'Harassment Is Not Free Speech': Trump's anti-Semitism Czar Rejects Criticism Over Executive Order

'Every time you try to label something anti-Semitic, the people who traffic in anti-Semitism yell about free speech and censorship,' Elan Carr says in Tel Aviv

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Elan Carr speaking at the NGO Monitor conference on 'the Future of Human Rights in an Era of Increased Antisemitism,' Tel Aviv, December 18, 2019.
Elan Carr speaking at the NGO Monitor conference on 'the Future of Human Rights in an Era of Increased Antisemitism,' Tel Aviv, December 18, 2019. Credit: Yelena Kvetny

Donald Trump’s anti-Semitism czar defended the White House executive order aimed at protecting Jewish students at U.S. universities, saying the administration was “not going to allow American college campuses to turn into cesspools of discrimination against the Jewish people.”

Elan Carr, speaking to Haaretz in Tel Aviv on Wednesday, added that The New York Times was “dead wrong” in its reporting on the landmark order; he called the newspaper’s coverage an “attack” on the president.

The Times and other major U.S. media outlets were briefed on the executive order ahead of its announcement. The Times said the order would “effectively interpret Judaism as a race or nationality, not just a religion,” sparking a firestorm in the Jewish community.

Carr said the initial reporting on the order, which allows the punishing of universities tolerating anti-Semitism by withholding federal funds, reflected “a consistent bias against the administration. Here you had a president of the United States who is taking bold action to protect Jewish students on U.S. college campuses, in a context where there is virtually universal acknowledgement that Jewish students are under siege on many campuses. And he was attacked.”

The decision to extend to anti-Semitism Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which withholds federal funding from universities and other institutions that engage in discrimination, sent a firm message, Carr said. In February, Carr, then a deputy district attorney for Los Angeles County, was appointed special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism.

Carr said the order was part of what he considered a landmark week in the fight against anti-Semitism, beginning with what he called Trump’s “breathtaking” and “incredibly moving” address to the Israeli American Council on December 8 at its Florida summit.

Carr called the speech “the most philo-Semitic speech ever delivered by a U.S. president.” He said the address was then capped by the executive order that both applies civil rights protection “to Jewish students that face discrimination and harassment” and formally adopts the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition “as the standard definition to determine whether or not something is anti-Semitism.”

The executive order was “deeply significant,” he said, in that it clarified the U.S. government’s view that “denying the Jewish people self-determination is an example of anti-Semitism, targeting Israel as a Jewish collective is an example of anti-Semitism, comparing Israel to the Nazis is an example of anti-Semitism, and applying a double standard to the Jewish state is anti-Semitism.”

The free speech issue

Carr pushed back at critics who said that the decision would have a chilling effect on free speech on campus, and that the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance's equating of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism would make it difficult to criticize Israel or advocate for Palestinian rights at universities.

“This president takes a back seat to no other when it comes to free speech, including on campuses .... This administration is on the record as being behind free expression of protected speech including things with which we disagree. This has nothing to do with free speech,” he said.

“Harassment and intimidation is not protected speech. All the executive order says is that the same kind of racism that is prohibited as a civil rights violation when applied to blacks and Hispanics is equally a civil rights violation when it’s applied to Jews. You can’t be racist against Jews any more than you can be racist against Hispanic Americans or black Americans. That’s all this order does. It’s a no-brainer. It has nothing to do with free speech. It has everything to do with harassment and intimidation.”

Carr complained that “every time you try to label something anti-Semitic, the people who traffic in anti-Semitism yell about free speech and censorship. Who said anything about censorship? Surely it can’t be that the only people who have free speech are the anti-Semites. You also need free speech to call it anti-Semitism. The moment you call something anti-Semitism you are violating someone’s free speech? This is utter nonsense.

“Nobody is talking about censorship. But you have to be able to call it what it is, and so to adopt a definition of what anti-Semitism is is not a violation of free speech. Nobody is saying that certain kinds of anti-Semitism that are nonviolent don’t fall under the protections of the First Amendment. The Supreme Court ruled that the neo-Nazis could march in Skokie, Illinois. But does that mean we can’t call it anti-Semitism because they have a right to march? This is nonsense. Of course it’s anti-Semitism.”

The wealth tax issue

The attitude of colleges and universities to anti-Semitism on their campuses will be judged in a case-by-case basis, Carr said.

Universities will be judged on whether they are “negligent” in failing to anticipate danger and putting protection in place that could have prevented it, or do not ensure that there will be consequences, he said.

“The question will be whether the university is creating an environment that allows a culture of anti-Semitic discrimination, harassment and intimidation,” Carr said. “If the answer is yes, they will risk losing their federal money.”

He defended Trump against criticism of the Israeli American Council speech in which Trump said that some Jews were insufficiently loyal to Israel and that the IAC audience would have “no choice” but to vote for him in 2020 over a candidate like Democrat Elizabeth Warren. Trump said that, after all, “you’re not gonna vote for the wealth tax,” and described some of the IAC members “in the real estate business” as “brutal killers, not nice people at all.” Jewish groups said Trump’s language evoked anti-Semitic tropes and stereotypes.

“The president knew this audience very well. He is a close personal friend with Sheldon Adelson … and the board of the IAC has prominent real estate developers which he himself is, so there was a comfort level, a familiarity, he’s friends with them,” Carr said. Using language that his friends understood, “he was complimenting them and their business acumen,” Carr said.

Carr arrived in Tel Aviv for NGO Monitor’s annual conference after visiting the sites of the Jersey City shooting and the vandalized Nessah Synagogue in Los Angeles. He said that in both venues, he discussed the availability of funds through the Department of Homeland Security “for the protection of Jewish community assets and the fact that the federal government is encouraging states to appropriate their own money to supplement these funds.”

He rejected the suggestion that in the Trump era, anti-Semitism has become a political weapon exacerbating political divisions instead of uniting those fighting it. He said “there are always moments of fissures that appear, but the fight against anti-Semitism enjoys broad and deep bipartisan support. And I’m particularly grateful for that.”

He called himself “an equal opportunity condemner. I condemn the ethnic supremacists of the far right, of the Israel-haters on the left, and of the militant Islamists. We don’t rank or prefer flavors of anti-Semitism. Jew-hatred is Jew-hatred. We will fight all of it.”

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