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Can U.S. Jews Be Protected by Trump, a President Who Spouts Contempt for Jews?

Should Jews rattled by shooting attacks be grateful for Trump's executive order on anti-Semitism, when days earlier he unleashed a barrage of insults against them? What if it means sacrificing free speech on Israel and Palestine?

Eric H. Yoffie
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Trump addresses the Israeli American Council National Summit 2019, Hollywood, Florida, December 7, 2019.
Trump addresses the Israeli American Council National Summit 2019, Hollywood, Florida, December 7, 2019.Credit: AFP
Eric H. Yoffie

It has been a week since Donald Trump issued his executive order on anti-Semitism - and American Jews are still agitated, confused, and divided by Trump’s actions.  

The most polarizing president in U.S. history, who has a bizarre obsession with Jewish Americans, has once again succeeded in sowing chaos in Jewish ranks. Not only is the Jewish right arrayed against the Jewish left, but the left is divided against itself. Jewish leftists, liberals, and centrists are at each other’s throats as they battle it out over what the executive order means, and whether or not it is good for the Jews.

Having reviewed a large chunk of the hundreds of articles, tweets, and emails that have been circulating on the subject, the following are my thoughts on the meaning of the latest Trumpian foray into Jewish affairs. As I see it, there are five major lessons to be learned from the events of the past week.

Most American Jews, initially at least, were cautiously welcoming of the executive order.

The reason for their response, of course, is the growing sense that anti-Semitism is back and the poisonous virus of Jew-hatred is once again seeping into the nooks and crannies of American culture.  

This is a complicated matter, and it is best not to overstate Jewish fears. Most Jews, including those on the college campus, continue to feel comfortable and protected in America. 

A couple embracing by a memorial across the street from the Chabad of Poway synagogue in California, April 29, 2019, following an attack by a white supremacist that killed one Jewish worshipper.
A couple embracing by a memorial across the street from the Chabad of Poway synagogue in California, April 29, 2019, following an attack by a white supremacist that killed one Jewish worshipper.Credit: Gregory Bull / AP

Nonetheless, Jews have been profoundly rattled by the shootings in Pittsburgh, Poway, and Jersey City. Nowhere is this more apparent than in synagogues, which are the center of grassroots Jewish life. Synagogues are supposed to be safe places, but suddenly are not. There are several thousand synagogues in America, and virtually every single one is now debating how much of its budget should be spent on armed guards and other security measures.  

So yes, while anti-Semitism is still a fringe phenomenon in America, the American Jewish community is beginning to wonder if it will stay that way. And Jews, therefore, are skittish and wary. And when their President expresses his concern and offers to do something concrete about the problem, American Jews understandably respond with gratitude.

The positive response faded quickly, overtaken by unease, uncertainty, and concern.  

American Jews were looking for reassurance and not controversy, but controversy is what they got. The executive order turned out to be divisive and confounding, with Jewish leaders taking to the barricades to support or oppose one aspect or another of it. And the communal screaming match served as a sobering reminder for Jewish Americans not only of the complex issues that the order itself raised but of the tyrannical character of the leader who had put it on the table. 

Donald Trump, after all, had spoken to the Israeli-American Council in Florida only a few days before issuing the executive order. And there, he had unleashed a barrage of insults at American Jews that can only be described as unbalanced and deranged. (Jews are "brutal killers" and "not nice people" and mostly care about protecting their wealth from taxation.)  

His audience, incredibly, did not seem to mind; mostly conservative Jewish Republicans, their interest was the Jewish state, and Trump gave them what they wanted, pledging his eternal support for a right-wing Israel. 

But the rest of American Jews were astonished by the cruelty of his comments, the crudeness of his humor, and the contempt for Jews that his remarks conveyed. And then, only four days later, Trump did an about-face, signing the executive order and presenting himself as a champion of Jews and a warrior against anti-Semitism.  

What in heaven’s name were American Jews to make of this bigoted, incompetent, and shallow president, who possesses near-fascistic tendencies, and yet, at times, is seemingly a friend of the Jews?  

* Widely-expressed Jewish fears that the order redefined Jews as a "nationality" rather than a religious group were, alas, an indication both of Jewish insecurities and of Jewish ignorance.  

An early New York Times reporton the order claimed that it would "define Judaism as a nationality, not just a religion." This report set off a wave of panic among a segment of the Jewish intelligentsia, and countless articles and tweets appeared protesting the change. The basic argument was that such a redefinition presented American Jews as "other," minimizing their Americanness. And potentially it could lead to drastic measures such as formalized discrimination.

Trump shows the executive order he signed targeting what his administration says is growing anti-Semitism on U.S. college campuses in the White House, Washington D.C., December 11, 2019
Trump shows the executive order he signed targeting what his administration says is growing anti-Semitism on U.S. college campuses in the White House, Washington D.C., December 11, 2019Credit: Manuel Balce Ceneta,AP

As it turns out, the executive order did not explicitly redefine Jews as a "nationality." Nonetheless, it did mandate that anti-Semitism would be covered by the "national-origin" protections that currently exist in Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. In this way, it suggested that Jews were being seen as an ethnic or national grouping for the purposes of the law.  

