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Trump executive order marks culmination of deliberate strategy to stifle campus organizing for Palestinian rights

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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.

Josh Ruebner

Josh Ruebner is Senior Principal at Progress Up Consulting and author of Israel: Democracy or Apartheid State? and Shattered Hopes: Obama’s Failure to Broker Israeli-Palestinian Peace (Verso Books).

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11 Responses

  1. eljay on December 12, 2019, 10:04 am

    I wonder for how much longer Jewish supremacists and their enablers and supporters will be able to get away with deliberately and unapologetically shitting on non-Jews in geographic Palestine and in countries around the world – and doing so quite loudly and anti-Semitically in the name of all Jews – before the blowback hits.

    One thing’s for sure: Because Zionists are truly hateful and immoral people, when the blowback does hit non-Jewish Zionists and many Jewish Zionists won’t hesitate to point their fingers and shout, “That one over there! He’s a Jew!”

    And with neither pride nor profit to retain his loyalty, it easy to imagine Donald Trump among those pointing and shouting the loudest.

    • Misterioso on December 13, 2019, 12:49 pm

      “Patronizing Jews and Persecuting Palestinians: The Trump Executive Order”
      by H. Scott Prosterman, Informed Comment, Dec. 13/19

      “President Donald Trump’s executive order declaring Judaism to be a nationality is both a gross act of anti-Semitism, and an attack on free speech. The alleged intent is to combat rising anti-Semitism on college campuses, by requiring the schools to treat the Boycott Divest Sanction (BDS) movement and other advocacy groups as discriminatory. Failure to comply would be considered a violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, punishable by funds being withheld by the Department of Education.

      “At the Temple Israel Religious School I attended in Memphis, a dialectic challenge was presented every year on, ‘Is Judaism a religion or race?’ Nationality never came into the discussion. As we got older the topic became more provocative, with questions about whether Jews owe loyalty first to America or Israel. The idea that Jews are a single race is refuted by the differences in ancestry between Ashkenazi Jews, mostly from Europe, and Sephardic Jews from North Africa and the Middle East. And we learned they didn’t always get along in Israel’s early history.

      “The Trump Executive Order is a conflation of several sensitive issues, badly misinterpreted; with an ill-advised solution, along with a counterproductive misapplication. Packaged as an extension of Title VI, the order reads (in the language of this Brave New World), ‘Discrimination against Jews may give rise to a Title VI violation when the discrimination is based on an individual’s race, color, or national origin.’

      “The semantic and rhetorical problem here is that we’ve never considered ourselves to be a group with a single national origin; we come in many colors, and from many national origins. Trump recently alleged at the Israel-America Council that we are a monolithic group, governed by financial interest, and beholden to him politically. His comments including, ‘You’re brutal killers; you’re not nice people, but you have to vote for me; you have no choice . . .’ — leaving many Jews saying, ‘We don’t need friends like you.’ Two days later, he issued this patronizing order supposedly to protect Jews from anti-Semitism. But many Jewish leaders view this order to be as anti-Semitic as his comments at the Israel-America Council meeting.

      “Indirectly, this misappropriation of the Civil Rights Act also undermines the prospects for a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians, and is an attack on Palestinian rights to statehood. Despite the alleged motivation of combating anti-Semitism, the effect is instead to fuel anti-Semitism, by erasing the living boundary between Judaism, the religion; and Zionism, the political ideology. In turn, this redefinition of Jewishness aims at strengthening Israel’s hold on the occupied territories by silencing Palestinian advocates in the U.S., going so far as to censor information from being legally uttered or published on college campuses. It is just the sort of heavy-handed government interference with the First Amendment that prompted the founding of the Free Speech Movement in 1964.

      “Because religion is not among the protected categories of Title VI, the order seeks to declare Jews a collective with a singular national origin (and so classing them with African-Americans or Italian-Americans). Presumably Trump imagines that our origins are in the Middle East. But most American Jews are of European descent, while the majority of Israelis are Sephardic, and the composition varies in other countries. There are confirmed Jewish populations in 99 countries. Who knows where they all came from?

