Trump appeases Israel lobby with executive order

Man speaks at podium in front of Israeli and US flags

President Donald Trump speaks at the conference of the Israeli-American Council, a lobby group, in Hollywood, Florida, 7 December.

Patrick Semansky AP Photo

Just days after US President Donald Trump spewed vicious anti-Semitic rhetoric, Israel lobby groups are celebrating his executive order taking aim at supporters of Palestinian rights.

Israel and its most extreme defenders are not bothered by the president’s anti-Jewish rhetoric as long as it comes wrapped in unquestioning support for Israel.

Trump’s order, which he signs today, is evidence of that support. It is also a dangerous escalation of the attack on basic free speech rights.

Initial reporting by The New York Times claimed that 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.”

Asserting that Jews belong to a separate national grouping has long been a theme of anti-Semitic white supremacist ideology – and it promotes the anti-Jewish smear of “dual loyalty.”

On Wednesday, Jewish Insider published what it says is the text of the actual order.

It is more subtle; it states that “Discrimination against Jews” may give rise to a violation of US civil rights law “when the discrimination is based on an individual’s race, color, or national origin.”

But the core of the order is that it meets the demands of Israel lobby groups who wish to criminalize Palestine solidarity organizing – especially on US college campuses – by conflating criticism of Israel with anti-Jewish bigotry.

It states that it “shall be the policy of the executive branch to enforce Title VI [of the Civil Rights Act] against prohibited forms of discrimination rooted in anti-Semitism.”

There’s nothing wrong with fighting anti-Semitism. Indeed that is necessary. But that’s not the purpose here.

Rather, the president’s order officially adopts language in the so-called State Department definition of anti-Semitism, based on that of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.

This controversial definition, promoted by Israel and its lobby, includes claims that it is anti-Semitic to say Israel’s foundation is a “racist endeavor” or “applying double standards” to Israel by requiring from it “behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.”

Crucially, the definition claims that “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination” is anti-Semitic. This does define Jews as a “nation.”

It also means the government could claim that it is a form of anti-Semitism to call for a single, democratic state in historic Palestine, in which Jews and Palestinians have equal rights – because Israel would no longer exist as a “Jewish state.”

In other words, the definition conflates bigotry against Jews, on the one hand, with criticism of Israel and its racist state ideology Zionism, on the other.

Even the definition’s lead author, former American Jewish Committee executive Kenneth Stern, strongly opposes efforts to enshrine it in legislation or university rule books, arguing that this would unconstitutionally infringe on free speech.

With this executive order, however, Trump has given the Israel lobby a way to circumvent the legislative process while opening the door for accelerated attacks on Palestinians and those who organize for their rights.

The order states that “the inquiry into whether a particular act constitutes discrimination … will require a detailed analysis of the allegations.” In other words, mere accusations of anti-Semitism against critics of Israel on campus are likely to result in lengthy inquisitions by the government.

Regardless of the outcome of such investigations, the prospect of being put through such an ordeal by the government is unpalatable to enough people that it will chill free speech and academic freedom.

“A baldfaced attempt to silence the movement”

For years, lobby groups have pushed US politicians to pass legislation effectively defining criticism of Israel as anti-Jewish bigotry – and therefore identifying all Jews with Israel.

Two bills to this effect were hurried through last year only to stall in Congress over First Amendment concerns – and because of significant organizing by student activists and civil rights groups.

For nearly a decade, as Palestine activism on campuses grew, Zionist groups began filing complaints under Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

In these complaints, Israel supporters claimed that universities failed to protect Jewish students by not cracking down on Palestine solidarity activism.

The strategy was pioneered by Kenneth Marcus, who led the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, an Israel lobby group unaffiliated with Brandeis University.

The complaints were eventually thrown out by the Obama administration, citing lack of evidence.

However, Marcus is now in charge of the Office for Civil Rights – the body that investigates such complaints.

Last year, he announced that the Department of Education will apply standards that conflate criticism of Israel and Zionism with anti-Jewish bigotry.

He also re-opened a complaint against Rutgers University that had been thrown out by the US government in 2014.

Marcus has even called for students to be criminally prosecuted for protesting Israel.

Dima Khalidi, director of the civil rights group Palestine Legal, has previously warned that with Marcus leading the Office for Civil Rights, he would “do from the inside of the Department of Education what he has failed to do from the outside.”

On Tuesday, Khalidi called the executive order “a baldfaced attempt to silence the movement for Palestinian rights on college campuses.”

She added that “rather than providing any new protections to Jewish students against the rampant and deadly anti-Semitism of a resurgent white nationalism,” the order “aims to define the contours of what we can say about Palestine and Israel.”

“We won’t abide, and it will be challenged,” Khalidi remarked.

Fear and outrage

On Wednesday, US Congress member Bobby Rush condemned Trump’s move as a way to “stifle the speech of those they [the Trump administration] disagree with.”

The Illinois Democrat added: “What’s worse, is their exploitation of anti-Semitism in order to do so. [Trump] does not care about Jewish safety. Period.”

Notably, none of the major Democratic presidential candidates – including Bernie Sanders – has so far weighed in on Trump’s executive order.

Students, activists and civil rights defenders expressed outrage and concern, while warning university administrations not to cave in to intimidation.

Israel’s supporters, meanwhile, are hailing the move.

Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, welcomed the order, telling The New York Times that Jewish students are being marginalized on campuses.

