Protecting Jews against anti-Semitism at educational institutions receiving federal funding has been an objective of both Democratic and Republican administrations. So why has President Donald Trump’s executive order extending Civil Rights Act protections to Jewish students elicited such strong reactions, both in support and in opposition? Because we live in an emotional, hyper-politicized world that often overlooks broader historical context.
Title VI was enacted as part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based on race, ethnicity or national origin in educational programs and activities receiving federal financial assistance. The Department’s Office for Civil Rights requires all federal agencies providing financial support to enforce Title VI. Title VI originally did not include religious groups, so the new executive order clarifies that “individuals who face discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin do not lose protection under Title VI for also being a member of a group that shares common religious practices.”
This “group” protection based on “common religious practices” is a bipartisan idea. Under the Barack Obama administration, a 2010 letter from the assistant secretary of education for civil rights clarified that, “While Title VI does not cover discrimination based solely on religion, 14 groups that face discrimination on the basis of actual or perceived shared ancestry or ethnic characteristics may not be denied protection under Title VI on the ground that they also share a common faith.”
Despite the George W. Bush and Obama administrations’ efforts on this front, they were unable to secure the protection of Jews facing discrimination and a hostile environment on campus. But how is a hostile environment for Jews even possible? Jews tend to be viewed on campus through a prism of ethnicity, privilege and power. Jews are usually (and incorrectly) perceived as being ethnically white, part of a privileged class with socioeconomic status and, therefore, having power and the ability to influence. In this equation, Jews are seen as part of the white majority.
There also is a lack of understanding of how Jews are treated on campus, particularly if they express views about Zionism and the Jewish homeland.
The president’s executive order is not an attempt to redefine Judaism or American Jews’ identities.
Increasingly, simply being Jewish is enough for Jews to feel insecure on campus. An example of this occurred at the University of Toronto when there was an active campaign against allowing Jewish students to have access to kosher food.
I have spent the last two decades working on college campuses. What began as criticism of Israeli policies has morphed on some campuses into an openly hostile environment for Jewish students, especially those who identify with Zionism.
Too many university administrations have been unwilling to display moral courage and stand up against the pressures of outside organizations, Arab governmental funding, radical Islamist positions espoused by university-sponsored student groups, and faculty who abuse academic freedom and disregard academic responsibility. If universities want to accept financial assistance from the federal government to cultivate and enhance area studies such as Middle Eastern studies, the agenda must be for the pursuit of scholarly inquiry and critical thinking about the history, politics, cultures and people of the region, including the nation-state of Israel. It cannot be a political agenda that demonizes and seeks the destruction of only one country.
The president’s executive order is not an attempt to redefine Judaism or American Jews’ communal or individual identities. However, it recognizes Jews are both a religion and a people.
How do American Jews and non-Jews find common ground and recognize this hatred of Jews for their religious ideas and practices, their identity as a people, and their national homeland is a direct assault against our democratic society? It is our job to hold one another accountable, to feel empathy and compassion, and to fortify a community that seeks justice and protection for all, regardless of partisanship.
Rachel Fish is the executive director of the Foundation to Combat Anti-Semitism.