President Donald Trump issued an executive order last month to deny funding to post-secondary schools that violate Title VI of the Civil Rights Act by discriminating against Jewish people. The order notes that such bigotry is rooted in antisemitism, and says that it will determine whether discrimination has occurred by using the non-legally binding working definition of antisemitism adopted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). The IHRA defines antisemitism as “a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews.” There’s nothing objectionable in that definition and, in a period of terrifying and at times murderously violent attacks on Jewish people, it is absolutely necessary to fight antisemitism.

The problem with the executive order is that it says the IHRA’s “contemporary examples of antisemitism” could “be useful as evidence of discriminatory intent” in Title VI cases. While most of what the IHRA points to indisputably are instance of antisemitism, they also include “claiming that the existence of a state of Israel is a racist endeavor” and “applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.”

It’s hard to discuss something as nebulous as the hypothetical existence of “a” state of Israel. (Where would this state be? Would others inhabit that land? Would equal rights be afforded all who live there, regardless of their ethnicity or religion?) As for the state of Israel that actually exists, there is a broad body of scholarship demonstrating that it was founded on a “racist endeavor,” namely the

“expulsion of a majority of Palestinians from their lands and homes, the prevention of their return, and the subsequent confiscation of their property for the exclusive use of [Jewish people].”

Israel effectively defines itself as “a racist endeavor.” There are at least 65 Israeli laws that discriminate directly or indirectly against Palestinian citizens of Israel and/or Palestinian residents of the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) on the basis of their nationality. These include:

  • The Law of Return (1950), which allows every Jewish person on earth to immigrate to Israel and automatically become a citizen.
  • The Citizenship Law (1952) that deprives Palestinians who were residents of Palestine prior to Israel’s creation of the right to gain citizenship or residence status in Israel.
  • The Citizenship and Entry into Israel Law (2003), which bans family unification for Palestinians, where one spouse is a citizen of Israel and the other lives in the occupied territories; the law was expanded in 2007 to include citizens and residents of Iran, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. No comparable law exists for Israelis.
  • The Jewish Nation-State Basic Law (2018)—in Israel, a Basic Law is the equivalent of a constitutional law. This law enshrines Jewish supremacy and the identity of the state of Israel as the “national state of the Jewish people,” even though roughly 20% of Israeli citizens are non-Jewish Palestinians.

Meanwhile, it is far from obvious that Israel is a “democratic nation” at all, considering that most Palestinians under its rule are denied democratic rights. It controls the lives of 4.75 million Palestinians in the lands Israel has occupied for 52 years—320,000 in East Jerusalem, 2.8 million in the rest of the West Bank and 1.8 million in besieged Gaza, none of whom have a right to vote in Israeli elections. Not to mention the millions of Palestinian refugees who cannot even return to their homes, because Israel won’t let them.

In light of the evidence that Israel has been “a racist endeavor,” it’s untenable to say pointing to that evidence is a form of antisemitism.

Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and a senior advisor to him, made clear that stamping out Palestine solidarity on campus—not combating antisemitism—is the point of the executive order, writing in an op-ed for the New York Times (12/11/19):

This new order adopts as its definition of antisemitism the language put forth in 2016 by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, while also accounting for other forms of antisemitism.

For example, the alliance defines “the targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity,” and those who deny “the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a state of Israel is a racist endeavor” or those who compare “contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis” as examples of antisemitism.

The Remembrance Alliance definition makes clear what our administration has stated publicly and on the record: Anti-Zionism is antisemitism. The inclusion of this language with contemporary examples gives critical guidance to agencies enforcing Title VI provisions.

The parts of the IHRA definition pertaining to Israel were the only aspects of it that Kushner highlighted in his article.

