NEW YORK – A controversy over U.S. President Donald Trump’s latest executive order has pitted those who believe it will make Jews on college campuses feel safer against those who argue it is only meant to silence criticism of Israel’s policies.
The order, which Trump signed Wednesday, lets federal funding be withheld from colleges if they allow anti-Semitism on campus. The administration’s definition of anti-Semitism includes “the targeting of the state of Israel.”
“The fact that until today, Jews, one of the historically most vulnerable groups in society, weren’t legally protected is absurd,” Ofir Dayan, the president of Students Supporting Israel at Columbia University, told Haaretz. “Finally, students on college campuses are given the protection and tools needed to stand up to discrimination and harassment.”
Her view is backed by statements by some Jewish pro-Israel groups that hope to see a change on university campuses. Dayan said that while the direct effect of the order is probably limited to “campuses that rely heavily on federal funding,” the step still matters at a declaratory level.
This is exactly what pro-Palestinian activists are concerned about.
As Dima Khalidi, the director of Chicago-based Palestine Legal, put it, “This is a cynical ploy by the Trump administration, exploiting genuine concern about rising anti-Semitism to censor advocates for Palestinian rights.” Her organization aims to protect the rights of people who speak out for the Palestinian cause.
“The definition’s track record, coupled with the Trump administration’s anti-Semitic statements and embrace of white supremacist rhetoric, make it clear that this executive order is not intended to combat anti-Semitism, but instead is a tool to chill and punish the growing movement for Palestinian freedom,” she said.
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Khalidi believes that the order an extension of the administration’s Middle East policy and aims to “intimidate and punish Palestinians and their allies in the U.S.” Palestine Legal has urged activists not to self-censor, arguing that this “unilateral” executive order is unconstitutional and will not stand up to a legal challenge. But some pro-Palestinian student activists – Jews and non-Jews alike – are worried their actions will be restricted.
“Of course there will be a chilling effect,” said Prof. Sarah Schulman, who teaches at the College of Staten Island and is a member of Jewish Voice for Peace, a group that supports a boycott of Israel and is considered far-left politically.
“These kinds of repressive measures are designed to confuse and frighten people away from supporting the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement,” she said.
Hasan Abdel-Nabi, a sophomore at Tufts University and a member of Students for Justice in Palestine, said the executive order is an attempt “to silence student voices who support Palestinian rights by falsely claiming to fight anti-Semitism. It’s very clear that it will not make my Jewish friends safer, and in fact endangers all of us.”
Sophie Hurwitz, an undergraduate at Wellesley College and a member of Students for Justice in Palestine, believes the order “hurts both the American Jewish community and the Palestinian community. This does not fight anti-Semitism and this doesn’t make any of us safer.”
Citing the presence of far-right figure John Hagee at the signing ceremony, she said “Donald Trump’s government is prioritizing the interests of the right-wingers in power in Israel over the safety of Jews in his own country. Donald Trump is interested in using Jews as a political tool, not in protecting us as people.”
Rebecca Lewis, a Jewish Voice for Peace activist at George Washington University, said the order demonizes Jewish pro-Palestinian activists, who “are considered ‘fake Jews,’ or we are ‘not Jewish enough,’ or we are called anti-Semites and we have to constantly justify our existence as Jews.”
Nerdeen Kiswani, a Palestinian American law student at the City University of New York and an organizer for Students for Justice in Palestine, said Trump’s move “has only placed the nail in the coffin of long-standing repression against the Palestinian movement in the U.S. and abroad. Organizers for Palestine have been facing this sort of backlash and unfounded accusations of anti-Semitism for years.”
For example, she noted that New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, “threatened to cut $500 million in funding from CUNY … due to allegations from a Zionist organization that claimed CUNY SJP chapters were anti-Semitic. CUNY disrupted our organizing for months in order to investigate these claims and after doing so concluded that SJP chapters in fact were not anti-Semitic. “
“This order is not a substantial departure from the trajectory of the entire political system in the U.S., continuously going through mental gymnastics to prevent Palestinians from organizing for liberation and self-determination,” she said, adding: “However, boycotts and criticism are the purest form of free speech.”
Lewis and other activists took part in a Counter-Hannukah Party on Wednesday outside the White House after Trump signed the executive order. “We need to be bringing the conversation to lawmakers, to the people who have the power and the ability to rescind this executive order,” she said. “We can’t just sit idly by.”
Yasmin Zaher reported from Tel Aviv.