President Donald Trump signed an executive order on Wednesday that would effectively allow the government to interpret Judaism as both a race or nationality and a religion under federal law so that the Education Department can take direct action against what he views as anti-Semitism on college campuses.
Trump, joined by lawmakers and administration officials in addition to New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, said the order "makes clear" that Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would "apply to institutions that traffic in anti-Semitic hate."
Pointing to past bipartisan efforts to pass similar legislation, Trump said that "they didn't get it done," adding, "This year, there's no roadblock."
The interpretation would allow the Education Department to withhold funding from college or educational programs it believes are discriminating in an anti-Semitic way. The law states that the Education Department can take such action against a program that discriminates based "on the ground of race, color or national origin" — but not on religion.
The latest order comes largely in response to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against the Israeli government for its treatment of Palestinians. The movement has become prominent on some campuses and resulted in actions that have left some Jewish students feeling targeted.
After wrapping up his address, Trump called upon the evangelical pastor Robert Jeffress to offer some words. Jeffress, who once said Jews were going to hell, said at the White House that Trump is "the most pro-faith president in history" and that God will "bless those who bless Israel and curse those who curse Israel."
Jeffress added that Trump is on the "right side of God."
Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, who has provided Trump with favorable legal analysis, spoke next, saying there had been "no more important event in" the six decades he's spent on college campuses "to turn universities away from being bastions of hatred and discrimination than this executive order being signed today."
"It is a game changer," he added. "One of the most important events in the 2,000-year battle against anti-Semitism."
In supporting the order, the Trump administration appeared to be recognizing Jews as having a collective national origin — or, more specifically, extending protections to Jewish students from those who might attack them based on that perception. Amid a fierce debate over the measure's intent on that front, White House senior adviser Jared Kushner, in a New York Times op-ed late Wednesday, said that the order "does not define Jews as a nationality."
A senior administration official told reporters Tuesday that "the Domestic Policy Council began to focus on this issue in the late winter-spring of this year, when we were alarmed, frankly, at a rise in anti-Semitic rhetoric, including, unfortunately, from leading political figures. ... We looked at the data and we saw that there's been a rise in anti-Semitic incidents since 2013, and we began a policy process to figure out, specifically, what we could do on the subject."
The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance defines anti-Semitism as "a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews," though “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic."
The definition also includes "denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination," which lists “claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor" among such denials.
Trump's order mirrors bipartisan legislation that stalled out in Congress, though critics have said the change could be used to stifle free speech and opposition to Israel's government.
Some Jewish leaders who said they had been shown a draft version of the order described the language ahead of its final release as not being materially different than that used for similar guidelines issued during previous administrations, such as President Barack Obama’s.
The White House had not released the final text for a full day following the initial announcement. White House officials earlier Wednesday would not confirm the draft language or respond to questions about ways in which the order itself — or the administration’s interpretation or enforcement of that order — might differ from previous actions.
"When news of the impending executive order leaked, many rushed to criticize it without understanding its purpose," Kushner, Trump's son-in-law, wrote in the Times op-ed. "The executive order does not define Jews as a nationality. It merely says that to the extent that Jews are discriminated against for ethnic, racial or national characteristics, they are entitled protection by the anti-discrimination law."
The executive order was criticized by the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.
"Trump’s anti-democratic, anti-Palestinian exec order would abuse federal funding to bully universities into suppressing freedom of speech in support of Palestinian rights," the Palestinian Campaign tweeted.
Some Jewish leaders were cool to the proposal as well.
"If President Trump truly wanted to address the scourge of anti-Semitism he helped to create, he would accept responsibility for his role emboldening white nationalism, perpetuating anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, and repeating stereotypes that have led to violence targeting Jews," Halie Soifer, executive director of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, said in a statement. "Instead, President Trump continues to view Israel and anti-Semitism solely through a political lens, which he attempts to use to his political advantage."
"This executive order, like the stalled congressional legislation it is based on, appears designed less to combat anti-Semitism than to have a chilling effect on free speech and to crack down on campus critics of Israel," J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami said in a statement. "J Street is committed to fighting all forms of anti-Semitism — and we feel it is misguided and harmful for the White House to unilaterally declare a broad range of nonviolent campus criticism of Israel to be anti-Semitic, especially at a time when the prime driver of anti-Semitism in this country is the xenophobic, white nationalist far-right."
Others were supportive. As The New York Times reported, the executive order was welcomed by the Anti-Defamation League. The Republican Jewish Coalition praised the order, with its national chairman, former Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., calling the change a "truly historic and important moment for Jewish Americans."
"President Trump has extended to Jewish students very strong, meaningful legal protection from anti-Semitic discrimination," he said. "Sadly, every day, Jewish students on college campuses face outrageous attacks on their Jewish identity and beliefs. The rapid increase in such incidents in recent years is of great concern."
The Orthodox Union, an Orthodox Judaism advocacy group, also praised the order, with President Mark Bane saying it "not only recognizes but also provides a course of legal action against the scourge of anti-Semitism that has for too long been festering on our nation’s college campuses."
"Those who seek to use our academic institutions as places to stoke anti-Jewish sentiment are now on notice: There will be consequences for their racism," he said.
Trump has positioned himself as staunchly pro-Israel throughout his presidency, moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, recognizing the Golan Heights as Israeli and lambasting progressive Democratic lawmakers critical of the Israel and U.S. support for it.
The president has also been accused of perpetuating anti-Semitic tropes and emboldening white supremacists. He came under criticism this weekend for comments he made in Florida to the Israeli American Council, in which he said Jews had no choice but to support him in the face of Sen. Elizabeth Warren's proposed wealth tax on Americans whose net worth exceeds $50 million.
"A lot of you are in the real estate business because I know you very well. You're brutal killers, not nice people at all," he said. "But you have to vote for me, you have no choice."
"You're not going to vote for the wealth tax. ... Even if you don't like me, some of you don't. Some of you I don't like at all actually. And you're going to be my biggest supporters because you'd be out of business in about 15 minutes if they get it."
The remarks drew cheers from the conservative-leaning crowd, but were met with condemnation from some Jewish groups.
Trump signed the order at the first of a pair of Hanukkah receptions at the White House Wednesday evening.