On July 15, the U.S. Department of Justice hosted a “Summit on Combating Anti- Semitism,” organized by Attorney General William Barr.
Responses to the summit, which drew approximately 150 people and featured speeches from senior officials in the Trump administration as well as lay leaders and legal scholars from the D.C. region’s Jewish community, were mixed. Some called out the irony of an official summit against one form of bigotry coinciding with the president’s tweets encouraging four Democratic Congresswomen, all women of color and all but one American-born, to “go back” to where they came from. Others praised the summit as the latest indicator of the Trump administration’s repudiation of anti-Semitism and commitment to championing the interests of the Jewish community.
Undeniable to anyone, however, was the focus of multiple speakers on the relationship between anti-Zionist activism and the rise in anti-Semitism in the United States.
In a phone interview earlier in July with JNS, Elan Carr, the Trump administration’s special envoy for combatting anti-Semitism, said he is very careful not to rank sources of anti-Semitism.
“The reason… is because of the political climate we’re in, in terms of polarization, and anti-Semitism is often weaponized for political purposes,” said Carr. “Jew-hatred is Jew-hatred, and it’s evil, and it doesn’t matter if it comes from the ethnic supremacist right, from the vicious anti-Zionist left or from radical Islam. It’s evil regardless of where it comes from, and we need to fight all of it.”
Carr did identify college campuses as an “urgent location” for combatting anti-Semitism, noting that many campuses have become hostile learning environments for Jewish students.
Alyza Lewin, president and general counsel of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, offered the summit audience her analysis of why anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism.
“Zionism, the yearning and desire of Jews to exercise their right to self-determination and to re-establish a Jewish homeland in the Land of Israel, is an inherent ancestral and ethnic Jewish characteristic,” she said. “Zionism as a political movement may have originated in the 19th century, but this ‘yearning for Zion,’ the desire of Jews to return to their ancestral homeland…is thousands of years old, as old as Abraham and the Bible.”
The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) includes denying Jewish people their right to self-determination by claiming the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor as an example in their definition of anti-Semitism.
“The IHRA definition recognizes that ‘Zionophobia,’ denying this fundamental core Jewish belief, is de facto anti-Semitism,” Lewin said.
She emphasized that one must distinguish between Zionophobes and those who genuinely seek coexistence between Jews and Arabs, and offer criticism of the Israeli government’s policies on these grounds.
“What is happening…on campuses and beyond is part of an organized, well-funded strategy to marginalize pro-Israel Zionists and deny them a place in society,” she said.
Students are being asked to choose between fundemental parts of their identity, she added.
“It’s comparable to demanding that a Catholic student disavow the Vatican, or a Muslim student shed [their] connection to Mecca. Excluding an individual…on the basis of [their] identity is discrimination.”
Recent instances of people with pride flags with the Star of David being denied entry to LGBTQ events illustrate the movement from campuses into the wider public sphere.
“If we want to ensure that history does not repeat itself, we must recognize that if you isolate and dehumanize Zionists and claim they represent society’s greatest evil, you are branding Jews with a virtual yellow Star of David,” Lewin concluded.
In his JNS interview, Carr cited the Department of Education’s formal definition of the Jewish people as an ethnic group as a concrete step by the administration to combat anti-Semitism on campus.
“Of course, one would think: ‘Well, what’s new in that? Of course, the Jewish people are an ethnic group,’” said Carr. “But issuing that definition is the prerequisite for triggering federal law and the Civil Rights Act in terms of obligating universities to create a fair and welcoming educational environment for ethnic minorities.”
“Now that Jews are defined as an ethnic minority, the Department of Education has lined up all the legal requirements to force campuses to end what is going on, which is really to create a hostile educational environment for Jewish and pro-Israel students,” he said.