President Trump’s executive order aimed at combating anti-Semitism stirred up controversy this week as Jewish groups questioned the president’s political motivation considering his past statements about Jewish people.
Questions have also emerged about how the policy will affect free speech and the impact the order will have on pro-Palestinian advocacy and criticism of the Israeli government.
The order, signed by Trump on Wednesday, states that while the Civil Rights Act’s Title VI does not cover religious discrimination, “it shall be the policy of the executive branch to enforce Title VI against prohibited forms of discrimination rooted in anti-Semitism as vigorously as against all other forms of discrimination.”
It also adopts the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism, which states that it is “a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”
The White House has said the order was prompted by the rising number of anti-Semitic incidents in schools, particularly on college campuses, and language in the president’s new policy explicitly references those events.
“Anti-Semitic incidents have increased since 2013, and students, in particular, continue to face anti Semitic harassment in schools and on university and college campuses,” it reads.
In an op-ed penned in The New York Times on Wednesday, Jared Kushner, Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law, stated that the new order was written to combat those incidents with the goal of making Jewish students and Jewish people feel safe on campuses and out in the world.
“Students, in particular, continue to face anti-Semitic harassment in schools and on college campuses,” he wrote. “With Wednesday’s executive order, the president takes crucial action to support and defend Jewish students in the United States.”
But despite those intentions, left-wing groups, including some Jewish groups, have come out against the order, saying that it could have a chilling effect on free speech and could stifle legitimate criticisms of Israel’s government.
“We think that people should be able to engage in an open political debate about Israel and its government and its policies without having the federal government swoop down on college campuses,” said Logan Bayroff, a spokesperson for liberal pro-Israel group J Street.
Concerns have also been raised about the targeting of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, a global Palestinian-led organization that seeks to challenge “Israeli apartheid,” according to the mission statement on its website.
National Students for Justice in Palestine organizer Reem Zaitoon said she believed that under the order, anything “surrounding political activity of Palestine on college campuses is going to be targeted in one way or another.”
“It is a direct attack against BDS, which is also a direct attack against our freedom of speech,” Zaitoon said.
However, there is a rift in opinion between some members of the Jewish community, with some prominent Jewish groups supporting the order and what it seeks to achieve. They allege that in certain cases, anti-Israel protesters on college campuses have acted in a way that is anti-Jewish.
As such, groups such as as the Anti-Defamation League have praised the order, saying in a statement that it can “help determine whether an anti-Semitic or anti-Israel incident crosses the line from protected free expression into harassing, unlawful or discriminatory conduct against Jews.”
The American Jewish Committee (AJC) has also expressed support for the order, saying in a statement that “existing federal policy has not been fully enforced and today’s order merely gives Jews what other groups have long enjoyed — the right not to be subject to a hostile environment on campus.”
The AJC added that it does not believe the order was “designed to suppress rational criticism of Israel or its policies.”
Despite these votes of confidence, critics are hesitant and even mistrustful of the order and the motivations behind its signing, contextualizing it with Trump’s recent actions and statements regarding Jewish people and the rise of white nationalism in recent years.
Many fear that Trump may be using Jewish people as a political tool to spread what they deem is more hatred and division.
For example, while speaking at the Israeli American Council, Trump said that the crowd would have “no choice” but to vote for him over Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) because of her wealth tax and said that some Jewish people don’t love Israel “enough.”
This week, he also hosted a pastor at the White House Hanukkah party who has said that “Jews are going to hell.”
“Just days before, the president had repeated negative, anti-Semitic stereotypes targeting Jews,” said Halie Soifer, the Jewish Democratic Council of America’s executive director.
“Our biggest concern with this executive order was the fact that the president himself has no credibility to combat anti-Semitism when he has actually ignited the flames of hatred in our country to include the rise of anti-Semitism,” Soifer added.
She called the order a “choreographed political stunt.”
“He has repeatedly tried to use Israel and even the issue itself of anti-Semitism as part of his political agenda,” Soifer said. “He’s used it as a political wedge issue … or shielding his racist screed against four Democratic congresswomen of color this summer as justified somehow by their view on Israel or calling all Jews who support Democrats ‘disloyal.’”
However, the president’s defenders argue that his opponents have taken Trump’s comments out of context.
“This is what we hear everywhere. This is the same speech he gives in New York and Florida and Texas and Mississippi,” Republican Jewish Coalition spokesman Neil Strauss said, referring to Trump’s remarks about Warren. “He says it to everybody. It has nothing to do with being a Jewish audience.”
The White House has also pushed back on criticism that the order would abridge protected speech.
“In enforcing Title VI against the wider spectrum of prohibited discrimination, government agencies will continue to respect the free flow of ideas, even those that are detestable, and enforce critical protections for free speech and political debate,” Kushner wrote in his New York Times op-ed.
“But we will stand firmly against using taxpayer resources to entrench and subsidize invidious discrimination,” he added.