He downplayed concerns that the order would re-classify American Jews, though noted that it adopts the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism:

AIPAC, a leading Israel lobby group, also praised Trump’s order:

Seffi Kogan, an official at the American Jewish Committee, deflected criticism by claiming that it would be entirely appropriate to assert that all Jews are part of a “Jewish nation”:

And Christians United for Israel – a group whose support for Israel is rooted in a theology that yearns for Jews to be gathered in one place where they will be killed in a coming apocalypse – also applauded Trump’s executive order.

Desperation

While civil rights groups and student activists prepare to challenge Trump’s order, it can also be viewed as an indication of the Israel lobby’s desperation.

The legislation that lobby groups hoped to push through Congress has been hampered by relentless resistance.

Students have been at the forefront of Palestinian rights advocacy and expanding the boycott campaign, in spite of sweeping anti-BDS measures passed by state lawmakers and attempts by universities to shut down speech in support of Palestinians.

Activists should not be cowed by threats from university officials, Israel lobby groups or the president. Rather, the executive order and the fight to come validate that the movement for Palestinian rights is a force to be reckoned with.

“As a founder of two Students for Justice in Palestine chapters,” tweeted graduate student and activist Randa Wahbe, “I can say that despite the decade-long threat to shut us down, our movement just keeps getting stronger, larger and more diverse.”

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Thank you, Nora! Fantastic scope and perspectives! The best I've read all day, and believe me, I've been reading them all!

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One consequence of Trump's order and Marcus' threats that isn't receiving much attention is the prospect of a reconfiguration within university administrations. New management divisions and lucrative consultancies will crop up throughout higher education, to be staffed with "experts" vetted by the government. They will be people more closely associated with the Israel lobby- in many cases, direct representatives- than those currently advising university and college deans, chancellors and presidents. The schools will take this step in order to avoid expensive lawsuits and preserve their stream of federal revenue- introducing what amount to protection rackets. And these new advisory committees will rapidly take on a wider policing role in the intellectual life of the university, with a more than casual interest in subversive publications and individuals.

When the American right talk about "cultural Marxism", they're talking about academic freedom and how they mean to destroy it. In that sense, the current campaign to suppress campus speech and teaching on Palestine is an element in a more general program aimed at imposing order at the expense of freedom and profit at the expense of the planet. So it's important that we see how this one issue (phony charges of antisemitism) is connected to a larger cause that involves everyone. The Israeli maximum security state awaits us all, which is one of the best reasons we have for defending Palestinian rights.

Palestine isn't just about Palestine. It never was.

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Thank you for the great analysis! This executive order is really hard to understand for us lay people. Does it mean that if Trump speaks at a university, calls Iran a "shithole" country, and an American citizen Iran deems to be a dual national of Iran/USA sues the university for hosting that speaker and offending her dual nationality, will the university lose federal funding? If a university holds books in its library questioning the right of Israel to exist under international law, will the university lose federal funding? If students debate whether countries/nations should exist in philosophy class, will this be deemed antisemite and the university hosting the debate will lose federal funding? Should the LGBTQ community and other communities seek nationality status for more protections, as they tried to do with gay liberation movements? Will Americans now start identifying by nationality and not religion? Is scientology or even atheism a kind of nation? Is debating what a nation is antisemitic? It all seems a little ludicrous or maybe I am over thinking it, lol. I do know Israel does not give nationality to what it considers non - Jews, though non - Jews can be citizens, so I'm sure this order has something to do with that. Anyhow, please keep up the great work you do at EI by continuing to keep us informed with all the new developments!

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The idea that Judaism is a race or a nationality is too absurd to be taken seriously. Nor is there any validity to the idea that the Jews are a people. Let's say that Christians are a race. That Muslims are a nationality. That Bhuddists are a people. Too stupid for words. The mind-bending which takes place to defend the indefensible dehumanisation of the Palestinians by the Israeli State is a denial of a wider truth: that the world economy is organised for the benefit of a very small minority of very rich people. This is why Israel is so important to all reactionaries. If the obvious injustice can be turned on its head, if the oppression of the Palestinians can be transmogrified into antisemitism by claiming that any criticism of the Israeli State or its official doctrine of Zionism, is hatred of Jews, then the same can be done in the broader arena: any criticism of the rich can be typified as a prejudice; any assertion of the oppression of the poor can be played as a hatred of "wealth creators". In short, a totalitarian view is established through wilful distortion, ignorance of the evidence and denial of basic logic. The dark spectre of academics and students being afraid to speak and write according to where the evidence and logic lead adumbrates a university which ceases to be a seat of learning, and if open debate is closed down there, in the rest of society it won't have a chance. The irony that the doctrine of no criticism of Israel plays into antisemitic narratives is the final convolution in a twisted ideology. The same simple arguments need to be made over and over: there is no such thing as race; Judaism is a religion like any other; a religion is not a nationality; a religion is not a people; Jews can live anywhere in the world and be Jews; a religious State can't be a democratic State; there is no serious evidence that the Jews established a State in Palestine thousands of years ago. Keep saying these things. They are true.

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Nora Barrows-Friedman

Nora Barrows-Friedman's picture

Nora Barrows-Friedman is a staff writer and associate editor at The Electronic Intifada, and is the author of In Our Power: US Students Organize for Justice in Palestine (Just World Books, 2014).