Trump Signs anti-Semitism Executive Order as Hanukkah Comes Early at White House

Move will penalize colleges that allow anti-Semitism on campus, with the definition including certain types of criticism of Israel that some see as potentially curtailing free speech

Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon
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U.S. President Donald Trump holding up the executive order on anti-Semitism that he signed during a Hanukkah reception in the White House, Washington, December 11, 2019.
U.S. President Donald Trump holding up the executive order on anti-Semitism that he signed during a Hanukkah reception in the White House, Washington, December 11, 2019.Credit: TOM BRENNER/ REUTERS
Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon

WASHINGTON — U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive order on Wednesday that allows colleges to be penalized for allowing anti-Semitism on campus. The move has drawn mixed reactions from the Jewish community since being leaked earlier this week.

Trump turned the signing ceremony into part of the White House’s official celebrations for Hanukkah, which included a reception for his supporters in the Jewish community.

Trump signed the executive order flanked by two of his family members: daughter Ivanka Trump and her husband Jared Kushner, who are both Jewish and senior advisers in the U.S. administration. Trump also invited members of Congress who were present at the reception to the stage, including Jewish Democratic representatives Max Rose (New York) and Elaine Luria (Virginia).

“Across our country, Jewish Americans strengthen, sustain and inspire our nation,” Trump said. “As president, I will always celebrate and honor the Jewish people, and I will always stand with our treasured friend and ally, the State of Israel.”

Trump was speaking at the same time as Israel’s Knesset was dissolving itself and the country was heading toward an unprecedented third election in less than a year. Trump did not mention Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but he did acknowledge Israel’s ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer, who was in attendance.

Netanyahu later released a statement in which he thanked the American president: "Thank you, President Trump, for your executive order against discrimination of the Jewish people."

"Free speech is not carte blanche for the anti-Semitic attacks on the Jewish people and the State of Israel," he added.

Robert Kraft speaking during a Hanukkah reception in the White House hosted by President Donald Trump, December 11, 2019.Credit: Manuel Balce Ceneta,AP

Some controversial figures gathered around Trump on the stage, including billionaire Robert Kraft, who was charged last February with two counts of soliciting prostitution, and evangelical pastor Robert Jeffress, who once said that Jews will go to hell for their religion. Last year, Jeffress was invited by Trump’s ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, to appear at the ceremony that marked the opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem. Trump personally invited him to speak at Wednesday’s Hanukkah gathering.

Wine and kosher food were served at the reception, but the main course for attendees was Trump’s signing of the executive order.

“This action makes clear that Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits the federal funding from universities and other institutions that engage in discrimination, applies to institutions that traffic in anti-Semitic hate,” Trump said. “So this is a very powerful document that we’re signing today.”

He continued: “I have to tell you, Jared Kushner and Ivanka, they’ve been talking to me about this for three years now — maybe longer than that. But I go back about three years [to] where it’s something that I could do about it, you know. In this position, we can do things about it.”

Trump used parts of his speech to remind the audience of his decisions to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights and quit the Iran nuclear deal.

Officials in the Trump administration had expected some backlash to the executive order, which was first reported Tuesday, but the scope and content of the criticism surprised and frustrated the White House.

The main source of the administration’s irritation was how the story was originally presented in news reports as an executive order that would define American Jews as a “nationality.” This led to angry reactions from Jewish lawmakers, commentators and activists, with some even comparing it to how authoritarian regimes had treated their Jewish citizens.

The White House had refused media requests to release the exact text of the order, making it impossible to refute those criticisms until Wednesday morning, when a draft of the order was published by Jacob Kornbluh in Jewish Insider.

White House senior advisers Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner standing behind U.S. President Donald Trump as he speaks during the Hanukkah reception in the White House, Washington, December 11, 2019. Credit: TOM BRENNER/ REUTERS

Also, Kushner himself penned an op-ed in the New York Times on Wednesday, explaining that Trump’s executive order was aimed at defending American-Jewish students.

The full text removed the confusion, making clear that Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — which prohibits discrimination based on race, color and national origin — will now also be applied to anti-Semitism.

Title VI does not include discrimination based on religion, but the U.S. Department of Education had already decided in 2010 that anti-Semitism and other forms of racism against religious groups should be considered part of it. Trump’s executive order built on that prior decision. It says: “It shall be the policy of the executive branch to enforce Title VI against prohibited forms of discrimination rooted in anti-Semitism as vigorously as against all other forms of discrimination prohibited by Title VI.”

The executive order also says that when enforcing Title VI with regards to anti-Semitism, U.S. government agencies should “consider” the definition of anti-Semitism published in 2016 by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. This definition has been adopted by the Israeli government and other governments around the world.

The executive order quotes from this definition, which states that “Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”

More controversially, the executive order adds that U.S. government agencies should also consider the “contemporary Examples of Anti-Semitism” identified by the IHRA, “to the extent that any examples might be useful as evidence of discriminatory intent.”

This is the most sensitive part of the executive order. The IHRA definition includes several examples of anti-Semitism — some are “classic” anti-Semitism, but others include certain types of criticism of Israel, such as comparing actions by Israel to those of Nazi Germany, or “applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.”

These specific examples do not appear in the executive order, but by referring government agencies to the IHRA’s examples, the administration makes it possible to potentially accuse an academic institution of tolerating anti-Semitism for such examples.

The executive order received a mixed response in the Jewish community. Aside from the early and misguided criticism of the “nationality” issue, Jewish groups were also split over the actual contents of the order.

Organizations such as the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League and the Republican Jewish Coalition have expressed strong support for it; groups such as J Street and the New Israel Fund have expressed strong opposition, mainly over concerns about harming free speech and conflating political criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism.

The executive order is largely based on a piece of legislation called the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act, which has not been passed by Congress but has won the support of many prominent Democratic lawmakers in recent years. Some of those same lawmakers expressed support for the executive order on Wednesday, including Senator Jacky Rosen (Nevada), who is Jewish and used to be president of a Reform synagogue in her home state.

“I have long-supported adoption of the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, which was included in today’s Executive Order on anti-Semitism in education,” Rosen tweeted. “It’s why I’m a co-sponsor of the bipartisan Anti-Semitism Awareness Act. We must continue to work to stop hate before it starts.”

Jewish Democratic Council of America Executive Director Halie Soifer called the new executive order “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 “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.”

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 executive order, 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.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which also opposed the congressional legislation on the matter, stated Wednesday: “Anti-Semitism is a real and present problem. Anti-Semitic harassment has no place in any educational institution, and is already prohibited under Title VI as interpreted by the Department of Education. People of all faiths must be protected against harassment and discrimination,” the organization said.

“But the government cannot equate speech criticizing Israel with unlawful discrimination. If the order were interpreted to do that, it would be unconstitutional. Speech criticizing the Israeli government, or any government, is political speech protected under the First Amendment, and cannot be suppressed. Agencies are permitted to consider such speech as evidence of discriminatory intent — but not to prohibit it. The ACLU has long defended the freedom of speech — if the administration attempts to undermine that freedom using this order, we will see it in court.”

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