Trump’s Executive Order on Anti-Semitism: Good or Bad?

By Steve Sheffey

If you remember nothing else, at least remember this:

  • Trump’s executive order on anti-Semitism does not define Jews as a race or nationality, nor does it break new legal ground.
  • The order follows the Obama administration’s approach but adopts a flawed definition of anti-Semitism that could create problems depending on how the order is enforced.
  • Trump engaged in rhetoric that his own order defines as anti-Semitic four days before issuing the order; his hypocrisy is astounding.
  • The criteria Rabbi Jill Jacobs proposed in 2018 for determining whether criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic is better than the criteria in Trump’s order or the simplistic “3 Ds” proposed by Natan Sharansky.

Trump’s executive order got off to a rocky start. The White House Executive Order on Combating Anti-Semitism does not, contrary to bad reporting from the New York Times, classify Jews as a race or a nationality. My guess is that the reporter was unfamiliar with the proposed Anti-Semitism Awareness Act on which the order is based and, in trying to summarize it without understanding it, mischaracterized it.

Trump’s hypocrisy is astounding — he issued his order four days after making anti-Semitic remarks that many Jewish groups denounced and that were anti-Semitic as defined by his own order. He was justly criticized. It’s hard for the executive branch to fight anti-Semitism when its leader regularly spews anti-Semitism. This order does little other than to provide a definition of anti-Semitism that could be a help or hindrance depending on how it is applied.

The Trump administration has yet to take action against violent anti-Semitism, whether by curbing Trump’s anti-Semitic rhetoric or by supporting gun safety legislation. If the order has any effect, for better or worse, it will be on college campuses. Your synagogue won’t decrease its security spending because of this order.

The executive order’s definition of anti-Semitism is meant to provide clarity about when criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic, but could do the opposite. During the Obama administration, the State Department adopted the working definition of anti-Semitism endorsed by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA): “Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews.”

But what does that mean in real life? The IHRA definition is followed by examples that “could, taking into account the overall context,” be anti-Semitic. Most of the examples are fine, but some would only be anti-Semitic in some contexts, and the document does not clarify what those contexts are. For example, applying double standards to Israel can be anti-Semitic, but not necessarily (more on that below).

Trump’s executive order states that it shall be “the policy of the executive branch to enforce Title VI against prohibited forms of discrimination rooted in anti-Semitism as vigorously as against all other forms of discrimination prohibited by Title VI.”

Title VI “prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin in programs and activities receiving Federal financial assistance” (including colleges). What is new about the order is its requirement that agencies enforcing Title VI consider the IHRA definition and its examples.

Trump’s executive order was signed at a Hanukkah Party. It is, as JDCA Executive Director Halie Soifer said, a PR stunt.

But what’s the problem? As Mark Stern explains, even though the order reaffirms existing law and “does not deviate from [the Obama administration’s] understanding of the overlap between discrimination on the basis of race or nationality and discrimination against religion…a tendentious reading of [the IHRA definition] could theoretically get students in trouble for severe condemnation of Israeli policy, even when it does not cross the line into a condemnation of Jews.”

For example, writes Zack Beauchamp, “rigorously applying the IHRA standard to Title VI enforcement could, then, result in reclassifying campus advocacy for the Palestinians as anti-Semitism — forcing universities to either crack down on student free speech or risk losing a whole lot of federal funding.”

The ACLU makes a convincing case that the executive order would chill free speech. Paul Clement makes a convincing case that it would not (the ACLU and Clement were writing about the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act, but the executive order presents identical issues). Whether the executive order will help or hinder the fight against anti-Semitism on campus will depend on whether and how the IHRA definition changes federal enforcement.

Can we better define when criticism of Israel becomes anti-Semitic? Natan Sharansky recommends the “3 Ds” to determine whether anti-Israel criticism is anti-Semitic: demonization, delegitimization, and double standard.

Mnemonics are great for remembering hard facts. “My Very Enthusiastic Mother Just Served Us Noodles” is a wonderful way to remember the planets. But when someone tries to sell you on a mnemonic to understand a nuanced concept, be wary.

Delegitimizing Israel can be anti-Semitic and might often be anti-Semitic, but not always. Anti-Zionism is not inherently anti-Semitic. It’s anti-Israel and antithetical to what we believe, but not necessarily anti-Semitic.

Holding Israel to a double standard could a symptom of anti-Semitism, but asRabbi Jill Jacobs explains, “human rights activists and organizations almost always choose a focus for their efforts. (One may reasonably work to end the genocide of the Rohingya community in Burma, for instance, without simultaneously addressing Bashar al-Assad’s slaughter of his people in Syria.)”

Even demonizing Israel, depending on the language, might not be anti-Semitic (although the word “demonizing” pretty much assumes the conclusion).

We can do better than three criteria chosen because they begin with the same letter. We can also do better than the IHRA definition used in Trump’s executive order, which Ken Stern said “was intended for data collectors writing reports about anti-Semitism in Europe” and not for use on college campuses. Stern should know. He wrote the damn definition.

As David Schraub explains, the IHRA definition is “vague to the point of incoherency, and riddled with so much imprecision and hedging that it could justify labeling anything or nothing anti-Semitic.”

In 2018, Rabbi Jacobs outlined criteria that can help us determine whether criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic while avoiding the pitfalls of the IHRA definition. Her criteria aren’t as easy to remember as the “3 Ds,” but for a subject this important, that’s okay:

  • Seeing Jews as insidious influencers behind the scenes of world events.
  • Using the word “Zionist” as code for “Jew” or “Israeli.”
  • Denying Jewish history.
  • Dismissing the humanity of Israelis.
  • Assuming that the Israeli government speaks for all Jews.

When it comes to labeling anti-Semitism, we can’t afford to get it wrong.

Want to go in-depth about Trump’s executive order? By far the best articles to read are the David Schraub and Mark Stern articles I discussed above, plus the latest from Rabbi Jacobs.

Steve Sheffey is Strategy and Policy Adviser to the Jewish Democratic Council of America (JDCA) and the publisher of the weekly Chicagoland Pro-Israel Political Update. Sign up for his newsletter here. The views expressed here are his own.