This whole question is a technical matter about which experts disagree, and the order engages in more than a little word play and sophistry to meet the requirements of existing civil rights law. Nonetheless, the real issue for American Jews is: If the executive order sees them as an ethnic/national group, what, in a multi-ethnic America, is the problem?  

Some Jews, apparently, require reminding that Jews are not, and have never been, solely a religious group. Judaism is a people-religion, originating at Sinai where the Torah was accepted by the Jewish collective. And throughout most of their history in America, Jews have proudly proclaimed their ethnic character, which includes the customs, rituals, language, history, and shared background that other ethnic groups also possess.  

Why then the sensitivities now? Acknowledging the ethnic character of Jews should never be a problem, and especially so when it is used as a tool against discrimination. And doing so makes Jews no less American than any other American ethnic group, whether Cuban, Irish, or Italian.

* The greatest problem of the executive order, by far, is the threat that it potentially poses to free speech and the First Amendment.

For a federal agency to determine that a university receiving federal funds is permitting discrimination against Jewish students, it must have a working definition of anti-Semitism. One of the most controversial aspects of the new executive order is that it expands the definition of anti-Semitism to include some anti-Israel sentiments.  

On the one hand, the administration has made clear that the policies of Israel’s government may be criticized in the same way that any government’s policies may be criticized. And the order specifically states that in making determinations about anti-Semitism, First Amendment protections are not to be compromised in any way.  

On the other hand, the definition of anti-Semitism used in the order sees delegitimization of the Jewish State as unequivocally anti-Semitic. Many Jews, myself included, accept this definition, but not everyone does. The ACLU, for example, has basically taken the position that any speech criticizing Israel, no matter how offensive to some and whether or not it questions Israel’s existence as a Jewish state, cannot be equated with unlawful discrimination.

Protestors march in support of Students for Justice in Palestine after it was suspended for multiple violations of university policy. Northeastern University, Boston. March 18, 2014
Protestors march in support of Students for Justice in Palestine after it was suspended for multiple violations of university policy. Northeastern University, Boston. March 18, 2014Credit: Stephan Savoia / AP

So where does that leave things? It is impossible to say. Are groups that deny Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state without attacking Jews in any other way guilty of anti-Semitism under this executive order?  It would seem so, although it is not entirely clear, and some cases might fall into a grey area.   

Defenders of the executive order point to its explicit First Amendment guarantees and note that its definition of anti-Semitism is offered solely as a guide to federal agencies. The U.S. Education Department and others are to take the definition into account, but are not bound by it, and in theory can be relied upon to use common sense in its application.

The ADL, the leading champion of the order in the Jewish community, argues that First Amendment concerns are vitally important but have been adequately dealt with by the order’s precise wording.

Yet in addition to radical pro-Palestinian supporters who oppose the order, there are responsible voices that join with the ACLU in worrying that the real intent of the order is not to fight anti-Semitism but to quash any defense of Palestinian rights. And it is interesting that in a recent New York Times article, concerns for free speech were expressed not only by pro-Palestinian voices but by students who are pro-Israel and Jewish.  

* On balance, it is better to have the executive order than not to have it, but free speech advocates, including Jewish leaders, will need to monitor its enforcement carefully.

The executive order is a close call when it comes to First Amendment concerns. As a vulnerable minority, Jews have a special stake in preserving First Amendment liberties. Without doubt, we would breathe much easier if we could be confident that the Trump administration would enforce the executive order with an acute sensitivity to free speech rights.   

Unfortunately, we have a president who lacks a moral core and even a basic understanding of constitutional history. And in Attorney General Barr, we have a once-admired attorney who has become a pro-Trump attack dog, shamelessly brushing aside the law whenever necessary to defend his boss.

And yet. The executive order itself is, in fact, restrained in tone and carefully worded. If properly enforced, my view is that it will meet constitutional muster. And if exploited for improper political purposes, the ACLU has promised immediate court challenges, which I hope would be supported by every Jewish group that values the liberties that America’s founding documents bestow.

The ADL, it should be noted, has a special responsibility here. More than any other group, Jewish or otherwise, it has brought this order into being. But if it ends up promoting Jewish safety at the cost of sacrificing protected political speech, it will be a terrible blow to America and American Jews.

And let us admit: There are risks in supporting the executive order, but in my view, they are risks worth taking. And the reasons are those noted above. Agents of anti-Jewish bigotry have reappeared, in force, on the American scene, infecting American souls and attacking from both the right and the left.  

We need to do something, now, before the ancient smears, slurs, and toxins begin to really make a difference and to change America. Perhaps this executive order will help.

Eric H. Yoffie, a rabbi, writer and teacher in Westfield, New Jersey, is a former president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Twitter: @EricYoffie

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