Trump Just Gave the Israel Lobby What It’s Been Asking For. Here’s Why That’s So Dangerous.

The president’s new executive order is an alarming escalation of his anti-Semitism--and his attacks against Palestinian rights campaigners.

Nora Barrows-Friedman

U.S. President Donald Trump and Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (not pictured) participate in a joint news conference at the East Room of the White House February 15, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

This arti­cle first appeared on Elec­tron­ic Intifa­da.

There’s nothing wrong with fighting anti-Semitism. Indeed that is necessary. But that’s not the purpose here.

Just days after U.S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump spewed vicious anti-Semit­ic rhetoric, Israel lob­by groups are cel­e­brat­ing his exec­u­tive order tak­ing aim at sup­port­ers of Pales­tin­ian rights.

Israel and its most extreme defend­ers are not both­ered by the president’s anti-Jew­ish rhetoric as long as it comes wrapped in unques­tion­ing sup­port for Israel.

Trump’s order, which he signed Wednes­day, is evi­dence of that sup­port. It is also a dan­ger­ous esca­la­tion of the attack on basic free speech rights.

Ini­tial report­ing by The New York Times claimed that 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.”

Assert­ing that Jews belong to a sep­a­rate nation­al group­ing has long been a theme of anti-Semit­ic white suprema­cist ide­ol­o­gy – and it pro­motes the anti-Jew­ish smear of dual loyalty.”

On Wednes­day, Jew­ish Insid­er pub­lished what it says is the text of the actu­al order.

It is more sub­tle; it states that Dis­crim­i­na­tion against Jews” may give rise to a vio­la­tion of US civ­il rights law when the dis­crim­i­na­tion is based on an individual’s race, col­or, or nation­al origin.”

But the core of the order is that it meets the demands of Israel lob­by groups who wish to crim­i­nal­ize Pales­tine sol­i­dar­i­ty orga­niz­ing – espe­cial­ly on U.S. col­lege cam­pus­es – by con­flat­ing crit­i­cism of Israel with anti-Jew­ish bigotry.

It states that it shall be the pol­i­cy of the exec­u­tive branch to enforce Title VI [of the Civ­il Rights Act] against pro­hib­it­ed forms of dis­crim­i­na­tion root­ed in anti-Semitism.”

There’s noth­ing wrong with fight­ing anti-Semi­tism. Indeed that is nec­es­sary. But that’s not the pur­pose here.

Rather, the president’s order offi­cial­ly adopts lan­guage in the so-called State Depart­ment def­i­n­i­tion of anti-Semi­tism, based on that of the Inter­na­tion­al Holo­caust Remem­brance Alliance.

This con­tro­ver­sial def­i­n­i­tion, pro­mot­ed by Israel and its lob­by, includes claims that it is anti-Semit­ic to say Israel’s foun­da­tion is a racist endeav­or” or apply­ing dou­ble stan­dards” to Israel by requir­ing from it behav­ior not expect­ed or demand­ed of any oth­er demo­c­ra­t­ic nation.”

Cru­cial­ly, the def­i­n­i­tion claims that Deny­ing the Jew­ish peo­ple their right to self-deter­mi­na­tion” is anti-Semit­ic. This does define Jews as a nation.”

It also means the gov­ern­ment could claim that is a form of anti-Semi­tism to call for a sin­gle, demo­c­ra­t­ic state in his­toric Pales­tine, in which Jews and Pales­tini­ans have equal rights – because Israel would no longer exist as a Jew­ish state.”

In oth­er words, the def­i­n­i­tion con­flates big­otry against Jews, on the one hand, with crit­i­cism of Israel and its racist state ide­ol­o­gy Zion­ism, on the other.

Even the definition’s lead author, for­mer Amer­i­can Jew­ish Com­mit­tee exec­u­tive Ken­neth Stern, strong­ly oppos­es efforts to enshrine it in leg­is­la­tion or uni­ver­si­ty rule books, argu­ing that this would uncon­sti­tu­tion­al­ly infringe on free speech.

With this exec­u­tive order, how­ev­er, Trump has giv­en the Israel lob­by a way to cir­cum­vent the leg­isla­tive process while open­ing the door for accel­er­at­ed attacks on Pales­tini­ans and those who orga­nize for their rights.

The order states that the inquiry into whether a par­tic­u­lar act con­sti­tutes dis­crim­i­na­tion … will require a detailed analy­sis of the alle­ga­tions.” In oth­er words, mere accu­sa­tions of anti-Semi­tism against crit­ics of Israel on cam­pus are like­ly to result in lengthy inqui­si­tions by the government.

Regard­less of the out­come of such inves­ti­ga­tions, the prospect of being put through such an ordeal by the gov­ern­ment is unpalat­able to enough peo­ple that it will chill free speech and aca­d­e­m­ic freedom.

