January 18, 2020

Let’s Talk About Trump’s Executive Order

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

It’s been more than a week since President Donald Trump signed an executive order aimed at combating anti-Semitism on college campuses, citing Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. Among the targets of the order is the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. The ammunition: An ability to withhold funds from campuses that allow the harassment of Jews. The assumption: BDS is anti-Semitic at its core.

Title VI prohibits discrimination on the basis of “race, color or national origin” (religion isn’t mentioned) in programs that receive federal funding. The order calls on government departments enforcing title VI to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism. 

Critics of the order are concerned about how it will affect free speech, i.e., pro-Palestinian advocacy and criticism of Israel’s government policies. Would criticism of Israel qualify as anti-Semitism?

The response to Trump’s order ranged from the ignorant (Jews are not a people), to the confused (the president decided that Jews are a people), to the ridiculous (this feels like the first step toward making Jews wear yellow stars). Some Jews reacted positively (they hope it will be enforced in a fair manner). Some went overboard (the order will go down in history as one of the most important events in the 2,000-year battle against anti-Semitism). But all in all, the president’s attempt to rein in the enemies of Jews was met with skepticism — from Jews. As The New York Times wrote: “Jewish communities viewed Mr. Trump’s order in competing and discordant ways.” 

Why debate the order? The obvious answer is because in the eyes of many Jews (and non-Jews) Trump can do no right. But beyond this fact, four arguments were made against the executive order. 

A. That the order puts all Jews in “Israel’s basket.”
B. That the order stifles a necessary debate about the occupation.
C. That the real problem is the president’s allies on the right.
D. That the act will not help, and perhaps hurt, Jewish students.

These points often overlap and muddle the conversation about the order. Point A concerns how Jews see themselves and how they’re perceived by others. Point D is about tactics — was this the best way to protect Jews? Point B concerns the nature of the BDS movement. Point C is about having the right priorities. 

These points ought to be discussed separately and calmly, and without reference to Trump’s other qualities (except when this is relevant, mostly for point D, where the identity of the man signing the order might have ramifications for the preferred tactics). 

Having such a passionate discussion isn’t easy. Covering it in a limited space is almost impossible. But let’s begin with a simple suggestion: Let’s first acknowledge the possibility that the president’s aim was to help, not hurt, Jewish Americans. It was, as defined by his senior adviser (and son-in-law) Jared Kushner, to make sure that “to the extent that Jews are discriminated against for ethnic, racial or national characteristics, they are entitled to protection by the anti-discrimination law.”

Let’s first acknowledge the possibility that the president’s aim was to help, not hurt, Jewish Americans. 

Can we go as far as to accept such an assumption? If we can agree on that, we’ll be in a much better position to dispassionately debate whether the order could help Jews. Would it? On the one hand, it put college campuses on notice (if they fail to protect Jews from harassment, the schools  might suffer financial consequences). On the other hand, it further angers BDS supporters and provides them with rhetorical ammunition (if you support Trump, we know who you are). On the one hand, it acknowledges the connection of Jews with Israel (the ethnicity factor). On the other hand, it calls the spade (BDS) a spade. 

It’s difficult to foresee the exact impact of the order on the state of the Jews in general and on the atmosphere in college campuses in particular. This depends on the way the order is interpreted and implemented in the real world beyond celebratory ceremonies in Washington. Some critics say this could stifle a free debate about Israel. Would it hurt your feelings if my instinctive response to such suggestion is “I really wish it would?”

Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, visit Rosner’s Domain.