“There’s been a lot of unclarity surrounding the application of Title VI to Jewishness, basically, because of a question of about whether Jewishness is primarily a religion — in which case Title VI would not apply to anti-Semitic discrimination — or whether it’s a race or national origin,” a senior administration official told reporters. “This EO will clarify that Title VI applies to anti-Semitism.”
Officials said the order was based on stalled legislation in Congress that had support from both sides of the aisle, including Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-New York), Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) and others.
Trump’s plan to sign the order was first reported by the New York Times.
The order comes at a time when anti-Israel sentiments are strong on many college campuses and amid support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions — BDS —movement against Israel. The officials who described plans to sign the executive order spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the order.
The Education Department enforces Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bars discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin by schools that receive federal money. The law does not cover religious discrimination, so defining Jews as a national group is necessary if the agency is to have jurisdiction over incidents in which anti-Semitism is alleged.
Already, the Education Department had begun using this broader definition on its own, so the practical effect of Trump’s order is muted. Last year, the agency’s Office for Civil Rights revived an investigation into allegations of anti-Semitism at Rutgers University and in doing so said it would view discrimination against Jews as part of its mandate.
The Obama administration had closed the Rutgers case in 2014 without finding wrongdoing by the university. But Kenneth L. Marcus, the Education Department’s assistant education secretary for civil rights under President Trump, revived it.
In doing so, the department said it would rely on a definition of anti-Semitism from the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. That definition includes “claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor,” applying a double standard to Israel by requiring of it “behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation” and comparing “contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.”
Trump’s executive order will also use this sweeping definition, which some have criticized as overly broad and an effort to block legitimate criticism of Israel or support for the Palestinians.
A White House spokesman had no comment.
One administration official said the order was spurred by the work of Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser.
This is the latest effort by the administration to side with students who detect anti-Israel bias at their universities. Over the summer, the Education Department accused a Middle East studies program of promoting a positive view of Islam while virtually ignoring Judaism, Christianity and other religions.
Left-leaning Jewish organizations were quick to criticize Trump’s move, while the Orthodox Union, the largest Orthodox Jewish umbrella organization int he country, hailed the executive order as a measure “that will provide new and stronger protections for Jewish students on college campuses against anti-Semitic attacks and harassment.”
“We are grateful to President Trump for taking this important action that not only recognizes but also provides a course of legal action against the scourge of anti-Semitism that has for too long been festering on our nation’s college campuses,” Orthodox Union President Mark (Moishe) Bane said in a statement. “Those who seek to use our academic institutions as places to stoke anti-Jewish sentiment are now on notice: There will be consequences for their racism.”
In contrast, Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of the lobbying organization J Street — a left-leaning group that focuses on issues related to Israel — said the order would not truly address anti-Semitism.
“This executive order, like the stalled congressional legislation it is based on, appears designed less to combat anti-Semitism than to have a chilling effect on free speech and to crack down on campus critics of Israel,” Ben-Ami said in a statement.
Bend the Arc, a social-justice-focused Jewish advocacy group, called Trump a “hypocrite” in a statement that referenced Trump’s speech Saturday to the Israeli American Council. “This president continues to endanger Jews through his embrace of white nationalism, his antisemitic comments, and his spreading of conspiracy theories that incite violence,” Bend the Arc’s CEO Stosh Cotler said.
The left-wing activist group IfNotNow, which focuses on ending Israel’s occupation of the West Bank but has also protested the Trump administration, launched a petition for Jews to express opposition to the executive order. “The order’s move to define Judaism as a ‘nationality’ promotes the classically bigoted idea that American Jews are not American,” the group’s political director, Emily Mayer, said in a statement.
Nathan Diament, executive director of advocacy for the Orthodox Union, said he’s been among a bipartisan group working on this issue of anti-Semitism on campuses for almost a decade. He said the group included Jewish leaders across the spectrum and had talks with the Department of Education’s secretary and the civil rights office.
Diament said he didn’t view the executive order as redefining – or defining – Judaism but simply saying it should be dealt with under federal law the same way other acts of discrimination are when based on race and ethnicity. Regardless, he said, many Jews do see Judaism as a peoplehood, or nation, as well as a religion and thus don’t feel offended by the concept.
“What should not get lost here is that the first entity that is responsible and should respond in these circumstances is not the government but the adminstraton of the school,” he said. “We shouldn’t have university leaders who are tolerant or supportive of an environment that’s hostile to Jewish students and it shouldn’t take the federal authorities coming in.”
Rabbi Deborah Waxman, president of the liberal Reconstructionist Movement of Judaism, said Wednesday she was “very torn” about the executive order.
While she is very concerned about rising anti-Semitism in the country, and said she appreciates the president’s attention to that, she is also worried about free speech and especially the idea of the U.S. government defining Jewishness – or any other faith identity.
“If Jews are so categorized, what might it mean at some future moment? Could it be turned against us?” said Waxman, who also has a PhD in Jewish history.
She said the status of Jews within nations has been repeatedly raised since the onset of modernity, and noted that Jews’ views about what makes them Jewish are wildly diverse.
“We don’t have established religion in America, and the state weighing in on the definition of Jewishness is dangerous,” Waxman said. “That’s the same as what it means to be Christian or Muslim. It comes back to the First Amendment.”
News of the executive order came as the rabbis of Reform Judaism, by far the largest Jewish denomination in America and a group that has frequently objected to the Trump administration’s policies, were mostly in transit: The Union for Reform Judaism begins its biennial national meeting on Wednesday.
Michelle Boorstein contributed to this report.