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Anti-Semitism order raises tough issue of defining prejudice

President Donald Trump gestures before signing an executive order targeting what his administration says is growing anti-Semitism on U.S. college campuses during a Hanukkah reception in the East Room of the White House in Washington on Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2019. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
President Donald Trump gestures before signing an executive order targeting what his administration says is growing anti-Semitism on U.S. college campuses during a Hanukkah reception in the East Room of the White House in Washington on Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2019. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta) (Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

NEW YORK, NY – President Donald Trump’s order to expand the scope of potential anti-Semitism complaints on college campuses is raising the stakes of an already tense battle over how to define discrimination against Jews.

The executive order Trump signed on Wednesday tells the Education Department, when vetting alleged Civil Rights Act violations that can lead to a loss of schools’ federal funding, to consider a definition of anti-Semitism that could include some criticism of Israel. Several major Jewish American organizations hailed the order, but more liberal-leaning groups warned it could be used to muffle campus organizing against the Israeli government and in support of Palestinian rights.

Behind that divide are politically volatile questions: When does speech about Israel cross the line into anti-Semitism, and who is qualified to draw that line?

For supporters of Trump’s order -- which is aligned with bipartisan legislation that had stalled -- the distinction is a clear matter of reining in those who would question Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.

“There is no question that people have the right to criticize Israel. Jews, and non-Jews, do it very well,” said World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder, who has financially backed the GOP but recently launched a $25 million project aimed at fighting anti-Semitism on both sides of the aisle.

“But the fact is that when criticism goes into attacks on the state, the Jewish state, that goes over the line.”

The order does not mention Israel but cites the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s suggested examples of anti-Semitism, which include “claiming that the existence of a state of Israel is a racist endeavor.”

Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, wrote in a New York Times op-ed that the order’s broadened definition would convey the administration’s position that “anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism.”

Critics of Trump’s order take a more nuanced view, warning that the new definition promises to blur the boundary between legitimate opposition to what they see as unfair Israeli government policies and anti-Semitism.

Emily Mayer, political director of the liberal Jewish American group IfNotNow, described the order as a victory for efforts “to discredit any critique of Israel, Israeli policies or how Jewish supremacy has been codified within the Israeli state -- to try to describe that as anti-Semitism.”

Those concerned about blunt-force application of the order often point to the president who approved it. Trump has been chided for echoing anti-Semitic stereotypes, and liberal Jewish Americans say his administration is ill-equipped to enforce a new standard for on-campus anti-Semitism.

The order “can’t be viewed solely in the vacuum of the words on the page,” said Halie Soifer, executive director of the Jewish Democratic Council of America.

Soifer called for a greater focus by the administration on the rise of violent white nationalism, noting that “while anti-Semitism is a problem on college campuses, it’s not solely a problem on college campuses.”

On campuses, where pro-Palestinian criticism of Israel can run high, the order’s impact may be felt sooner than later.

Aaron Heideman, 22, a junior at Yeshiva University, praised the president's decision to issue the order and said it will help his friends at secular universities who have run into problems. “I’m happy that they’ll have more inner peace,” Heideman said.

Anti-Semitic incidents on campuses rose by 89% between 2016 and 2017, according to an Anti-Defamation League audit released last year.

In addition, Virginia GOP Rep. Denver Riggleman wrote to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos on Wednesday seeking a review of federal funding for Georgetown University’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, alleging anti-Semitic activity by faculty.

Riggleman’s letter points to faculty supportive of an international anti-Israel boycott movement that has grown in popularity on campuses. The Trump White House has repeatedly decried the movement as discriminatory, and the House of Representatives has passed bipartisan legislation opposing it.

Organizers of the boycott campaign say their opposition lies with Israeli policies, not with Jews. But the parallels they draw between Israel and the oppressive apartheid-era South African government have fueled charges of anti-Semitism.

Among the prominent Jewish American groups who view the boycott movement as anti-Semitic is the Anti-Defamation League, which praised Trump’s order. The league’s website states that anti-Zionism “may be motivated by or result in anti-Semitism, or it may create a climate in which anti-Semitism becomes more acceptable.”

The league’s CEO, Jonathan Greenblatt, said that debating the existence of the Jewish state could be a suitable topic for an academic seminar.

“But in the world in which we live, America 2019, anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism,” Greenblatt continued. “When you would deny Jewish people the right of self-determination ... when you’d hold them to a different standard than you would other people.”

Greenblatt noted that the order is designed as guidance rather than a binding standard, indicating that implementation would provide the strongest evidence of its effective application. Its text includes an edict about not infringing on First Amendment rights.

Rabbi Jonah Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, described the key to the order as a “balancing act between protecting free speech and protecting those who are on the wrong end of anti-Semitic attacks in guise of critique of Israel.” Pesner’s group has not taken a position on the order.

The Trump administration already has cited the newly codified International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism to probe potential campus discrimination against Jews. The Education Department last year reopened an inquiry closed during the Obama administration into alleged anti-Semitism at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

Associated Press writer Luis Andres Henao contributed from New York.

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