Trump’s Order to Combat Anti-Semitism Divides Its Audience: American Jews
Amir Kashfi felt a sigh of relief when he heard that President Trump had signed an executive order to combat anti-Semitism and the burgeoning anti-Israel movement on college campuses.
He recalled how, as a Jewish student at the University of California at Los Angeles last year, he heard fellow students chant “two, four, six, eight, Israel is a terror state” as they protested campus tuition increases. Anti-Zionist forms of anti-Semitism, he believed, were a growing problem on campus.
But in Chicago, Rabbi Hara Person, the chief executive of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, saw the president’s action and worried. In a terse directive on Wednesday, Mr. Trump said anti-Semitism would be covered by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which “prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color and national origin,” but does not mention religion.
“Not to overdramatize, but it feels dangerous,” she said. “I’ve heard people say this feels like the first step toward us wearing yellow stars.”
The politics of the executive order seemed clear when it was signed on Wednesday. Attending the signing ceremony were prominent Jews and evangelical Christians, Democrats and Republicans, and some big-name donors. Mr. Trump, at a party after the ceremony, lavished praise on the Republican megadonor Sheldon Adelson: “He’s got no cash problem — that, I can tell you.”
“My administration will never tolerate the suppression, persecution or silencing of the Jewish people,” Mr. Trump declared at the ceremony, which doubled as a Hanukkah party.
In rattling off all he had done for Israel’s government — moving the embassy to Jerusalem, recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights and withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal — the president appeared intent on expanding his support among Jewish voters, or at least peeling off portions of a small and largely Democratic voting bloc, as well as pleasing evangelical supporters and major donors like Mr. Adelson.
The executive order “will go down in history as one of the most important events in the 2,000-year battle against anti-Semitism,” Alan Dershowitz, an informal legal adviser of the president, said at the ceremony.
But across the country, Jewish communities viewed Mr. Trump’s order in competing and discordant ways. It came on the heels of a rampage in New Jersey in which four people were killed in what the authorities are investigating as an anti-Semitic attack and an act of domestic terrorism. And many Jews were struck by their religion being placed under civil rights protections aimed at race or “national origin.”
“This is deeply objectionable, going back centuries in anti-Semitic thinking,” said Rabbi Daniel G. Zemel, who leads Temple Micah, a Reform congregation in Washington.
The order was months in the making. The White House, led by the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, began working on it in July, prodded by David Krone, a chief of staff to Senator Harry Reid, a Democrat who has retired. The administration came to see that it might be able to achieve through executive order what lawmakers in both parties had failed to secure in past legislation.
Mr. Kushner’s office worked with the White House Domestic Policy Council and the Counsel’s Office to work out language. Concerns were raised that the order’s definition of anti-Semitism — which labeled anti-Semitic the claim “that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor” — could raise First Amendment issues on many campuses, where Palestinian rights have become a rallying cry.
Questions were also raised about applying Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which targets prejudice based on race, color and national origin, to Jews. Some in the White House worried that the move might have the opposite impact of what was intended, isolating Jews as a race or nationality and prompting more hate.
But defenders invoked a 2010 nonbinding guidance letter from the Obama-era Justice Department to the Education Department that agreed that the Civil Rights Act could protect Jews, Arab Muslims, Sikhs and members of other religious groups. To concerns that the definition of anti-Semitism was overly broad, defenders pointed out that the State Department already uses it.
Mr. Kushner and his allies believed they were ready to roll out the order in September, but they took extra time to research possible outcomes and to make sure it was durable, people familiar with the talks said.
Brought on board were groups like the Orthodox Union Advocacy Center, which had long advocated such a measure, first in Congress and then with the White House.
“The president and people in his administration are aggressively working to implement real policies confronting anti-Semitism, whether it is this in the education arena, or I’d say the Justice Department and the F.B.I.,” said Nathan Diament, the center’s executive director.
But uncomfortable tensions have been rising in Jewish communities over Mr. Trump’s embrace of the hard-line policies of Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and the president’s tolerance of what many see as bigotry in his administration and his political movement.
“It is an administration that regularly winks at white nationalists, and this is a cynical move to pretend that the administration actually cares about Jews when in fact their actions consistently put Jews in more danger,” said Rabbi Jill Jacobs, the executive director of T’ruah, a liberal Jewish group.
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said he supported good-faith efforts to curb anti-Semitism on college campuses, but also acknowledged the concern over the order’s potential implications for free speech. “It’s something we’re going to closely monitor,” he said.
Beyond its impact for Jewish Americans, the move was also a political signal to Mr. Trump’s conservative evangelical base that he continues to support its policy priorities regarding Israel. Like Mr. Netanyahu, Mr. Trump has courted American evangelicals, often at the expense of more liberal Jewish communities.
Mr. Trump featured conservative evangelical leaders, including Robert Jeffress, the pastor of First Baptist Dallas, and the Rev. John C. Hagee, a prominent end-times preacher, at the White House’s Hanukkah party after the signing ceremony. Both men have prompted outrage for their previous incendiary comments about Jewish people and prayed at the opening of the United States Embassy in Jerusalem last year. Mr. Jeffress once said that “you can’t be saved being a Jew,” and Mr. Hagee once said that the Holocaust was part of God’s plan to return the Jews to Israel.
Mr. Hagee, who founded Christians United for Israel, said the executive order’s adoption of the State Department’s definition of anti-Semitism was his group’s “No. 1 policy priority this year.”
Some rabbis are especially concerned about Mr. Trump’s comments last weekend in Florida, when he said that some Jewish people “don’t love Israel enough.”
“With his leadership, support for Israel, which has been such a bipartisan foundation block of who America is, is being threatened,” said Rabbi Eytan Hammerman, who leads the Jewish Community Center of Harrison, a Conservative synagogue in New York.
At a conference for Reform rabbis in Chicago on Thursday, Rabbi Arnie Gluck, the head of Temple Beth-El in Hillsborough, N.J., was grateful for the president’s order, and he hoped it would make students more safe, especially amid rising hate speech.
Rabbi Seth Limmer, the head of Chicago Sinai, a Reform congregation, felt the issue personally. His daughter, a junior in high school, is visiting colleges, and she has grown worried that the progressive movements on campus will not accept her because of her support for Israel.
“Every young Jewish person on a college campus will wonder, ‘I love being Jewish, but it might be difficult for me to be Jewish at college; I know I want to join advocacy organizations like Black Lives Matter, but fear they will reject me because I’m Jewish,’” Rabbi Limmer said.
He was not, however, convinced that the executive order would address the issue.
“This executive order was designed to counter a slippery slope where freedom of speech and protests turn into anti-Semitism,” he said. “But I’m a big believer that if you stifle a protest, it’s not going to stifle the protest.”
Kathryn Fleisher, a junior at the University of Pittsburgh, remembered that on the day of the Tree of Life synagogue massacre last year in her city, one of the first people to check on her was the campus leader of Students for Justice in Palestine, which has been denounced by pro-Israel groups. The two women were both committed to human rights, and they once sat down to talk about the differences in their beliefs for about two and a half hours.
“She didn’t even know the S.J.P. were seen as being anti-Jewish,” Ms. Fleisher said. “One reason the executive order concerns me is that it puts she and I at odds, like we’re not on the same team somehow.”
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