      “Trump’s attempt to interfere in First Amendment freedoms recall the worst days of the McCarthy era. Many historians consider the Free Speech Movement (FSM) to be the ultimate expression of American patriotism. Consider that it started in 1960 as a direct reaction to the waning days of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAAC), one year after President Harry S. Truman called that committee, ‘The most un-American thing in the country today.’ The gestation phase of the FSM began on May 13, 1960 when HUAAC held hearings at San Francisco City Hall, which lead to protesting Cal and Stanford students getting hosed down by the police. That led to information tables on Cal’s Sproul Plaza, followed by shut downs and sanctions by the administration. The demonstrations escalated, culminating with the formal founding of the FSM in 1964 led by UC Berkeley student Mario Savio.

      “These days, right-wing thugs staging violent protests in Berkeley, Portland and other progressive cities; wearing their MAGA gear, and whining about the hypocrisy of the Free Speech Movement — making a lame attempt to conflate Constitutional rights of free expression with the freedom to incite riots, assault people and abuse minorities.

      “The intent of the Civil Rights Act was eloquently summarized by President John F. Kennedy: ‘Simple justice requires that public funds, to which all taxpayers of all races [colors, and national origins] contribute, not be spent in any fashion which encourages, entrenches, subsidizes or results in racial [color or national origin] discrimination.’

      “The movement for Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment (BDS) of Israel for its violations of international law and of human rights in Occupied Palestine, which many progressive Americans (including some progressive Jews) have joined, does not come into conflict with JFK’s summary or with any other language in the Act. Trump’s executive order inherently targets BDS and other advocacy organizations. This is yet another attempt by right-wing elements to co-opt and misapply the Free Speech Movement (FSM).

      “Some BDS advocates target only businesses operating in the occupied territories, among other nuanced applications. The movement’s leaders insist that they focus only on institutions and the Israeli government, not individuals. The boycott would, of course, cross a line if it were implemented so as to discriminate against individuals, and unfortunately that has sometimes happened. (This is one of the downsides of liberalism, along with protecting the wrong people for the wrong reasons – a lesson I have learned from living in Berkeley.) After all, many Israelis find their government’s policies in the West Bank and Gaza objectionable, just as not all Americans support Trump. To its credit, BDS does challenge the colonization agenda of the Israeli right wing.

      “Trump’s executive order not only silences free speech, but further empowers the more thuggish elements in American politics. How disingenuous. In addition, it promotes the horrid concept of ‘Jewish Nationalism,’ at the expense of Palestinian rights and any hope for a two-state solution.”


      “Rights groups slam Trump’s anti-Semitism executive order” Dec. 12/19

      “US President Donald Trump has signed an executive order making Judaism officially a nationality as well as a religion. This extends part of the Civil Rights Act and enables the Department of Education to withhold federal funding from any college found to discriminate on the grounds of race, colour, national origin, and now religion.

      “Opponents say it could shut down criticism of Israel over its treatment of Palestinians.
      The order has also been criticised by some Jewish groups – who say it differentiates them from other US citizens.”

      • RoHa on December 14, 2019, 12:03 am

        “questions about whether Jews owe loyalty first to America or Israel. ”

        I presume he means American Jews. I really can’t see why they should have any loyalty to Israel.

        “withhold federal funding from any college found to discriminate on the grounds of race, colour, national origin, and now religion.”

        I must admit that I thought the term “national origin” referred to the birthplace and previous citizenship of immigrants who have gained US citizenship, not the origin of the ancestors of born US citizens.

        I recall that some US universities, when advertising staff vacancies, say that candidates must be staunch evangelical Christians. Will this legislation affect them?

    • Mooser on December 13, 2019, 1:47 pm

      “Jewish Zionists won’t hesitate to point their fingers…”

      Why shouldn’t they? ‘Tribal unity’ is an anti-semitic trope, anyway, and there’s no reason for Jewish people to be burdened with it.

  2. Talkback on December 12, 2019, 2:11 pm

    Pro-Palestinian solidarity groups share one major flaw. They are explicitely pro-Palestinian or even anti-Israel. Which makes them an easy target for pro-Israel repercussions or the accusation of antisemitism. Or they get criminalized by pro-Israel or pro-Jewish laws etc.

    But what’s wrong about talking about universal principles? About Human rights (including the right to return and nationality) in general? Or talking about co-existence between different people, a state that should be a state of all of its citizens, that there shouldn’t be a diffence between nationals and citizens land the right to equality? Or educating Americans about the first amendment, the right to free speech and boycott? Humanitarian and international law, etc.?

