President Trump added new fuel Wednesday to a long-simmering fight about how colleges should handle activism around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, signing a controversial executive order directing the federal government to penalize universities that allow anti-Semitism on campus.
Jewish Americans, from rabbis to college students, were deeply divided in their opinion of an order ostensibly meant to protect Jews. Advocates for Palestinian rights and for free speech on college campuses feared that the order might be used to punish students for criticism of Israel that they contend is political, not anti-Semitic.
On campuses across the country, including at George Washington University in the District, students and faculty are fighting over what constitutes bias against Jews and what is legitimate criticism of a foreign government.
Trump’s executive order called on executive agencies enforcing Title VI — which prohibits discrimination based on race or nationality in educational settings — to use a definition of anti-Semitism written by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. The group defines many criticisms of Israel as examples of anti-Semitism, including “claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor” and “drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.”
Such a definition could be used to paint anyone who opposes Israel’s government as an anti-Semite in the eyes of the Department of Education, said George Washington University student Yoni Slater. Slater, who is Jewish, is an activist with the organization J Street U, which frequently criticizes Israeli policy: The campus chapter, Slater said, is currently focused on demanding that the Democratic Party include a plank objecting to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank in its 2020 platform.
“The executive order actually has felt, to me, really connected and parallel to a lot of the issues we’ve been seeing on my campus,” said Slater. “What it’s addressing is anti-Israel sentiment. And it’s using this performative front of fighting anti-Semitism. … That makes me, as a Jewish student who supports Palestinian rights, feel, if anything, less safe.”
But New York University senior Jordana Meyer, who grew in Chevy Chase, Md., and is a leader in an Israel-focused group on campus, called the executive order “completely necessary.”
A proud progressive who often disagrees with the Trump administration, Meyer was in Atlanta on Wednesday to speak on anti-Semitism at a conference of Hillel International, the world’s largest Jewish campus organization. She has been embroiled in disputes regarding Israel at NYU and was targeted online by pro-Palestinian activists after posting an article on Facebook about women in the Israeli military.
“The magnitude of things that are happening on campus needs to be met with proportional response,” Meyer said, though she added that she found the conflation of Judaism with nationality troubling. “Given the language of Title VI, which protects race, color and national origin, this is the best that could happen.”
Universities have been pressured by both on-campus and off-campus groups to investigate and punish allegedly anti-Semitic speech, said Will Creeley, a senior vice president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, even as students and advocates fight bitterly over what is anti-Semitic and what is anti-Zionist.
Creeley said he had not seen the final version of the executive order, but based on his understanding of the text, it “has been crafted carefully in a way to paper over the inherent flaw in directing federal agencies to use a definition of anti-Semitism that reaches speech plainly protected by the First Amendment.”
The wording won’t prevent university officials from feeling that they are obligated to investigate and punish speech protected by the First Amendment, Creeley said. “We know that when the federal government tells colleges and universities to jump, they jump,” he said.
Acts of anti-Semitism at the nation’s colleges have been so frequent that a 2017 Israeli study called American campuses “a hotbed of anti-Semitism.” In one of the higher-profile cases, Syracuse University was rattled this fall by a host of incidents: a swastika was drawn in the snow, an email referencing the Holocaust was sent to a Jewish professor and anti-Semitic slurs were scrawled in the bathrooms.
The executive order, like many of Trump’s policy moves related to Israel, drew approval from parts of his evangelical Christian base, while Jewish leaders were divided in their responses.
Liberal Jewish groups raised concerns. Many expressed alarm about including Jews in Title VI, which addresses discrimination based on race and nationality but not religious discrimination. They said they worried that the administration seemed to be classifying Judaism as a race or nationality, despite the fact that Jews have a variety of racial backgrounds and do not come from a single country or region.
“If Jews are so categorized, what might it mean at some future moment? Could it be turned against us?” asked Rabbi Deborah Waxman, the president of the liberal Reconstructionist denomination. Concerned about rising anti-Semitism and the government defining a religious identity, she described herself as “very torn” about the order.
In a statement, the Jewish organization B’nai Brith said, “The order will help fight anti-Semitism on college campuses by making it possible for colleges and universities to lose federal funding if they discriminate against Jews.”
Meanwhile, the Orthodox Union, which represents one of the most politically conservative denominations of Judaism, praised the order. Nathan Diament, the group’s executive director of advocacy, said he had worked on the issue for years with the Education Department’s civil rights office.
He said the initial proposal was to add religion to the list of protected categories, adding Wednesday that he was unclear what happened to that approach. Regardless, he said, many Jews see Judaism as a peoplehood or a nation, and so do not feel offended by the concept.
The Union for Reform Judaism, by far the largest denomination of American Jews, was uncharacteristically silent about its opinion of the executive order.
On college campuses across the country, the debate was lively and loud, even as students prepared for finals.
Abdulkader Sinno, an associate professor of political science and Middle Eastern studies at Indiana University, said he recently sponsored an American Civil Liberties Union lecture on campus that explored Palestinian human rights. In the future, he said, Trump’s order could prompt needless scrutiny of such events if university officials are worried about the potential loss of federal funds. That could produce a “chilling effect,” Sinno said. “It’s a major infringement on freedom of speech and our academic freedom.”
Bryce Greene, 21, an Indiana University senior from Indianapolis active with a group called the Palestine Solidarity Committee, said that too often, the charge of anti-Semitism is “weaponized” against advocates for Palestinian rights. “I don’t believe criticism of the state of Israel is anti-Semitic,” Greene said.
At George Washington University, a student’s video — which included a graphic indicating that it was filmed on the Jewish New Year’s holiday of Rosh Hashanah — convulsed the campus earlier this year. In the video, according to the Hatchet, the student newspaper, a person asks a student, “What are we going to do to Israel?” The student responds, “Bro, we’re going to f---ing bomb Israel, bro. F--- out of here, Jewish pieces of s---.”
University leaders condemned the video as anti-Semitic, with its profanity about Jewish people and its invocation of the religious holiday. But when student leaders started discussing what an appropriate response would be, the discussion led to discord about Israel. The student government ultimately passed a resolution creating a task force on anti-Semitism but voted against including a statement in the resolution that the state of Israel has the right to exist.
Jews who consider Israel central to their Jewish identity were distraught. Those on the other side felt attacked from within their own religious community.
“We end up feeling like people are telling us we’re not Jewish enough,” said Hannah Thacker, an opinion editor for the Hatchet who has written and spoken about anti-Semitism on campus. “When I think about anti-Semitism and the things that face students on this campus, I don’t think about Israel and anti-Israel statements first. I think about the friends I have that have had swastikas drawn on their doors.”
The executive order, she said, will keep those fights about Israel going without solving the problem of religious bias that troubles her more.
Michelle Boorstein contributed reporting. Nick Anderson contributed from Bloomington, Ind.