WASHINGTON — President Trump’s executive order on anti-Semitism drew mixed reactions from the Jewish community on Tuesday, hours after the White House briefed news reporters about the president’s intention to sign the text on Wednesday. One Jewish Democratic Senator responded with the Yiddish words “oy gevalt,” and left-wing Jewish groups denounced the executive order as a political attempt to limit free speech; The Republican Jewish Coalition, meanwhile, praised it.
Trump’s executive order will state that title VI of the Civil Rights Act includes anti-Semitism, based on the notion that being Jewish is a nationality, not only a religion; in addition, the executive order will refer federal agencies to “consider” a definition of anti-Semitism that was adopted in 2016 by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, which includes certain criticisms of the state of Israel as examples of anti-Semitism.
The executive order is based on a bill that was previously promoted in Congress by both Democratic and Republican lawmakers, and which was criticized at the time by the American Civil Liberties Union for harming and limiting free speech in America. The main impact of the executive order will be on universities and colleges that receive federal grants, and which could be targeted by the Department of Education over activism related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, an organization devoted to protecting freedom of speech on college campuses, released a statement on Tuesday night against the president's intended executive action, warning that it would harm First Amendment rights.
"The apparent rise in campus anti-Semitism is a real problem. But however well-intentioned, if the President’s Executive Order does in fact rely on [the IHRA] definition, it will impermissibly threaten the expressive rights of students and faculty at institutions across the country," the organization warned.
Trump will sign the executive order hours before hosting a pre-Hanukah reception for his supporters in the Jewish community.
Senator Brian Schatz, Democrat of Hawaii, wrote in reply to news of the executive order: “Hey Republican politicians: Please let Jews speak for themselves. Thanks so much.” He added that “We Jews like to argue. About Israel even. Actually, ESPECIALLY about Israel. So the idea that a college campus would have its views on Israel regulated by the federal Department of Education? Oy Gevalt.”
Halie Soifer, executive director of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, said in reply: “This is the height of hypocrisy. If Trump wanted to address the scourge of anti-Semitism he helped to create, he'd accept responsibility for his role emboldening white nationalism, perpetuating conspiracy theories and repeating stereotypes that have led to violence targeting Jews.” She added that “President Trump is more interested in symbolic gestures that politicize Israel and use Jews as political pawns than actually doing something meaningful to ensure our security and that of Israel. The timing of this signing reveals this is a PR stunt, plain and simple.”
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A written statement by J Street also denounced the executive order. “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,” the left-wing Jewish group explained.
The statement further noted that “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.”
The organization also stated that “It is particularly outrageous and absurd for President Trump to pretend to care about anti-Semitism during the same week in which he once again publicly spouted anti-Semitic tropes about Jews and money. The same right-wing groups who turn a blind eye to the president’s hateful rhetoric have promoted this executive order as part of a cynical push to turn the issue of anti-Semitism into a partisan political weapon, instead of seriously combating it in all its forms.”
The Republican Jewish Coalition praised Trump for his intention to sign the executive order, describing it as “a truly historic and important moment for Jewish Americans.” The organization added in a statement that “President Trump has extended to Jewish students very strong, meaningful legal protection from anti-Semitic discrimination.”
The RJC also announced that Trump had already been “the most pro-Israel president ever,” and is now also “the most pro-Jewish president ever.”
Matt Brooks, the organization’s executive director, wrote that “It will be fascinating to watch how all those in the Jewish community who have been calling the President an anti-Semite try and explain this historic action and how this will be bad for the Jews.”