    Nobody needs to even mention Israel. Nazism and South Africa under Apartheid will have just the same effect. What could the pro-Israel groups do against that? Especially if they can only talk about fabricated Jewish exclusive rights?

    Just keep the presentation universal. Call the event “Americans against Racism and Fascism”.

    Whenever I talk about universal principles Zionists are unable to response. The same happens if I ask them to formulate universal principles that could support their cause.

  3. Vera Gottlieb on December 13, 2019, 10:12 am

    A much better deed would be to stifle Trump.

  4. Misterioso on December 13, 2019, 10:13 am

    For the record:

    As made clear in the U.N. Charter, Article 2, paragraph 4, which is binding on all UN members, “Israel” is legally bound to comply with (as restated in UNSC Resolution 242), the “inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war”

    As repeatedly affirmed by the UN Security Council (e.g., Resolutions 446, 465 and 476), the Legal Adviser of the U.S. Department of State, and in a ruling by the International Court of Justice in 2004, all lands occupied by Israel in June 1967 are illegally and belligerently occupied. Hence, by transferring its population into the occupied territories and creating therein Jewish settlement colonies, Israel is in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention (ratified by Israel in 1951) along with subsequent human rights legislation, including, the Rome Statue of the International Court (1998) which defines “the transfer directly or indirectly by the Occupying power of parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies” as a War Crime, indictable by the International Criminal Court. Israel’s occupation is also in violation of the U.N. Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, both binding on all UN member states.

    Also: “In its landmark 2004 advisory opinion, ‘Legal Consequences of the Construction of a Wall In the Occupied Palestinian Territory,’ the International Court of Justice repeatedly affirmed the preambular paragraph of Resolution 242 emphasizing the inadmissibility of territorial conquest as well as a 1970 General Assembly resolution emphasizing that ‘No territorial acquisition resulting from the threat or use of force shall be recognized as legal.’ The World Court denoted this principle a ‘corollary’ of the U.N. Charter and as such ‘customary international law’ and a ‘customary rule’ binding on all member States of the United Nations. It merits notice that on this crucial point none of the Court’s 15 justices registered any dissent.” (“Legal Consequences of the Construction of a Wall in the Occupied Palestinian Territory,” Advisory Opinion (Int’l Ct. of Justice July 9, 2004), 43 IL M 1009 (2004), paras. 74, 87,117, Dr. Norman Finkelstein in “Important notes to be included in analysis of Resolution 242,” 28 December 2006,

  5. Misterioso on December 13, 2019, 10:36 am

    BTW, lest there be any doubt, in gross violation of the UN Charter, (Article 2, paragraph 4) and its commitments to Washington’s Johnson administration, Israel started the 1967 war:

    At 7:45 AM on 5 June 1967, just four days after the conclusion of fruitful discussions in Cairo between Egyptian President Nasser and U.S. President Johnson’s special advisor, Robert Anderson, to end the confrontation that had developed between Israel and Egypt, Israel launched a land and air attack against Egypt and thereby, Jordan and Syria, each of whom shared a mutual defense pact with Egypt.

    Israel’s invasion of Egypt was in violation of a pledge Prime Minister Levi Eshkol had cabled U.S. President Lyndon Johnson on May 30th. As agreed to by his cabinet during a meeting on May 28th, Eshkol acceded to Johnson’s request and agreed to hold back on attacking Egypt until June 11th – to give Washington sufficient time to seek a diplomatic solution.

    To quote President Johnson: “As my advisers and I interpreted it, [the content of Eshkol’s May 30th cable]… meant that we had about two weeks to make diplomacy succeed before Israel took independent military action. This judgment was strengthened by information from other diplomatic sources.”

    On June 2nd, Walt Rostow, Johnson’s Special Assistant for National Security Affairs, met with “a high ranking Israeli diplomat.” Rostow advised the president in a memo that the diplomat told him Israel “had made a commitment to hold steady for about two weeks. He would measure that from the Cabinet meeting last Sunday [May 28.] Therefore, he was talking about things that might happen in the week after next; that is, the week beginning Sunday, June 11 – although he indicated that there was nothing ironclad about the time period being exactly two weeks.” (Lyndon Johnson, The Vantage Point: Perspectives of the Presidency 1963-1969, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971, p. 294)

    It is important to note that the “high-ranking Israeli diplomat” did not indicate or even hint to Rostow that there was a possibility Israel might attack Egypt, as it did, just three days after their meeting.

