Tuesday night, the New York Times reported that President Trump was set to sign an executive order targeting “anti-Semitism and Israel boycotts on college campuses.” The article stated, “The order will effectively interpret Judaism as a race or nationality, not just a religion, to prompt a federal law penalizing colleges and universities deemed to be shirking their responsibility to foster an open climate for minority students.”
Now that we’ve actually been able to read this executive order, it seems like the NYT got this wrong. But before we get into all that, let’s break down the basics.
The proposed executive order is meant to make the Civil Rights Act of 1964 apply to Jewish college students. Why? Under Title VI of that act, the Department of Education can withhold public funding from a school or university that discriminates “on the ground of race, color, or national origin.” Not included: religion.
The Trump administration will now be able to say that boycotting Israel on college campuses is harming Jews, and then they will likely try to withhold funding from schools that promote the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.
Trump is using the definition of anti-Semitism cited in 2016 by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, which defines certain types of anti-Israel activity as anti-Semitic, but also says not all Israel criticism should be classified as anti-Semitism.
Wednesday morning, Jewish Insider obtained a draft of the order that Trump will sign. Nowhere in the order does it explicitly define Jews as a nationality, but calls for the enforcement of “Title VI against prohibited forms of discrimination rooted in anti-Semitism as vigorously as against all other forms of discrimination prohibited by Title VI.” So, one could read the text to imply that Jews can be perceived as a race or having a common national origin, in order to receive protection under Title VI.
Jared Kushner took to the New York Times to reject claims that his father-in-law’s executive order defined Jews as a nationality. In an opinion piece, he wrote: “It merely says that to the extent that Jews are discriminated against for ethnic, racial or national characteristics, they are entitled to protection by the anti-discrimination law.”
This is complex: The idea of “nationality” as we understand it in 2019 is a modern concept — it relates back to the rise of the “nation-state,” which we can trace back to the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. Essentially, definitions of modern nation-states are not easily agreed upon: Some define them as states where the people in the state shares the same culture, or where people are united by language or common descent. Long story short, this led to a rise of nationalities.
Jews, as we know, have a history that extends way back before the rise of “nation-states,” which made Jews a problem in the “Westphalian system.” (Read a @trekonomics Twitter thread here.)
We can conceive of the Jewish people as a “nation,” but that doesn’t necessarily mean they share a nationality. A nationality is has been defined as the legal relationship between an individual and a state.
As Ben Faulding (@TheHipsterRebbe) points out on Twitter: The biblical idea of a nation is not equivalent to the modern idea of nationality.
"Most Jews recognize Jewish identity as being elusive abstract concept that eludes definition and cannot be easily described as religion," he tweeted. "However, we don’t need any president, least of all Trump to define that for us & there are potentially dangerous implications."
Allie Lipner (@Allie Lipner) posted, "Here’s the thing: I don’t want the most complex aspects of Jewish identity shoehorned into American law."
Again, even though no one had seen the actual text of the order Wednesday night, the Times article was enough to cause many people to react to it on Twitter.
Here were some common themes:
1. Judaism is not a nationality is the main argument that is circulating on Twitter. The argument is essentially: Jews are an ethno-religion, and come from a wide variety of nationalities.
2. The order falls into promoting the idea of “dual loyalty,” an anti-Semitic trope that implies Jews will never be loyal to the country they are living in. Because guess who are the type of people who don’t think Judaism is a religion? People like David Duke, leader of the Ku Klux Klan.
3. Some brought up the fact that Trump has white nationalist supporters.
4. Many drew comparisons to the Soviet Union, where Jewishness was a nationality and a religion. This also fed into the dual loyalty trope: Being a Jew in the Soviet Union meant having “Jewish” stamped in your passport as a nationality. (Two Jews with Soviet backgrounds tweeted: "Pushing Judaism as a nationality is as antisemetic as it gets — it assumes your home is elsewhere, and you will never belong"—@mvzelenks, and "In the Soviet Union, Jewishness was defined as a nationality as well as a religion. The result was that Jews, even those who renounced their religion, were considered to have dual loyalties. This assumption was frequently used to justify antisemitism."—@alexvtunzelmann)
5. And comparisons to Nazi Germany, where German Jews were no longer defined as German.
6. Yet others pointed out that this is another way Jews are being used as pawns to stifle free speech, especially by pro-Palestinian activists.
1. Some argued it will push forth a law to hold colleges accountable for anti-Semitism (implied as BDS), where bipartisan legislation has tried and failed.
2. Jews are a nationality, went another argument.
3. Others argued it’s just meant to help fight anti-Semitism on campuses, and the only way to do it is to affirm that Judaism isn’t just a religion.
4. President Obama set the precedent, others pointed out.
To make Trump’s base happy, for one.
But yes, anti-Semitism was already covered, per the Obama administration.
Historical precedent has undeniably made people wary about classifying Jews as a nationality, and un-linking them from the current country they live in. Trump has also invoked tropes and themes in speeches that many have found anti-Semitic, making the issue extra sensitive.
Many American Jews did turn to humor.
"The funny thing about all this jewish nationality stupidity is that my nationality is really New Yorker," tweeted @Molly JongFast.