individuals on the basis of their Jewish identity does not prohibit criticism of Judaism itself any more than Title VI’s prohibition of discrimination against individuals based on national origin prohibits criticism of nations. The fact that one cannot, for example, refuse to let a Chinese student join a campus organization does not mean that students or campus organizations cannot criticize the nation of China.
Even if criticism of Israel is taken as criticism of Judaism, the latter does not constitute discrimination against individuals on the basis of Jewish identity. Title VI, even as expanded by Trump’s order, cannot be used to legally prohibit anti-Zionistic speech. The order’s categorization of certain anti-Zionistic statements as anti-Semitic does not pose a legal threat to the free speech of Israel’s critics. Claims that Trump’s order will be used explicitly to suppress Israeli critics are therefore unfounded.
Trump’s affirmation of the IHRA’s definition of anti-Semitism should nevertheless give us pause: if accepted culturally, that understanding of anti-Zionism as anti-Semitic will seriously undermine the ability of Israel’s critics to voice their concerns and be taken seriously. However, those charging the executive order with promoting an anti-Semitic racial reclassification of Judaism or with the intent to legally suppress anti-Zionistic speech have not properly understood it.
The image featured with this article exists in the public domain and is not subject to copyright law. The original was taken by Shealah Craighead and can be found here.