Editor’s Note: The following is a statement from California Scholars for Academic Freedom. Mondoweiss occasionally publishes press releases and statements from organizations in an effort to draw attention to overlooked issues.
The Trump administration has overseen a rise in white nationalism and overt antisemitism in the United States. At the same time, the administration’s claims of combatting antisemitism have in reality simply been measures to actively repress the Palestinian solidarity movement. This practice was most recently seen on December 11, 2019, when the Trump Administration issued the “Executive Order on Combatting Anti-Semitism.” This legislation sets a menacing precedent in its punishment of political speech. It threatens to withhold federal funding in response to Palestine solidarity activities on college campuses. These activities have been under increasing attack for the past decade, from an array of forces that hope to undermine one of the most powerful freedom movements to have surfaced in recent times.
Following the release of the Executive Order, people across the political spectrum expressed confusion and incredulity at the notion that Jewish people in the United States and everywhere would now be considered a racial or national group. We write to clarify both the legislation itself and its potential impact on college campuses and beyond—and the cultural and social ramifications of the order, which attempts to repress Palestine solidarity activity by naming that political speech “antisemitic”. The order does so, not by directly defining Jewish people as a national or racial group; rather, this Executive Order promotes the illogical but familiar claim that criticism and condemnation of the state of Israel constitutes antisemitism. The killings and attacks on Jewish people in synagogues, on the streets, and now in their homes, the desecration of Jewish cemeteries, and the smashing of Jewish-owned stores–all of which have arisen in the U.S. under Trump’s dangerous support for white nationalism–are the most virulent contemporary forms of antisemitism. And Trump’s executive order redefining antisemitism is only the latest of his cynical ploys. That order does nothing to address the white supremacy that is fueling these attacks. Instead it defines as antisemitic any criticism of Israel by those dedicated to pressing for justice in and for Palestine.
In its claim to protect Jewish students from on-campus antisemitism through the use of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act (Title VI), this Executive Order simply reiterates longstanding federal policy. In 2010, the Obama Administration released a “Dear Colleague” letter regarding bullying and harassment in educational institutions. The letter clarifies that antisemitic acts (the presence of swastikas, stereotypes of Jewish people as moneyed, and so forth) trigger responsibilities under Title VI. In practice, these forms of hate speech, and related hostile expressions of religious prejudice—including both antisemitism and Islamophobia—are already considered discriminatory and actionable under Title VI by the relevant federal agencies. And thus, Trump’s executive order does not does not add new protections to defend Jewish students against antisemitic acts, because Title VI already covers antisemitism. Rather, Trump’s order expands the definition of antisemitism to include protest against Israeli state practices, stigmatizing and punishing this speech. Meanwhile, the order says nothing about actual instances of antisemitism—including those of white nationalists who share the racial discourse and ideology of the Trump administration itself.
The Executive Order is a ruse. As scholars who long have supported academic freedom on university campuses in California, we at CS4AF recognize the Executive Order for what it is: a genuine threat to free expression that will chill speech and punish Palestine solidarity and anyone who criticizes Israeli state violence. Supported by right-wing Zionist organizations, the Executive Order adopts the definition of antisemitism promoted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), which naturalizes Israel as the state of “the Jewish people,” calling criticism of Israeli state violence antisemitic.
To equate criticism of the state of Israel with antisemitism relies on the amalgamation of Jewish peoples, a diverse and heterogeneous constellation of cultures and ethnicities, not bound by race or nationality, nor unified in ideology. This ahistorical untruth reflects Israeli state policy, especially the 2018 Basic Law, which enshrines the state of Israel as the state of the “Jewish people.” This law reiterates the 1948 “Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel,” which invokes both biblical knowledge and Zionist political history to yoke the concept of the “Jewish people” to the state. Prior to the 2018 nation-state law, Israeli citizenship (including Palestinians who made up more than 20% of the population), did not depend on ethnic, racial, or religious criteria. Now, however, the state of Israel describes itself as a “Jewish collectivity” that bears the sole right to political self-determination within its borders. The 2018 Basic Law explicitly rules out the possibility of a shared form of governance between Jewish and non-Jewish citizens, ipso facto excluding Palestinians from the “collectivity” of the Israeli state of which they are residents.
We join many others (including Jewish groups in the United States) in condeming the tie between “the Jewish people” and Zionism as, in itself, antisemitic. While the state of Israel purports to speak and act on behalf of all Jewish people, it has become increasingly apparent to both Jews and non-Jews that it does not. To naturalize the link between Jewish people and the state of Israel is a strategy for Israeli state power, an attempt to legitimize Israeli domination of the land and peoples of Palestine through the claim that all Jewish people support the colonizing project of the Israeli state, and further, need it for their guarantee of “safety”.
While the Executive Order purports to legislate action on college campuses, its massive circulation in media outlets, including misleading reports from the New York Times, signals a profound threat to academic freedom, and to constitutionally guaranteed rights of freedom of expression. As many activist organizations have noted, the recent Executive Order harnesses the power of the federal purse to suppress the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement that has gained increasing strength on college campuses. Attempts to outlaw the boycott of Israel through congressional legislation, such as H.R. 1697, have failed repeatedly, due to opposition from an array of voices from civil society. Just as Trump’s recent withholding of congressionally-mandated aid to Ukraine violated legislative intent, his new Executive Order circumvents the democratic process by unilaterally limiting political speech. The effect of this order, and the varied interpretations of it in media, has been to heighten anxiety both about antisemitism and about Palestine solidarity activity on and beyond U.S. campuses. The Trump administration is, once again, sowing distrust and disaster while students, campus communities, and many others—including members of Jewish communities—want to participate in meaningful discussion, debate and political protest, on college campuses and beyond.
The executive order signals a repressive state action—in effect, setting policy by executive fiat—and an increasingly hostile limit on speech. It will give permission to those university administrations who wish to suppress Palestine solidarity activity rather than make a strong defense of academic freedom, which often involves controversial speech—but it does not, in fact, shift the legal apparatus that responds to actual antisemitism. Rather, it signals support for the state of Israel’s ongoing settler colonial project which, since 1948, has dispossessed Palestinian people and has folded subclasses of Mizrahi Jewish people into its apartheid strucutre. Moreover, it comes on the heels of the Trump administration’s flouting of international law by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and legitimating Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights and the Jordan River Valley, as well as acquiescing in the slaughter and maiming of thousands of Gazan civilians during the Great March of Return. In this context, the executive order may set the stage to clamp down on criticism of even more egregious actions planned by Israel in the days ahead.
However, Trump’s Executive Order can and will be resisted. In 2016, the University of California Regents proposed near-identical legislation that attempted to use the U.S. State Department definition of antisemitism on UC campuses. A coalition of campus groups defeated this effort, objecting on principled grounds to the assertion that criticism of the state of Israel is antisemitic. We add our collective voice to the many who have already stood up to oppose this illogical, anti-historical, and deeply dangerous claim once again.