The executive order that President Donald J. Trump signed at the White House Chanukah party last week is designed to protect students from an increasing number of disturbing acts of anti-Semitism on campus by withholding federal funds from colleges and universities that do not prevent or investigate harassment or threats against their Jewish students. The executive order is a well-intentioned move, and a potentially important protection for Jewish students who have been victimized by fellow students, college professors, or administrators simply because they are Jewish, or because they are targeted for harassment by those who oppose Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, or otherwise oppose Israel’s existence.
Presidential adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner is credited with pushing through the plan, which extends to Jews Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964’s prohibitions of discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin and largely reiterates 2010 guidance provided by the Obama administration on the same subject. In an op-ed published by the New York Times, Kushner explained that the order “makes clear what our administration has stated publicly on the record: Anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism.”
Critics argue that the executive order goes too far, asserting that by equating criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism, the order could have a chilling effect on free speech and improperly restrict what should be the First Amendment-protected activities of campus critics of Israel.
Such criticism is unfounded. The executive order does not prohibit students from expressing their disagreement with Israeli governmental policies and the like. Rather, it addresses those incidences when otherwise legitimate criticism joins with victimization of Jewish students on campus merely because of their affiliation with the Zionist cause. The protection is both needed and welcome, as many Jewish students — even students who are willing to criticize Israel — can attest.
Kushner is aware of the criticism and is unapologetic: “It has become fashionable among Jew haters to characterize any discriminatory behavior — no matter how loathsome — not as criticism of Jews, but of Israel. This is a lie, especially on college campuses, where discrimination, harassment, and intimidation of Jewish students has become commonplace and is routinely, but wrongly, justified.” And rather than impose limitations on speech, he argues, the order “merely says that to the extent that Jews are discriminated against for ethnic, racial, or national characteristics, they are entitled to protection by the anti-discrimination law.”
All students need to feel safe on campus. The executive order is designed to codify that protection. It also reminds universities that anti-Jewish graffiti on campus or the leafletting of dorm rooms of Jewish students with “eviction” notices — ostensibly because that’s what Israel is doing to Palestinians — are every bit as offensive as any number of racist acts perpetrated against students of color, and will not be tolerated.
Although Jews may not fit easily into one of the “race, color, or national origin” categories, we support the effort to protect all students from discrimination, harassment, and victimization.