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Trump Order to Curb Antisemitism Redefines Judaism as a Race—and Thwarts Legitimate Criticism of Israeli anti-Palestinian Actions

posted on: Dec 18, 2019

American students protesting Israeli occupation would be defined as anti-Semitism and thus an act illegal under Department of Education-funded Title 6 programs (photo,

By John Mason/Arab America Contributing Writer 

President Trump’s “Executive Order on Combating Antisemitism,” released on December 11, equates antisemitism with criticism of Israel. While not explicit, the order implies that criticizing Israeli mistreatment of Palestinians would be considered anti-Semitic. Trump preempted Congress by taking its version of a yet-to-be passed antisemitism bill, suppressing the complex issues of free speech and identity based on religion, nationality, ethnicity, and race.

A U.S. Department of Education initiative under American evangelical Secretary DeVos had already begun prior to the order to call university Middle East studies programs on the carpet for any criticism of Israel.

Trump Order Aimed at Censoring University Middle East Studies Programs

Trump anti-Semitism executive order signing ceremony, with son-in-law Jared Kushner, an orthodox Jew (center) who spearheaded the initiative (photo,

Henceforth, colleges will have to monitor discrimination that targets Jewish people. His threat is very clear, according to ABC News, saying, “This is our message to universities: If you want to accept the tremendous amount of federal dollars that you get every year, you must reject anti-Semitism.”

The definition, posted on the State Department’s website, cites examples of discrimination that “include criticism of Israel, such as claiming the state of Israel’s existence is a ‘racist endeavor.’” This might include speech that is pro-Palestinian, though the Administration avows that enforcement of the order must comply with the 1st amendment of free speech. Trump almost gleefully signed the order, despite the fact that he himself has contributed to anti-Semitic rhetoric.

One of the effects of the executive order is to define the Jewish people as a nationality for civil rights purposes. According to the Washington Post, “Defining Jewish people as an ethnic group and not just a religious one allows the government to consider discrimination against the group as a violation of a key civil rights law.

That means schools could lose federal funding if they fail to combat discrimination against Jewish students.” This raises fundamental questions on whether Jewishness is principally a religion or race or ethnic group and opens the door to whether strong anti-Israel sentiments on college campuses is equivalent to Antisemitism.

The original 1964 Department of Education Title 6 of the Civil Rights Act bars discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin by recipients of federal funds. This law does not include religious discrimination, which is why Jews have to be defined by the executive order as a national group.

Only then can the Education department have jurisdiction over reported acts of Antisemitism. As the Post noted, “Trump’s executive order will also use this sweeping definition, which some have criticized as overly broad and an effort to block legitimate criticism of Israel or support for the Palestinians.” In effect, the Trump administration is taking the side of students who find any inkling of anti-Israel bias.

Opposition to Trump’s Order

Such study centers as this at the U. of North Carolina are under attack for so-called anti-Semitism by Department of Education Title 6 of the Civil Rights Act (photo UNC)

One of the first criticisms of the executive order came from left-leaning Jewish organizations. Registering his critique of the order, Ben Ami, head of one such lobby, J Street, noted that the order would not directly address antisemitism.

Further, reported by the Washington Post, “This executive order, like the stalled congressional legislation it is based on, appears designed less to combat antisemitism than to have a chilling effect on free speech and to crack down on campus critics of Israel.”

A Jewish advocacy group focused on ending Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, IfNotNow protested the Trump order. The political director of IfNotNow, Emily Mayer told the Post, “The order’s move to define Judaism as a ‘nationality’ promotes the classically bigoted idea that American Jews are not American.”

A middle road view is held by Rabbi Deborah Waxman, president of the liberal Reconstructionist Movement of Judaism. She is concerned about rising levels of antisemitism in the U.S. but is also worried about free speech and, according to the Post, “especially the idea of the U.S. government defining Jewishness – or any other faith identity. If Jews are so categorized, what might it mean at some future moment? Could it be turned against us?”

Palestinians have also been critical of the order in light of the order’s purpose to curtail voices in support of Palestine. The New York Times noted that “Mr. Trump’s order is part of his sustained campaign to silence Palestinians rights activism by the Israeli treatment of Palestinians with antisemitism.”

Another opponent of the order is the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The ACLU noted in a letter to Congress, quoted in The Times, “It cannot and must not be that our civil rights laws are used in such a way to penalize political advocacy on the basis of viewpoint.”

Secretary DeVos’ Department of Education Orders Duke and University of North Carolina Middle East Studies Program to ‘Tone it Down’

Secretary of Education DeVos has equated anti-Semitism with bias against Israel–her motivation is rooted in her American evangelical roots (photo,

Even before Trump’s issuance of his Executive Order, The U. S. Education Department, under Title 6 of the Civil Rights Act, ordered a joint Middle East studies at Duke and UNC to make their programs less biased. The Department, per The Times, had concluded that this program “was offering students a biased curriculum that, among other complaints, did not present enough ‘positive’ imagery of Judaism and Christianity in the region.” Furthermore, the charge criticized the Duke-UNC’s focus on “the region’s Muslim population at the expense of its religious minorities.”

One interpretation of the executive order is that it is designed to promote a pro-Israel point of view in Middle East studies programs. Zoha Khalili of Palestine Legal noted to The Times that through the order, “They really want to send the message that if you want to criticize Israel, then the federal government is going to look very closely at your entire program and micromanage it to death.” The Department’s initiative, Khalili added, “sends a message to Middle Eastern studies programs that their continued existence depends on their willingness to toe the government line on Israel.”

Secretary DeVos’ initiative to bring Middle Eastern studies programs under fire is becoming more aggressive. This seems to be politically motivated to promote an Israeli-slanted bias versus a pro-Palestinian stance. That Ms. DeVos is an evangelical Christian complicates this initiative even more, given American evangelical pro-Israeli/anti-Palestinian bias.



“Trump signs an executive order aimed at combating anti-Semitism on college campuses,” ABC News, 12/11/19

“Trump’s expected executive order on campus anti-Semitism draws praise and concern,” Washington Post, 12/11/19

“Trump Targets Anti-Semitism and Israeli Boycotts on College Campuses,” New York Times, 12/10/19

“U.S. Orders Duke and U.N.C. to Recast Tone in Mideast Studies,” New York Times, 9/19/19


John Mason, who focuses on Arab culture, society, and history, is the author of LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle East, New Academia Publishing, 2017. He has taught at the University of Libya, Benghazi and the American University in Cairo, served on the United Nations staff in Tripoli, Libya, and consulted extensively with USAID and the World Bank in 65 countries on socioeconomic and political development.


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