This week President Trump signed an executive order expanding the protections afforded to Jews by Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. It’s no surprise that some in the mainstream media got the story wrong.
The New York Times’s Peter Baker and Maggie Haberman called the order an attempt at “effectively interpreting Judaism as a race or nationality,” and claimed it was meant to distract the country from Trump’s own alleged anti-Semitism and silence criticism of the State of Israel. Those criticisms were echoed by another report from CNN. Along the same lines, still others claimed that the president was suppressing the free speech of principled critics of Israeli policy.
The notion that Trump was trying to redefine Judaism is just nonsense. As Mark Joseph Stern, no fan of the president, pointed out in Slate, Trump’s order was in line with past decisions by George W. Bush’s Department of Education and Barack Obama’s DOJ to expand the scope of Title VI protections. The original language of Title VI did not extend protection against discrimination based on shared ancestry or religion. That meant that when groups of people were discriminated against because of the “perception of shared race, ethnicity or national origin” — as are Jews as well as Muslims and Sikhs — the law offered them no help. Both the Bush and Obama administrations agreed that was wrong.
The reason why this order is necessary is that although some, such as Senator Bernie Sanders, treat it as an article of faith that anti-Semitism is solely a product of right-wing extremism, left-wing anti-Semitism is on the rise. As is the case in Europe, anti-Semitism often masquerades as anti-Zionism. But as we’ve seen in the last year, supporters of the BDS movement, which seeks to boycott Israel, frequently blur the distinction between legitimate criticism of Israeli government policies and hatred of Jews — and often cross the line entirely, lapsing into classic anti-Semitic tropes. And the federal government has a particular interest in dealing with such hate in higher education, since such institutions rely so heavily on federal funds to operate and are among the primary incubators of the American BDS movement.
Trump’s order urges the government to use the definition of anti-Semitism promoted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, which is also the one recognized by the U.S. State Department and many other countries. That definition correctly states 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, applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation, using the symbols and images associated with classic anti-Semitism . . . to characterize Israel or Israelis,” “drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis,” and “holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel” are anti-Semitic behaviors. The BDS movement and its leading organization — Students for Justice in Palestine — routinely do all of those things.
Moreover, this effort has long had bipartisan support, as both Democrats such as former Senate majority leader Harry Reid and Republicans sought to remedy the loophole in the law that let campus anti-Semites off the hook. Their efforts failed due to congressional gridlock.
There is nothing new in Trump’s order. But the difference here is that although the Obama administration was on record agreeing in principle to extend Title VI protections to Jews, it chose not to act on the issue, leaving Jewish students vulnerable. Trump’s Department of Education has reversed that policy, calling for investigations into anti-Semitic activity at Rutgers University and ordering the Middle East Studies programs at the University of North Carolina and Duke University to revise curricula that were anti-Semitic. His executive order merely makes that policy shift official.
Efforts to twist Trump’s words or take them out of context as proof of his anti-Semitism resonate with liberals and Democrats. That in this case they aim to discredit what ought to be considered an anodyne measure worthy of bipartisan support, calling it an attack on civil liberties or even a form of anti-Semitism itself, demonstrates just how far Trump’s critics are prepared to go to preserve their false narrative about his promotion of hate. But Trump himself gives the lie to their charges; in word and deed, he has been the most pro-Israel president in U.S. history.