Jewish and Israel-related groups had mixed reactions to U.S. President Donald Trump signing an executive order that requires the U.S. government to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism in responding to “prohibited forms of discrimination rooted in anti-Semitism as vigorously as against all other forms of discrimination prohibited by Title VI” of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
The executive order mandates that the U.S. Department of Education investigate anti-Semitic incidents on college campuses in accordance with Title VI of that law.
The order was hailed by many mainstream Jewish organizations as a welcome tool in the fight against anti-Semitism, while some left-leaning groups and individuals condemned it, expressing concern that it defines Jews as a nationality and that it infringes on the First Amendment right to freedom of speech.
The order, however, does not define Jews in any way. Rather it says that Jews may be protected under Title VI if their attackers perceive them to be a race or having a shared national identity.
The White House announced the move in a call with members of the media on Tuesday, Dec. 10, and the executive order was signed at the first White House Chanukah party on Dec. 11.
Following Trump’s decision to sign the order, the Jewish Federations of North America issued a statement welcoming it.
“The executive order is modeled on language in the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act, which has benefited from bipartisan support in the U.S. Congress and formalizes a definition of anti-Semitism that can be used in discrimination cases throughout federal agencies,” the JFNA’s statement read. “It bolsters tools that help prevent discrimination on college campuses, which have been hard hit by a near 90% increase in anti-Semitic incidents over the past three years. It is deplorable that Jewish students continue to experience hate and hostility. These new tools are not inconsistent with first amendment protections, which we will continue to uphold and defend.”
Likewise, the Anti-Defamation League welcomed the executive order, noting “a stark erosion of support and safety for Jewish students on campus” in the past few years, and that “anti-Semitism, often in the guise of BDS and other anti-Israel sentiment, has had a corrosive effect at colleges and universities.”
“In this climate of rising anti-Semitism,” the ADL’s statement continued, the executive order “provides valuable guidance, giving law enforcement and campus officials an important additional tool to help identify and fight this pernicious hate.”
The Republican Jewish Coalition’s national chairman and former Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman called the signing of the order “a truly historic and important moment for Jewish Americans. President Trump has extended to Jewish students very strong, meaningful legal protection from anti-Semitic discrimination.”
The language used in the order mirrors that used in the Anti-Semitic Awareness Act of 2019, which had bipartisan support in the U.S. Senate, noted Josh Sayles, director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s Community Relation Council, adding that the IHRA’s definition of anti-Semitism has been adopted by 20 countries and nearly 200 organizations worldwide.
“This definition was regularly used prior to this executive order and was referenced regularly by the Obama administration,” Sayles said. “Its purpose is to require the Department of Education, when reviewing whether an act is in violation of Title VI, to give the Department a strong working definition of anti-Semitism to which it can refer.”
In Pittsburgh, “a college town with lots of universities and lots of Jewish students,” the executive order is a welcome addition, said Sayles. “There are incidents of anti-Semitism here just like at universities across the country,” he continued. “Anything to help support our Jewish students if and when they face discrimination is something we are supportive of.”
Although Pittsburgh’s CRC is “aware of some of the concerns raised around identity” that the executive order provoked, “if we want to provide protection against anti-Semitism under the law, it has to be written into law,” Sayles added.
‘Jewish students on campus fear for their safety’
At the Israeli-American Council’s annual summit on Dec. 8, Trump addressed the issue of anti-Semitism, which he called a “vile poison.”
“My administration is committed to aggressively challenging and confronting anti-Semitic bigotry in every resource, and using every single weapon at our disposal,” he said.
The House has stalled on the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act, introduced in July by Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) that would require the U.S. Department of Education to adopt the IHRA’s definition of anti-Semitism in evaluating incidents on college campuses and at other educational institutions.
The Senate version was reintroduced in March by Sens. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and Bob Casey (D-Penn.).
In the past, while pro-Israel groups have supported the measure, organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union have opposed it, citing First Amendment concerns.
But the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the American Jewish Committee, the Endowment for Middle East Truth and B’nai B’rith International all have supported the president’s executive order.
“With a dramatic rise in anti-Semitism at home and abroad in recent years, particularly on college campuses, the Jewish community has persistently advocated for the protections this measure provides against Jew-hatred,” said the Conference of Presidents in a statement, adding that the executive order “will abate the increasingly virulent Jew-hatred on display at some colleges and universities across the country.”
In a statement, the American Jewish Committee CEO David Harris said his organization “welcomes President Trump’s executive order to strengthen efforts to combat anti-Semitism on college and university campuses. We trust that a careful application of this directive will enable university administrators to avoid running afoul of free speech protections as they seek to root out anti-Semitism on their campuses.”
‘A cynical, harmful measure designed to suppress free speech’
On the other hand, several groups, including the Jewish Democratic Council of America and J Street, criticized the measure.
“This is truly the arsonist attempting to serve as the firefighter, and we’d prefer Trump stop inciting the flames of hatred against Jews as opposed to feigning his concern with a political stunt timed to correspond with a Republican-only Chanukah party,” said JDCA executive director Halie Soifer. “American Jews and Israel are not pawns to be used in Trump’s re-election bid. It’s not up to Donald Trump to define, stereotype or use Jews for his own political advantage, and we reject his attempts to do so.”
J Street slammed what it called “a cynical, harmful measure designed to suppress free speech on college campuses.”
“This executive order, like the stalled congressional legislation it is based on, appears designed less to combat anti-Semitism than to have a chilling effect on free speech and to crack down on campus critics of Israel,” said the group’s president, Jeremy Ben-Ami. “J Street is committed to fighting all forms of anti-Semitism—and we feel it is misguided and harmful for the White House to unilaterally declare a broad range of nonviolent campus criticism of Israel to be anti-Semitic, especially at a time when the prime driver of anti-Semitism in this country is the xenophobic, white nationalist far-right.”
Stosh Cotler, CEO of Bend the Arc: Jewish Action, said “time and time again, this president and his administration have undermined the civil rights and attacked the dignity of communities protected by the Civil Rights Act, from black people to Muslim Americans to LGBTQ folks.
“Now, the administration is perverting the Civil Rights Act for political ends,” she continued. “This president continues to endanger Jews through his embrace of white nationalism, his anti-Semitic comments and his spreading of conspiracy theories that incite violence. Jews across America see through his hypocrisy and reject his efforts to define who we are or what we should believe.” pjc
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at