The executive order that President Donald J. Trump signed at the White House Chanukah party last week is designed to protect students from an increasing number of disturbing acts of anti-Semitism on campus by withholding federal funds from colleges and universities that do not prevent or investigate harassment or threats against their Jewish students. The executive order is a potentially important protection for Jewish students who have been victimized by fellow students, college professors or administrators simply because they are Jewish, or because they are targeted for harassment by those who oppose Israel’s treatment of Palestinians or oppose Israel’s existence.
The executive order extends to Jews protection against discrimination and harassment under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color and national origin, and largely reiterates guidance provided by the Obama administration in 2010 on the same subject.
Relying on some sloppy reporting by The New York Times last week, many Jews and Jewish organizations took to social media to condemn the order before it had even been released to the public. Some of them accused Trump of redefining Jews as a “nationality,” worried that such a designation could lead to trouble down the road. Others were concerned that by equating criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism the order could have a chilling effect on free speech and improperly restrict what should be First Amendment-protected activities of campus critics of Israel.
The executive order, however, does not prohibit students from expressing their disagreement with Israeli governmental policies and the like. Rather, it addresses those incidences when otherwise legitimate criticism joins with victimization of Jewish students on campus merely because of their affiliation with the Zionist cause. This protection is both needed and welcome, as many Jewish students — even students who are willing to criticize Israel — can attest.
In fact, the order specifically reiterates First Amendment protections: “In considering the materials described in subsections (a)(i) and (a)(ii) of this section, agencies shall not diminish or infringe upon any right protected under Federal law or under the First Amendment. As with all other Title VI complaints, the inquiry into whether a particular act constitutes discrimination prohibited by Title VI will require a detailed analysis of the allegations,” the order reads.
Moreover, despite The New York Times’ report that the order attempts to redefine Jews as a “race or nationality,” it does not. As Mark Joseph Stern of Slate explained in the midst of the social media frenzy, the order “does not claim that Jews are a nation or a different race. The order’s interpretation of Title VI — insofar as the law applies to Jews — is entirely in line with the Obama administration’s approach. It only deviates from past practice by suggesting that harsh criticism of Israel — specifically, the notion that it is ‘a racist endeavor’ — may be used as evidence to prove anti-Semitic intent.”
It is worth noting that the protection that the executive order gives to Jews under Title VI can be applied equally to other religious groups that sometimes share an ethnicity — such as Muslims and Sikhs — and are sometimes subject to discrimination based thereon.
“Title VI bars discrimination on the basis of ‘race, color or national origin’ in programs that receive federal assistance — most notably here, educational institutions,” Stern noted in his Slate piece. “It does not prohibit discrimination on the basis of religion, an omission that raises difficult questions about religions that may have an ethnic component. For example, people of all races, ethnicities, and nationalities can be Muslim. But Islamophobia often takes the form of intolerance against individuals of Arab or Middle Eastern origin. If a college permits rampant Islamophobic harassment on campus, has it run afoul of Title VI?”
All students need to feel safe on campus, including Jews. The executive order is designed to codify that protection.
It also reminds universities that anti-Jewish graffiti on campus or the leafletting of dorm rooms of Jewish students with “eviction” notices — ostensibly because that’s what Israel is doing to Palestinians — are every bit as offensive as any number of racist acts perpetrated against students of color, and will not be tolerated.
Although there can be disagreement about how to best describe Jews, we support the effort to protect all students from discrimination, harassment and victimization.
There are some in the Jewish community who claim that the order is marred because the president, who has engaged in rhetoric that could incite anti-Semitism or is anti-Semitic on its face, has no moral authority to take such an action to fight Jew hatred. Others say his motives in doing so are purely political.
We will not speculate on Trump’s motives, nor will we condemn the order based on what may or may not be in the heart of the man who signed it. Rather, we welcome its protections afforded to Jews and other minorities and hope it helps to quell some of the rising hate on our college campuses. pjc