President Trump signs order that may limit free speech at campuses

On Dec. 9, 2019, President Trump signed an executive order that would protect Jews from hate crimes at all U.S. universities and colleges. The order would apply Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act to Jews. 

Acts of anti-Semitism, such as the 2018 shooting at a Pittsburgh Synagogue and hate crimes at universities have spurred the president to sign this order, according to the White House’s Official Statement released on Dec. 11, 2019.

On Dec. 9, 2019, President Trump signed an executive order that would protect Jews from hate crimes at universities. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

“Anti-Semitic incidents have increased in America since 2013, particularly in schools and on college campuses,” the statement said.

The executive order shows Title VI’s terms of discrimination based on race, color and national origin. The order will extend to anti-Semitism as well, as defined by The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, or IHRA

“Anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities,” the IHRA said.

If a university or college were to violate this order, it would have federal funds cut from it. Suspected crimes have to be reported to the Department of Justice, where they are to be investigated and reviewed, according to Title VI.

This ban on Jewish discrimination would stifle supporters of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement, or BDS. This organization opposes the occupation of Israel in the land that they believe rightfully belongs to Palestine, according to its website. The movement focuses on non-violence and does not promote anti-Semitism. The BDS National Committee’s members, for example, include the Council of National and Islamic Forces in Palestine.

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BDS has an active campaign called Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel that has been active since April of 2004. The campaign aims to sever ties in academia with Israel, such as American universities abroad studies in Israel. 

BDS also hosts anti-Israeli protests on college campuses all over the U.S. with the National Students for Justice in Palestine. The executive order would make it punishable by federal law to partake in these protests.

Some Jewish groups, such as J-Street, a left-leaning group, are worried this will infringe on free speech at campuses of opposers of Israel policy towards Palestine.

J-Street released a statement on their website about the order on Dec. 11, 2019.

“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,” according to the website.

The Republican Jewish Coalition is in support of the order and praised the president on its official website for signing the order.

“This is 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,” the website said.

Beyond free speech, there is concern in Jewish communities about categorizing Jews as a nationality. Rabbi Jonah Pesner is the head of Reform Judaism’s Religious Action Center in Washington D.C. He expresses his concern on the order in a 2019 Washington Post article titled “Is Judaism an ethnicity? A race? A nationality? Trump signs an order and provokes an identity crisis.”

“Throughout Jewish history, categorizing Jews into a separate group has led to othering and sometimes violence. So we’re just cautious,” Pesner said. “Any good-faith attempt to protect any minority, including the Jewish minority, from anti-Semitism or violence is a good thing… We’re just cautious about the government defining who we are and the government defining who is part of us.”

UAA is home to Students United for Israel, a student club “united for the cause of Human Rights in the Middle East,” according to its website.

The executive order can be viewed at the official White House website. For more information about the definitions of anti-semitism, The International Holocaust Alliance has a comprehensive list on its website.