  6. Waterbuoy on December 13, 2019, 12:32 pm

    Does the idea that advocating for Palestinian rights is “anti-Semitic” imply that all Jews are human rights abusers and apartheid supporters? (historically BS)
    If so, the act of equating criticism of Israeli policies with antisemitism is, in fact TRULY anti-Semitic.

    • RoHa on December 14, 2019, 12:04 am

      Don’t worry about logic. Just keep suppressing criticism of Israel.

  7. just on December 13, 2019, 6:00 pm

    I just read this article and cannot help but wonder @ these parents who apparently have zero interest in anything resembling justice, understanding, or even dialogue:

    “Town Slams ‘Murderous Terrorists,’ Nixes Israeli-Palestinian Coexistence Meeting for Students

    Meeting with bereaved families meant to open dialogue about coexistence cancelled after politicians and parents complain of children being exposed to ‘terrorists’

    A northern Israeli municipality cancelled a meeting between high school students and an Israeli-Palestinian NGO after parents and right-wing politicians complained that they did not want the children exposed to “terrorists.”

    The school’s student council blasted the move, calling it a “cowardly, unfortunate and irresponsible move, which violates basic democratic values and the high school’s educational values.”

    The non-compulsory meeting in the town of Nesher between high school students and The Parents Circle Families Forum, a grassroots organization of Palestinian and Israeli families who have lost immediate family members in the conflict, was slated for Thursday. The student council expressed its full support for the educational staff that planned the meeting.

    The Nesher municipality said: “Following a request from the school’s central parents committee, the meeting planned for today was called off.”

    Shlomi Zino, a city council member for the Likud, told Haaretz that a number of students had asked him to act to cancel the meeting with the NGO at the school. “I briefed the chairman of the parents committee and the mayor, who were not aware of the meeting, and the education minister and a few Knesset members.”

    “A meeting in which Palestinian parents and the school management preach sympathy for the enemy’s casualties and murderous terrorists erodes our sense of righteousness in our cause,” he said.

    The NGO’s Palestinian CEO Bassam Aaramin said “cancelling the meeting is extremely alarming. Terrorists don’t come to speak at schools, you see. We talk about the tragedies that have befallen us and we say that all this land isn’t worth a single drop of our children’s blood. After meetings like these, students start to think that dialogue is possible.”

    Forum member Aharon Barnea, who was on his way to the meeting Thursday, said, “Some parents are afraid of the influence we might have on the youth. It’s simply appalling. We visit other schools, and one of the first questions we ask is whether the teens have ever met a Palestinian. Everywhere we go, the answer is no, and then they realize that the person in front of them is a human being. Apparently that scares the government.”

    Forum spokeswoman Robi Damelin said “we’d like to meet the parents who opposed the meeting at Nesher and the students who perhaps feel threatened and say something simple: Our stories are just like theirs. My pain is no different from a Palestinian mother’s pain.”

    According to the Education Ministry’s website on extra-curricular programs, the meeting is intended for students in grades 10-12 and “enables them to meet the Palestinian ‘other’ in a direct and humane way and to hold a dialogue as a form of reconciliation between the nations. Forum members who lost those most dear to them are, in their shared stand, living proof that it is possible to overcome the anger and revenge and act together to achieve rapprochement and hope.”

    “I understand they were going to bring them parents of terrorists today. How is that at all reasonable?” a parent wrote in the parents committee’s Whatsapp group on Thursday morning. “Don’t agree to it. [The parents from] our side – no problem. Their side can go speak at their schools and in Gaza.”

    “Guys, calm down,” wrote another parent. “It’s a program that exposes the children to both sides. The idea is to show the kids that grief over a dead child isn’t a matter of nationality. These are not terrorists. Enough with the hate. The people who are coming to the school have been vetted.”

    “It’s insane, borderline of sick. They’re parents of terrorists,” wrote one of the mothers. “May they burn,” wrote another.

    A meeting with Parents Circle Families Forum at the same school was cancelled about two years ago after right-wing officials intervened. Among them was Zino, who was running for mayor at the time. Until that point, forum members had been visiting the high school for many years. …”

    more @

    The students wanted to attend and participate… what horrors these parents/leaderscontinue to commit. Special attention should be given to Zino’s quote and agenda.

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