A bald­faced attempt to silence the movement”

For years, lob­by groups have pushed U.S. politi­cians to pass leg­is­la­tion effec­tive­ly defin­ing crit­i­cism of Israel as anti-Jew­ish big­otry – and there­fore iden­ti­fy­ing all Jews with Israel.

Two bills to this effect were hur­ried through last year only to stall in Con­gress over First Amend­ment con­cerns – and because of sig­nif­i­cant orga­niz­ing by stu­dent activists and civ­il rights groups.

For near­ly a decade, as Pales­tine activism on cam­pus­es grew, Zion­ist groups began fil­ing com­plaints under Title VI of the 1964 Civ­il Rights Act with the Depart­ment of Education’s Office for Civ­il Rights.

In these com­plaints, Israel sup­port­ers claimed that uni­ver­si­ties failed to pro­tect Jew­ish stu­dents by not crack­ing down on Pales­tine sol­i­dar­i­ty activism.

The strat­e­gy was pio­neered by Ken­neth Mar­cus, who led the Louis D. Bran­deis Cen­ter for Human Rights Under Law, an Israel lob­by group unaf­fil­i­at­ed with Bran­deis University.

The com­plaints were even­tu­al­ly thrown out by the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion, cit­ing lack of evidence.

How­ev­er, Mar­cus is now in charge of the Office for Civ­il Rights – the body that inves­ti­gates such complaints.

Last year, he announced that the Depart­ment of Edu­ca­tion will apply stan­dards that con­flate crit­i­cism of Israel and Zion­ism with anti-Jew­ish bigotry.

He also re-opened a com­plaint against Rut­gers Uni­ver­si­ty that had been thrown out by the US gov­ern­ment in 2014.

Mar­cus has even called for stu­dents to be crim­i­nal­ly pros­e­cut­ed for protest­ing Israel.

Dima Kha­li­di, direc­tor of the civ­il rights group Pales­tine Legal, has pre­vi­ous­ly warned that with Mar­cus lead­ing the Office for Civ­il Rights, he would do from the inside of the Depart­ment of Edu­ca­tion what he has failed to do from the outside.”

On Tues­day, Kha­li­di called the exec­u­tive order a bald­faced attempt to silence the move­ment for Pales­tin­ian rights on col­lege campuses.”

She added that rather than pro­vid­ing any new pro­tec­tions to Jew­ish stu­dents against the ram­pant and dead­ly anti-Semi­tism of a resur­gent white nation­al­ism,” the order aims to define the con­tours of what we can say about Pales­tine and Israel.”

We won’t abide, and it will be chal­lenged,” Kha­li­di remarked.

Fear and outrage

On Wednes­day, US Con­gress mem­ber Bob­by Rush con­demned Trump’s move as a way to sti­fle the speech of those they [the Trump admin­is­tra­tion] dis­agree with.”

The Illi­nois Demo­c­rat added: What’s worse, is their exploita­tion of anti-Semi­tism in order to do so. [Trump] does not care about Jew­ish safe­ty. Period.”

The Admin. that claims to care so much about free speech on col­lege cam­pus­es is now look­ing to sti­fle the speech of those they dis­agree with.

What’s worse, is their exploita­tion of anti­semitism in order to do so. @realDonaldTrump does not care about Jew­ish safe­ty. Peri­od.

 — Bob­by L. Rush (@RepBobbyRush) Decem­ber 112019

Notably, none of the major Demo­c­ra­t­ic pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates – includ­ing Bernie Sanders – has so far weighed in on Trump’s exec­u­tive order.

Stu­dents, activists and civ­il rights defend­ers expressed out­rage and con­cern, while warn­ing uni­ver­si­ty admin­is­tra­tions not to cave in to intimidation.

Trump has nev­er cared about stop­ping anti­semitism – this Exec­u­tive Order is about silenc­ing Pales­tini­ans and the peo­ple who speak up with them.” @AlissaShira

 — Jew­ish Voice for Peace (@jvplive) Decem­ber 112019

As we respond to Trump’s anti­se­mit­ic attempt to rede­fine Jews as a nation­al­i­ty we have to remem­ber this is also direct­ed at shut­ting down Pales­tin­ian stu­dent activism on col­lege cam­pus­es and pro­tect­ing the Israeli gov­ern­ment from cri­tique. We need to resist this together.

 — Rebec­ca Pierce #Black­Shab­bat (@aptly_engineerd) Decem­ber 112019

Anti-BDS groups failed to claim Pales­tine activism was dis­crim­i­na­to­ry because author­i­ties rec­og­nized the dif­fer­ence btwn racism & polit­i­cal speech. Now they’re redefin­ing Jew­ish iden­ti­ty just so they can ren­der that speech as racism. Pales­tini­ans are anti-Semi­tes by exec. order.

