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Trump to sign order targeting anti-semitism on college campuses

The order will effectively interpret Judaism as a race or nationality, not just a religion, to prompt a federal law penalizing colleges and universities deemed to be shirking their responsibility to foster an open climate for minority students.

By: New York Times | Washington | Published: December 11, 2019 8:59:55 am
Trump to sign order targeting anti-semitism on college campuses President Donald Trump speaks at the Israeli American Council National Summit in Hollywood. (T.J. Kirkpatrick/The New York Times)

Written by Peter Baker and Maggie Haberman

President Donald Trump plans to sign an executive order Wednesday targeting what he sees as anti-Semitism on college campuses by threatening to withhold federal money from educational institutions that fail to combat discrimination, three administration officials said Tuesday.

The order will effectively interpret Judaism as a race or nationality, not just a religion, to prompt a federal law penalizing colleges and universities deemed to be shirking their responsibility to foster an open climate for minority students. In recent years, the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel has roiled some campuses, leaving some Jewish students feeling unwelcome or attacked.

In signing the order, Trump will use his executive power to take action where Congress has not, essentially replicating bipartisan legislation that has stalled on Capitol Hill for several years. Prominent Democrats have joined Republicans in promoting such a policy change to combat anti-Semitism as well as the boycott-Israel movement.

But critics complained that such a policy could be used to stifle free speech and legitimate opposition to Israel’s policies toward Palestinians in the name of fighting anti-Semitism. The definition of anti-Semitism to be used in the order matches the one used by the State Department and by dozens of other nations, but it has been criticized as too open-ended and sweeping.

For instance, it describes as anti-Semitic “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination,” and offers as an example of such behavior “claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.”

Yousef Munayyer, the executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights, said Trump was trying “to silence Palestinian rights activism” by equating opposition to Israeli treatment of Palestinians with anti-Semitism.

“Israeli apartheid is a very hard product to sell in America, especially in progressive spaces,” Munayyer said, “and realizing this, many Israeli apartheid apologists, Trump included, are looking to silence a debate they know they can’t win.”

Administration officials, who insisted on anonymity to discuss the order before its official announcement, said it was not intended to squelch free speech. The White House worked in tandem with some Democrats and activist groups that have been critical of the president to build support for the move.

Among those welcoming the move Tuesday was Jonathan Greenblatt, the chief executive of the Anti-Defamation League, who said the group recorded its third-highest level of anti-Semitic episodes in the United States last year.

“Of course we hope it will be enforced in a fair manner,” he said. “But the fact of the matter is we see Jewish students on college campuses and Jewish people all over being marginalized. The rise of anti-Semitic incidents is not theoretical; it’s empirical.”

David Krone, a former chief of staff to Harry Reid of Nevada when he was Senate Democratic leader, has lobbied for years for such a policy change and praised Trump for taking action.

“I know people are going to criticize me for saying this,” Krone said, “but I have to give credit where credit is due.”

Reid helped push for legislation similar to the order called the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act of 2016. It passed the Senate in December 2016 unanimously but died in the House as that Congress ended. It has been reintroduced by Democrats and Republicans but has lingered.

Krone continued to work on the issue after Reid retired and reached out through a mutual friend last summer to Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser. The Jewish grandson of Holocaust survivors, Kushner embraced the idea, which also had been explored over the past year by the president’s domestic policy aides. With Kushner’s support, the White House drafted the order and Trump agreed to sign it.

Trump over the years has been accused of making anti-Semitic remarks, turning a blind eye to anti-Jewish tropes or emboldening white supremacists. Just last weekend, he drew criticism for remarks before the Israeli American Council in Florida in which he told the Jewish audience they were “not nice people” but would vote for him because “you’re not going to vote for the wealth tax.”

But he has also positioned himself as an unflinching supporter of Israel and a champion of Jewish Americans, moving the embassy to Jerusalem, supporting settlements in the West Bank and recognizing the seizure of the Golan Heights. He also assailed Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., when she said support for Israel was “all about the Benjamins,” meaning money.

The president is expected to be joined at the signing by several prominent Republican lawmakers, including Sens. Tim Scott of South Carolina and James Lankford of Oklahoma and Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia. But Democrats who have advocated the legislation in the past are not expected, including Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York, who on Tuesday released articles of impeachment against Trump.

The president’s action comes soon after the Education Department ordered Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to remake their joint Middle East studies program on the grounds that it featured a biased curriculum. The move was part of a broader campaign by Betsy DeVos, the education secretary, and her civil rights chief, Kenneth L. Marcus, to go after perceived anti-Israel bias in higher education.

The order to be signed by Trump would empower the Education Department in such actions. Under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the department can withhold funding from any college or educational program that discriminates “on the ground of race, color, or national origin.” Religion was not included among the protected categories, so Trump’s order will have the effect of embracing an argument that Jews are a people or a race with a collective national origin in the Middle East, like Italian Americans or Polish Americans.

The definition of anti-Semitism to be adopted from the State Department and originally formulated by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance includes “a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews.”

The American Civil Liberties Union was among the groups that opposed using it in the 2016 legislation, deeming it overly broad. “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,” the group said in a letter to Congress at the time.

But a group of 80 education, civil rights and religious organizations sent a letter to DeVos last week complaining that some Middle East studies centers on college campuses financed by the government under Title VI have sought to boycott Israel or shut down their universities’ study abroad programs in Israel.

“Recent incidents have demonstrated the willingness of faculty across the country to implement the academic boycott of Israel on their campuses,” the letter said.

While an executive order is not as permanent as legislation and can be overturned by the next president, Trump’s action may have the effect of extending the policy beyond his administration anyway because his successors may find it politically unappealing to reverse.

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