Thanks, but no thanks.
Once again, Trump has demonstrated that he equates American Jews with Israelis. This is a man who, in speaking to a group of Jews, referred to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as “your prime minister” and called Jewish Democrats “disloyal” to Israel. This week’s Hanukkah party featured a speech by Robert Jeffress, an Evangelical pastor who supports the policies of the current Israeli government but has also said that “you can’t be saved being a Jew” because “the three greatest Jews in the New Testament: Peter, Paul and Jesus Christ … all said Judaism won’t do it. It’s faith in Jesus Christ.” The choice was particularly ironic, as Hanukkah celebrates the refusal of Jews to abandon our practices and assimilate into the majority religion.
Trump may think that by defending Israel on college campuses, he’s standing up for American Jews. But in conflating Jews with Israel, he confuses categories in a way that protects neither Jews nor Israel. While Jews do see ourselves as a people — “Am Yisrael,” the people of Israel — peoplehood is different from citizenship. The name Am Yisrael refers not to the land, but to the biblical Jacob, who in the Torah portion that Jews read in synagogue this week, receives “Israel” as a second name after wrestling with a divine messenger. As the descendants of Jacob/Israel, Jews are a people with relationships to one another, ritual and cultural practices, history, a shared sacred language and, yes, a historical connection to the land of Israel, which according to the biblical text, God promises to our ancestors.
The biblical Land of Israel, though, is not the same as the modern state of Israel.
The Jewish historical and religious connection to the land of Israel began with God’s promise to Abraham, and it lives on in the words of our prayer books and the four annual fast days devoted to mourning the events surrounding the destruction of the two Holy Temples thousands of years ago. Even after the region was conquered by various powers and the people scattered to the diaspora, at least a small Jewish community always remained. Despite what some on the far left claim, the innovation of Zionism in the 19th century was not to manufacture a Jewish connection to the land; it was to suggest that return could be accomplished through modern political means rather than waiting for divine intervention.
But the establishment of a state in 1948, by United Nations decree, meant that Israel would be a modern nation-state, subject to the same laws and conventions as others. Disentangling criticism of Israel from anti-Semitism begins with distinguishing Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel) from Medinat Yisrael (the State of Israel). We can affirm the Land of Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people while recognizing the State of Israel as a modern nation. The borders of the two are not the same. For example, the city of Hebron is an ancient Jewish city, the burial place, according to tradition, of many of our ancestors, and without a doubt part of Eretz Yisrael. It is not within the internationally recognized borders of Medinat Yisrael but remains under occupation according to international law. Other places, such as Eilat, are undisputedly part of Medinat Yisrael but were not within the ancient borders of Eretz Yisrael. I can pray for the restoration of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem in the messianic era, while opposing any attempts to rebuild it now on top of what is also a Muslim sacred site.
Modern Orthodox rabbinical authorities, including Rabbis Ovadia Yosef, Joseph Soloveitchik and Chaim David HaLevy, understood this distinction when they simultaneously affirmed the sanctity of the whole land of Israel and opened up space for lands captured in war to be returned in exchange for peace and security.
The State of Israel is a country with approximately 8 million citizens, 80 percent of whom are Jewish and 20 percent of whom are Palestinian, that exercises control over some 5 million noncitizen Palestinians living in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. As a member of the United Nations, Israel has a responsibility to uphold international law and to follow conventions that it has signed. And it can be open to even the harshest criticism.
American Jews, most of whom do not hold dual citizenship, by and large have strong connections both to Eretz Yisrael as the Jewish homeland and to Medinat Yisrael as the home of half of the world’s Jewish population and a place that promises shelter to Jews in need of refuge. But this does not mean American Jews are the same as Israelis, nor that we define our Judaism according to Israel’s policies.
In adopting in full the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) guidelines, Trump’s executive order blurs this distinction between American Jews and Israel. Jews are certainly in need of protection, given our history of persecution and recent violent attacks in the United States. But redefining some campus criticism of Israel as anti-Semitism does nothing to protect Jews and only makes Palestinian and Muslim students — another group in need of protection — vulnerable to censure. Even the author of the IHRA guidelines has testified in Congress opposing legislation that would apply these principles to campus.
Most of the examples in the IHRA guidelines are clearly dangerous anti-Semitism. These include denying the Holocaust; “calling for, aiding, or justifying the killing or harming of Jews in the name of a radical ideology or an extremist view of religion”; and “making mendacious, dehumanizing, demonizing, or stereotypical allegations … such as, especially but not exclusively, the myth about a world Jewish conspiracy.”