 — Amjad Iraqi (@aj_iraqi) Decem­ber 112019

My pre­dic­tion: This exec­u­tive order itself will be tooth­less but uni­ver­si­ties will be scared or oppor­tunis­tic enough to clamp down on BDS work them­selves. Also, this will fire up the we’re not anti­se­mit­ic, we just think Jews should be in their own coun­try ��” crowd (ie fascists)

 — Tovarisch (@nwbtcw) Decem­ber 112019

Israel’s sup­port­ers, mean­while, are hail­ing the move.

Jonathan Green­blatt, CEO of the Anti-Defama­tion League, wel­comed the order, telling The New York Times that Jew­ish stu­dents are being mar­gin­al­ized on campuses.

He down­played con­cerns that the order would re-clas­si­fy Amer­i­can Jews, though not­ed that it adopts the IHRA def­i­n­i­tion of anti-Semitism:

(2÷5) I’ve seen a draft of the EO & I can tell you it:

➡️Pro­tects Jews and oth­er reli­gious minori­ties from dis­crim­i­na­tion under Title VI, but does NOT break new ground on iden­ti­fy­ing Jews as a pro­tect­ed class

➡️Adopts @TheIHRA def­i­n­i­tion of #anti­Semitism

 — Jonathan Green­blatt (@JGreenblattADL) Decem­ber 112019

AIPAC, a lead­ing Israel lob­by group, also praised Trump’s order:

We appre­ci­ate @realDonaldTrumps deci­sion to give the @usedgov the author­i­ty to counter dis­crim­i­na­tion against Jew­ish students.

For far too long Jew­ish stu­dents have been tar­get­ed, harassed and silenced on cam­pus for sup­port­ing the Jew­ish state.

 — AIPAC (@AIPAC) Decem­ber 112019

Sef­fi Kogan, an offi­cial at the Amer­i­can Jew­ish Com­mit­tee, deflect­ed crit­i­cism by claim­ing that it would be entire­ly appro­pri­ate to assert that all Jews are part of a Jew­ish nation”:

Fel­low Jews:
Let’s set aside the first amend­ment con­cerns for a moment (though they are impor­tant considerations!).

Let’s set aside how we feel about the President.

I’m a mem­ber of the Jew­ish nation, aren’t you?

 — Sef­fi Kogen (@seffikogen) Decem­ber 112019

And Chris­tians Unit­ed for Israel – a group whose sup­port for Israel is root­ed in a the­ol­o­gy that yearns for Jews to be gath­ered in one place where they will killed in a com­ing apoc­a­lypse – also applaud­ed Trump’s exec­u­tive order.


While civ­il rights groups and stu­dent activists pre­pare to chal­lenge Trump’s order, it can also be viewed as an indi­ca­tion of the Israel lobby’s desperation.

The leg­is­la­tion that lob­by groups hoped to push through Con­gress has been ham­pered by relent­less resistance.

Stu­dents have been at the fore­front of Pales­tin­ian rights advo­ca­cy and expand­ing the boy­cott cam­paign, in spite of sweep­ing anti-BDS mea­sures passed by state law­mak­ers and attempts by uni­ver­si­ties to shut down speech in sup­port of Palestinians.

Activists should not be cowed by threats from uni­ver­si­ty offi­cials, Israel lob­by groups or the pres­i­dent. Rather, the exec­u­tive order and the fight to come val­i­date that the move­ment for Pales­tin­ian rights is a force to be reck­oned with.

Think­ing about how Trump’s exec order is a direct response to the incred­i­ble, prin­ci­pled, strate­gic, and pow­er­ful divest­ment cam­paigns that SJP stu­dents have been lead­ing on cam­pus­es across the coun­try. @NationalSJP and @jvplive stu­dents are incred­i­ble �� #BDS pic​.twit​ter​.com/​J​1​e​i​G​hdyC9

 — Maya Edery (@mayaj_30) Decem­ber 112019

Trump’s exec order is a dan­ger­ous move to sti­fle free speech, but as a founder of two Stu­dents for Jus­tice in Pales­tine chap­ters, I can say that despite the decade-long threat to shut us down, our move­ment just keeps get­ting stronger, larg­er and more diverse.

 — Ran­da MKW (@randawahbe) Decem­ber 112019

As a founder of two Stu­dents for Jus­tice in Pales­tine chap­ters,” tweet­ed grad­u­ate stu­dent and activist Ran­da Wahbe, I can say that despite the decade-long threat to shut us down, our move­ment just keeps get­ting stronger, larg­er and more diverse.”

Nora Bar­rows-Fried­man is Asso­ciate Edi­tor of The Elec­tron­ic Intifa­da, author of In Our Pow­er: US Stu­dents Orga­nize for Jus­tice in Palestine.”
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