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Trump Signs Order Against Anti-Semitism At Colleges, Worrying Free Speech Advocates

President Trump has signed an executive order that will broaden Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act to apply to discrimination based on anti-Semitism. He is seen here signing the order at a Hanukkah reception at the White House.
Brendan Smialowski
AFP via Getty Images
President Trump has signed an executive order that will broaden Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act to apply to discrimination based on anti-Semitism. He is seen here signing the order at a Hanukkah reception at the White House.

Updated at 6:18 p.m. ET

President Trump signed an executive order on Wednesday that will make Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act apply to anti-Semitic acts. The order is generating concern that it will stifle free speech by those who oppose Israel's policy toward the Palestinians.

The executive order takes indirect aim at the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement that has generated intense controversy on college campuses.

Title VI bans discrimination based on race, color or national origin in programs and activities, such as colleges and universities, that receive federal funding. The executive order will extend the ban to discrimination based on anti-Semitism.

Trump signed the order at a Hanukkah celebration at the White House on Wednesday afternoon. A draft copy of the executive order was published Wednesday by Jewish Insider.

The draft order suggests that those charged with enforcing Title VI consider the definition of anti-Semitism adopted by International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, which states: "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."

The order points in particular to the alliance's "Contemporary Examples of Anti-Semitism."

Among its examples is "Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor."

Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt says the order won't define Jewishness as a nationality, but rather includes Jews under the rubric of Title VI.

"That's something we have long advocated for and does not break new ground in identifying Jews as a protected class," he tells NPR. "But what it does say is that discrimination against Jews may give rise to a Title VI violation when that discrimination is based on the individual's race, color or national origin."

He says the guidance will be useful to law enforcement, campus officials and others trying to fight hate.

The left-leaning Jewish group J-Street said in a statement that the order "appears designed less to combat anti-Semitism than to have a chilling effect on free speech and to crack down on campus critics of Israel."

J-Street adds that "we feel it is misguided and harmful for the White House to unilaterally declare a broad range of nonviolent campus criticism of Israel to be anti-Semitic, especially at a time when the prime driver of anti-Semitism in this country is the xenophobic, white nationalist far-right."

The White House said it had been spurred by a rise in anti-Semitic incidents since 2013, and that it was looking for a way to ensure colleges take anti-Semitic acts seriously.

The Republican Jewish Coalition praised the move, calling Trump "the most Pro-Israel President in American history" and saying that he has "shown himself to be the most pro-Jewish president as well. Today's order will have a real, positive impact in protecting Jewish college students from anti-Semitism."

James Loeffler, a professor of Jewish history at the University of Virginia, says there has been a century-long debate among Jewish civil rights activists about the question of defining Jews differently.

"Everyone recognizes that Jews are a complicated amalgam of ethnicity and religion, and treating them as a kind of quasi-racial group can have negative consequences," he says. "There's a lot of fear among many Jewish leaders all throughout the past century about that."

He says that because Jews have a different kind of identity, using the law to figure out how to protect them "is what we should be doing, as well as for other groups who may not fit exactly against the religion or race categories that we normally think about minorities in terms of."

On its face, Loeffer says, Trump's order is a reasonable way to address concerns about anti-Semitism and discrimination, particularly because Title VI doesn't refer to religion.

But he says he share the concerns of those who believe it could be used to infringe on the First Amendment rights of those who would voice controversial political speech about Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "Clearly, given the administration's political position on those issues, it's not unrealistic to see this as coming out of that context."

Like many statutes and administrative rules, Loeffer says, the effect of the executive order will depend on how it's interpreted.

NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith and religion correspondent Tom Gjelten contributed to this report.

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Laurel Wamsley is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She reports breaking news for NPR's digital coverage, newscasts, and news magazines, as well as occasional features. She was also the lead reporter for NPR's coverage of the 2019 Women's World Cup in France.