Trump signs executive order to combat anti-Semitism on colleges campuses

U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive order to combat anti-Semitism during a Hanukkah Reception in the East Room of the White House on December 11, 2019, in Washington, D.C.
U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive order to combat anti-Semitism during a Hanukkah Reception in the East Room of the White House on December 11, 2019, in Washington, D.C. | Mark Wilson/Getty Images

President Donald Trump signed an executive order Wednesday aimed at combatting anti-Semitism, especially when endorsed by academic institutions that receive federal funding.

The executive order directs federal agencies to treat anti-Semitism as a violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bars discrimination based on “race, color, and national origin” for activities and programs that receive federal assistance.

“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,” the order states.

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To define anti-Semitism, the order relied upon the definition crafted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance: “Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”

At a reception in the East Room of the White House held in honor of Hanukkah, Trump said the executive order “prohibits federal funding to any college or university that spreads, promotes, tolerates, or supports anything having to do with anti-Semitism.”

“We’re delivering a powerful message to American academia,” the president said. “If you want to receive federal dollars, you must reject anti-Semitism. And if they don’t, they don’t get hundreds of millions of dollars.”

“So we will not permit anti-Jewish bigotry on our college campuses. And if they want to do that, it’s going to be extremely costly. It will be amazing how quickly they stop.”

Pastor John Hagee, founder and chairman of Christians United For Israel, praised the executive order in a statement, calling it "historically important."

"You cannot change what you’re unwilling to confront. So thank you, Mr. President for confronting the scourge of anti-Semitism head on," Hagee said. "Thank you for issuing this executive order, which will protect our Jewish brothers and sisters and continues the United States’ vital partnership with the state of Israel and its people."

Some critics have expressed concern that the executive order will threaten the federal funding of colleges that support the boycott, divest, sanction movement, which is aimed at punishing Israel for policies they don't agree with and what the BDS movement perceives as Israel's unjust occupation of territories belong to the Palestinians.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a nonpartisan group focused on defending free speech rights on college campuses, released a statement in response to the order denouncing it as creating a “readily evident threat to expressive rights.”

“... its ambiguous directive and fundamental reliance on the IHRA definition and its examples will cause institutions to investigate and censor protected speech on their campuses,” FIRE said.

"Having spent 20 years defending speakers from across the political spectrum, FIRE knows all too well that colleges and universities will rush to punish student and faculty speakers in an attempt to avoid federal investigation and enforcement."

While noting that the “apparent rise in campus anti-Semitism is a real problem,” FIRE warned that the executive order could “impermissibly threaten the expressive rights of students and faculty at institutions across the country.”

“FIRE supports legislative efforts to include religion as a protected class at institutions of higher education,” they added. “Doing so would better equip institutions to respond to anti-Semitic harassment and protect students of all religions subjected to harassment because of their faith.”  

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