President Trump signed yesterday an Executive Order empowering the federal government to crack down on campus organizing for Palestinian rights under the guise of combating antisemitism.
“This is our message to universities: If you want to accept the tremendous amount of federal dollars that you get every year, you must reject antisemitism,” Trump stated during a White House Hanukkah reception which doubled as a signing ceremony.
But Trump’s Executive Order has nothing to do with combating the scourge of antisemitism, the revival of which he is greatly responsible for by stoking white supremacy. Instead, it is primarily designed to pressure universities to disallow students to boycott for Palestinian rights.
This aim, however, is not self-evident in the text of the Executive Order, which omits any reference to Israel, Palestinians, or BDS. The true intent of Trump’s action is obfuscated in a brief mention that government agencies “shall consider” the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism and its associated contemporary examples of antisemitism in determining whether Jewish people have had their civil rights violated under Title VI of Civil Rights Act.
To be clear, the federal government should ensure that the civil rights of all religious minorities are upheld. And, also to be clear, what the IHRA’s working definition of antisemitism describes, along with many of its contemporary examples, are unambiguously and unimpeachably anti-Jewish bigotry.
However, some of the IHRA’s examples of antisemitism touching upon criticism of Israel are problematic. These include “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,” and “applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.”
These vague and subjective examples are designed to be flexible enough to cover large swaths of First Amendment-protected free speech. For example, campus Zionist groups could argue that Jewish students’ civil rights are being violated if a Students for Justice in Palestine chapter advocates for a single, democratic state in which indigenous Palestinians would have equal rights to Jewish Israelis; hosts an academic panel deconstructing Israel’s foundational racist policies and laws; or organizes a campus boycott of Israeli goods to protest Israeli governmental policies without simultaneously and with equal vigor organizing boycotts against every other single country in the world with a parliament.
While the text of the Executive Order requires this background knowledge to understand its real impact, the Trump administration’s dubiously entitled “fact sheet” accompanying the order necessitates no such digging.
Immediately under a bullet point noting “horrific acts of violence against Jewish Americans and synagogues in the United States,” the Trump administration oh-so-subtly pivots to a smear campaign against “18 Democrat [sic] Members of Congress [who] cosponsored legislation in support of the anti-Semitic ‘Boycott, Divest, Sanctions’ (BDS) movement,” claiming they “shockingly compared support for Israel to support for Nazi Germany.”
In fact, the resolution in question, H.Res.496, introduced by Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN), reaffirms in general terms the First Amendment right of people to engage in boycotts and maintains that “Americans of conscience have a proud history of participating in boycotts to advocate for human rights abroad,” including “boycotting Nazi Germany from March 1933 to October 1941 in response to the dehumanization of the Jewish people in the lead-up to the Holocaust.”
These aptly-named bullet points are the quintessence of the Trump administration’s weaponization of antisemitism and its concomitant Islamophobia.
It is worth noting that the president resorted to this Executive Order only because a similar legislative effort has stalled in Congress due to First Amendment concerns. The order mirrors the misleadingly-named Anti-Semitism Awareness Act, which is currently languishing in committee and has failed to pass previous congressional sessions.
It is also important to acknowledge that Trump’s Executive Order was not issued on a whim but as the culmination of a deliberate strategy to stifle campus organizing for Palestinian rights. On the campaign trail, Jason Greenblatt and David Friedman menacingly pledged that “the Trump administration will ask the Justice Department to investigate coordinated attempts on college campuses to intimidate students who support Israel.” And the FBI has dutifully responded by siccing its agents on students who would threaten the supply of Sabra hummus in cafeterias.
The Trump administration stepped up its attack on students organizing for Palestinian rights by nominating Kenneth Marcus to be the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at the Department of Education. Marcus has spent the better part of his career filing baseless Title VI discrimination claims against student organizers for Palestinian rights, trying to defund Middle East Studies programs demonstrating insufficient fealty to Israel, and advocating for the IHRA antisemitism definition.
Last year, Marcus wrote a letter to the Zionist Organization of America announcing that the Office of Civil Rights was now unilaterally employing the controversial IHRA definition and examples of antisemitism in its investigations. This move was made absent regular interagency coordination or a public comment period.
Trump’s Executive Order provides Marcus with the post-facto regulatory justification he needs to bolster his hasty fiat.
The stage is now set for an even more unprecedented governmental crack down against student organizers for Palestinian rights.