That’s the proper context to understand an executive order Trump planned to sign Wednesday, one that turned out to be not quite as controversial as it first appeared but still raises a host of questions.
This executive order might turn out to have only a minimal effect on anti-Semitism and free speech on U.S. campuses. But it still serves an important symbolic function in a complex swirl of issues, which include the many kinds of bigotry Trump has encouraged and a long-running campaign to discredit pro-Palestinian activism.
On Tuesday, administration officials told reporters that the order would define Judaism as a “nationality” for the purposes of enforcing anti-discrimination law on campus, which would enable enforcement under Title VI, which does not mention religion. This reporting led to a great deal of criticism, particularly since the idea that Jews constitute a separate nation has long been used to question their loyalty to the country where they live.
But the draft released Wednesday does not contain that language, leading some to wonder what the fuss was about; law professor Samuel Bagenstos said it “doesn’t change the law in any way. The key question will be how it is applied in practice.”
The order does, however, say that in enforcing anti-discrimination law, the government will “consider” the definition of anti-Semitism adopted in 2016 by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, which contains elements easily cherry-picked to serve one’s purposes.
For instance, that definition says “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.” But it also says that “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor” is anti-Semitic.
So is “applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.”
This gets to the heart of how accusations of anti-Semitism can, in the wrong hands — and the Trump administration is definitely the wrong hands — be used to stifle free speech, especially when they circumscribe criticism of Israel.
Someone might apply double standards to Israel out of anti-Semitism, but the idea that doing so is inherently anti-Semitic is preposterous. We can decry double standards, but people use them all the time in policy debates without being defined as bigoted.
And saying only “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country” is not anti-Semitic would mean criticisms of Israel have to meet a higher standard than criticisms of other countries or else they’re anti-Semitic. If you’re criticizing China or Russia or England or Iran on campus, you can be selective in your evidence, employ double standards or otherwise make shoddy arguments without running afoul of the government, but only when you criticize Israel must you be scrupulously fair or else you’re being anti-Semitic?
Yousef Munayyer, the executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights, pointed out to me that the person in charge of enforcing civil rights on campus for the Department of Education — the one whose responsibility it will be to implement this order — is Ken Marcus. He is a controversial figure.
Marcus “has dedicated his career to weaponizing allegations of anti-Semitism from the outside, through complaints against universities to the Department of Education. Now he’s on the inside playing the role of enforcer,” Munayyer told me.
“There’s no doubt that anti-Semitism is on the rise. It’s terrifying,” Munayyer added, but “I don’t think this addresses anti-Semitism helpfully in any way. It’s not about that. It’s about providing cover for Trump’s own anti-Semitism and the anti-Semitism from his supporters, and it’s also an effort to shut down Palestinian rights activism on campuses.”
This is what makes assessing moves like this one so difficult: On one hand, we have a genuine problem in the recent increase in anti-Semitism. On the other hand, we have an administration whose motives are impossible to trust.
Just last week, Trump gave a speech to the Israeli American Council that was peppered with offensive remarks playing on anti-Semitic stereotypes. “You have to vote for me,” he said, because “you’re not gonna vote for the wealth tax.”
Trump regularly asserts that Jews do and ought to have unquestioning loyalty to Israel (he refers to Benjamin Netanyahu as “your prime minister” when talking to Jewish audiences) and describes Jews as greedy, money-grubbing, conniving schemers who only want to horde wealth and power.
In other words, he sees Jews as having the same repugnant character flaws as he does, which is why he can be an anti-Semite who regularly praises Jews. As Yair Rosenberg pointed out, “Trump believes all the anti-Semitic stereotypes about Jews. But he sees those traits as admirable.”
It’s no coincidence that Trump’s election was celebrated by neo-Nazis everywhere. That doesn’t necessarily mean that any action he takes on anti-Semitism is by definition bad. But it does mean we should be deeply suspicious.
And given that Republicans (and some Democrats) have for years engaged in a campaign to discredit Palestinian rights, it’s hard to think that even an executive order that appears not to change the law in any meaningful way won’t be used in the wrong manner.
So the best we can say about Trump’s executive order is that maybe it will make no difference. Maybe it won’t be used to stifle pro-Palestinian activism. Maybe universities won’t be spooked into censoring students. Maybe this won’t be twisted into a tool to move us further toward the kind of society Trump is trying to create, one gripped by fear and driven by hatred. Let’s hope so.