The executive order, like many of Trump’s policy moves related to Israel, drew approval from parts of his evangelical Christian base, while Jewish leaders were divided in their responses.
By Julie Zauzmer and Susan Svrluga | The Washington Post | Dec 11, 2019
The executive order ‘has been crafted carefully in a way to paper over the inherent flaw in directing federal agencies to use a definition of anti-Semitism that reaches speech plainly protected by the First Amendment.’ — Will Creeley, a senior vice president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education
President Trump added new fuel Wednesday to a long-simmering fight about how colleges should handle activism around the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, signing a controversial executive order directing the federal government to penalize universities that allow anti-Semitism on campus.
Jewish Americans, from rabbis to college students, were deeply divided in their opinion of an order ostensibly meant to protect Jews. Advocates for Palestinian rights and for free speech on college campuses feared that the order might be used to punish students for criticism of Israel that they contend is political, not anti-Semitic.
The State Department standard . . . conflates criticism of Israeli policies with anti-Jewish hatred, shutting down debate by suggesting that anyone who looks critically at Israeli policy is somehow beyond the pale. It has no place on college campuses in particular, where we need students to engage in a vigorous exchange of ideas.
Since Donald Trump’s election, a wave of hate attacks have targeted Jews, Muslims and other vulnerable groups.
What’s the government doing about it? Nothing.
But the U.S. Senate did pass a bill last week called the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act, which cracks down on the constitutional rights of college students and faculty to criticize Israel. The House will vote on it any day now.
The Anti-Semitism Awareness Act endorses the State Department definition of anti-Semitism, which includes “delegitimizing” Israel, “demonizing” Israel or holding Israel to a “double standard.” The bill directs the Department of Education to consider this definition when investigating complaints of anti-Semitism on campus. But the bill does not add any new protections for Jewish students; the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Department of Education’s interpretation of the statute, already protects Jewish students against discrimination.
“Before Congress imposed its discredited redefinition of anti-Semitism on the DOE [Department of Education], civil rights investigators consistently found that actions critical of Israel — like mock military checkpoints, or teach-ins on Gaza — are the kind of free-speech expression to be expected on a college campus and are not anti-Jewish harassment. After this legislation, it could go the other way.”
After pro-Palestinian student activists set up mock West Bank checkpoints on the campus of the University of California, Berkeley, in 2012, Jewish groups filed a civil rights complaint with the federal government.
Jewish organizations charged that the mock checkpoints, meant as a protest against the Israeli government, combined with other incidents to create a hostile environment for Jewish students.
The federal Department of Education dismissed the complaint, saying that the protest was an instance of free expression.
Now, a new bill speeding through Congress could change the way the Department of Education reviews such complaints. If it succeeds, critics say, the federal government could determine that protests like the mock checkpoint constitutes civil rights violations.
The bill “opens the door to considering anti-Israel political statements and activities as possible grounds for civil rights investigations,” said Michael Macleod-Ball, chief of staff of the American Civil Liberties Union’s legislative office in Washington. “Whether you agree with the BDS movement or not, aligning oneself with it and even participating in the effort should not subject someone to a civil rights investigation.”