Two examples, though, have the potential to clamp down on free speech on campus. These are “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” and “applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.”
Jews have a right to self-determination. T’ruah, the organization I lead, represents more than 2,000 rabbis and cantors who work every day for the long-term security of the State of Israel, as well as for the human rights of both Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel and of noncitizen Palestinians living under Israeli control. Palestinians also have a right to self-determination, and I hope this right will be realized through the creation of a Palestinian state side-by-side with Israel. Those who believe that self-determination is a basic human right must apply the same standard to all peoples.
But free speech includes the right to voice opinions that some of us might find hard to hear or with which we vehemently disagree. Despite my personal attachment to the State of Israel, I understand why Palestinians see its establishment not as a major step in the liberation and safety of the Jewish people, but rather as a “nakba” — a catastrophe that resulted in the displacement of more than 700,000 Palestinians. I no more expect Palestinians to be Zionists than I expect Native Americans to celebrate the arrival of the Pilgrims. But no laws force U.S. history professors to refrain from speaking about the bloody origins of our nation. Campuses should be open environments for difficult conversations and protests, sometimes even with harsh language, free from spurious accusations of discrimination.
The warning against applying a double standard to Israel can be used to stifle free speech, too. Even harsh critics are not holding Israel to different standards than other countries, but rather to the same human rights laws and conventions as other U.N. members — most prominently, the articles governing the administration of occupied territories in the Fourth Geneva Convention.
Those who complain of a double standard generally mean that student activism disproportionately focuses on Israel rather than on other countries that also violate international human rights. This is true. It’s also true that when I was in college in the mid-1990s, campus activism disproportionately revolved around the Free Tibet movement. I’m sure China was displeased, but I never heard that we shouldn’t talk about Tibet without also addressing human rights violations in what was then Yugoslavia.
There are many reasons that so much campus activism focuses on Israel and the Palestinian territories: The land is sacred to three major religions; Israel is the top recipient of U.S. foreign aid; a visible U.S.-based lobby and network of organizations promote the policies of the Israeli government; Israel is the only democracy carrying out a military occupation of another people. Palestinians have successfully built a national movement over many decades, and there’s a Palestinian diaspora in the United States. There is also a growing backlash against organizations such as Canary Mission and StandWithUs that monitor and publicly attack students — especially Palestinian and Muslim students — who dare engage in pro-Palestine activism.
Boycotts and divestment don’t constitute a double standard, either, despite what Trump said Wednesday. Neither I nor T’ruah boycotts Israel or supports the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, both out of ideological disagreements and concerns that the tactic has only backfired. But boycotts are a protected right. When major corporations boycotted North Carolina over its transgender bathroom ban, nobody claimed that one state was being held to a double standard. Nor would we expect legislation to stamp out the global boycott of Myanmar over the Rohingya genocide. Boycotts of Israel target a country whose citizens are not all Jewish, and they don’t constitute boycotts of Jews.
Yes, anti-Semitism is one reason that some activists fixate on Israel. And campus criticism of Israel can cross the line into anti-Semitism — by employing hateful stereotypes, by demanding that Jewish students pass an anti-Zionist litmus test before joining coalitions working on other issues, by harassing Jewish students or blackballing Hillel. Such incidents are best addressed by student leaders, religious chaplains and others who are sensitive to the particular dynamics of the situation. Neither outside organizations litigating the particulars of campus on social media nor broad government directives will protect Jewish students or create open campus environments. And the assumption that anti-Semitism must be at the root of all pro-Palestine activism is simply wrong.
In adopting a definition of anti-Semitism that conflates Jews with the State of Israel, Trump’s executive order does nothing to protect Jews from anti-Semitic attacks by those affiliated with or influenced by hate groups — such as the murders in a kosher grocery store in New Jersey this week or the deadly attacks on synagogues last year. Trump basked in the approval of his supporters on Wednesday. But in reality, his order only threatens freedom of speech while further confusing the distinction between American Jews and the policies of the State of Israel. Instead of issuing bogus executive orders, the Trump administration should unequivocally condemn white nationalism, restore funding for fighting domestic terrorism, and pursue a just foreign policy that would actually protect the long-term security and human rights of both Israelis and Palestinians.