Editorial: Reshaping nationality


editorial cartoon by Molly Zatman

President Trump recently signed an executive order to combat the rise of antisemitism in schools and higher education institutions across the nation. In effect, the order redefines Judaism as a nationality, allowing for discrimination against Jews to be ruled illegal under civil rights law.

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act states that nobody should be subject to discrimination on the basis of nationality (among other things that do not include religion) in any program receiving federal funding.

Trump’s argument goes something like this: by treating Judaism as a nationality, schools and public universities where antisemitism is not actively prevented will lose access to federal funds. Thus, if educational institutions fail to adequately combat antisemitism, the U.S. Department of Education can and will withhold funds as a disincentive to allowing antisemitism to exist.

As a Jewish community, this is a cause we need to support. These days, we hear about numerous antisemitic acts on college campuses, and this order is intended to force institutions to crack down on attacks on the Jewish community.

The effects of this bill are not limited to public universities. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, public secondary schools receive about eight percent of their revenue from the federal government. This means that if schools such as Bethesda Chevy-Chase, where swastikas have been drawn in bathrooms, do not fight the discrimination that Jewish students have been subject to, they could lose a significant portion of their funding.

That said, we must recognize the downsides of this executive order as well. Viewing Jews as their own nationality further separates us from the rest of the population and promotes the idea that American Jews are not simply American, a slippery slope to go down considering the parallels to how Jews were treated in 20th century Europe.

Arguably, the more significant consequence of the executive order is its effect on free speech. The order uses the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism which considers “claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor” and expecting “behavior [of the Israeli government] not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation” to be antisemitism.

The problem with this definition is that it is overly broad and gives the government a lot of power when enforcing the law. It appears that this definition is attempting to prevent all, even legitimate, criticism of Israel as well as Palestinian support (mostly targeted at BDS, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement), which would violate the First Amendment.

The New York Times describes the executive order as an attempt to pressure universities into fostering an open and welcome climate for Jewish students, something we must support, but that has been hindered by the BDS movement. However, we need to draw a line between BDS’ often violent actions towards Jewish students, which are antisemitic, and their movement’s beliefs, which are protected by our Constitution regardless of your perspective.

This executive order is far from perfect: it has isolated American Jews and may even restrict free speech. However, we need to support the intent of this order and to stand with fellow Jewish students across the country, whether or not you back the approach this order takes in efforts to do so.

This story was featured in the Volume 37, Issue 4 print edition of The Lion’s Tale, published on January 16, 2020.