For all of these reasons, there is ample reason to doubt the administration’s claims that the executive order is a good-faith effort at combating antisemitism—even putting aside the context that this is a president who declared that the marchers chanting “Jews will not replace us!” in Charlottesville included “very fine people,” and who invited a pastor who proclaims “you can’t be saved being a Jew” to the White House Hanukkah party. News media outlets, however, are providing cover for Trump’s conflation of pro-Palestine campus activism and antisemitism.

CNN headline (12/11/19) asserted that “Trump Aims to Crack Down on Antisemitism on College Campuses Using Civil Rights Protections.” CBS’s read (12/11/19): “Trump Signs Executive Order Targeting Antisemitism on College Campuses.” ABC’s headline (12/11/19) went, “Trump Signs Executive Order Aimed at Combating Antisemitism on College Campuses.” Time (12/12/19) had it that “Trump Signs Order Aimed at Antisemitism on College Campuses.” The Hill (12/14/19) said “Trump Executive Order Aimed at Combating Antisemitism Stirs Up Controversy.”

Such framing simply takes the Trump government at its word that its goal is to quash antisemitism, even though a cursory reading of the IHRA definition on which the order is based raises questions as to whether the administration’s policy is really about cracking down on Palestine solidarity work. Such formulations amplify the Trump administration’s logic that, as Kushner spelled out, opposition to the political ideology Zionism constitutes opposition to people who are Jewish—how the plethora of anti-Zionist Jewish organizations are accounted for remains a mystery.

America’s paper of record, the New York Times (12/11/19), did the same in an editorial that was critical of aspects of Trump’s policy but accepted its core premise. It claimed that, “Whatever its intent, BDS has helped to create a hostile environment for Jewish students, most of whom support Israel.” News that the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement creates a “hostile environment for Jewish students” might surprise members of the Jewish Voice for Peace “campus chapters across the country [who] work with Students for Justice in Palestine to support and develop BDS campaigns.”

In support of the claim that BDS “has helped to create a hostile environment for Jewish students,” the Times described how

at Emory University . . . a Palestinian advocacy group posted mock eviction notices on campus to protest Israeli actions, frightening some Jewish students. Such incidents are frightening.

The hyperlink goes to a statement from Emory stating that “Emory has found no evidence that individual students, or a particular group, were targeted.” A correction at the bottom of the Times’ editorial said that the flyers “were placed on the doors of Jewish and non-Jewish students as well as in common areas. They were not just placed just on Jewish students’ doors.” It’s unclear, therefore, what about this episode the authors regard as “frightening” and why they present it as constituting decisive proof that “BDS has helped to create a hostile environment for Jewish students.”

The editorial then shored up the central assumption for Trump’s executive order by saying that “the larger threat to American Jews goes beyond college students sparring over Israeli policy,” as though it has been established that “college students sparring over Israeli policy” actually is a “threat to American Jews.”

The editorial went on to say that

the object of the [executive order] is the increased campus debate about Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, a movement advocating economic measures opposing Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. The campaign’s Palestinian founders initially called for changes in Israeli policies, but many supporters have taken it up to oppose Israel’s existence as a Jewish state. Many supporters of Israel have said the boycott movement is antisemitism in disguise.

This passage insinuates that those who “oppose Israel’s existence as a Jewish state” provide a basis for the accusation that BDS is “antisemitism in disguise.” According to this criteria, those who advocate Israelis and Palestinians living together as equals are antisemitic. Saying that Palestinian refugees’ right to return to their homes ought to be respected, a right afforded them under UN Resolution 194, would also supposedly be antisemitic, since it would likely result in a Palestinian majority in Israel/Palestine. What the editors are suggesting is that advocating international law and binational democracy can reasonably be seen as antisemitism.

By acting as loudspeakers for the Trump administration’s assertion that support for anti-colonial liberation is antisemitism—and by wrongly suggesting that there is a link between being Jewish and supporting a state implicated in a litany of human rights abuses, including the torture of children—corporate media are both doing a disservice to Palestinians living under Israeli apartheid and a favor to antisemites.

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