Trump administration, citing anti-Semitism on college campuses, to interpret Judaism as a nationality

Reports of the expected order drew widespread reaction from Jewish groups.

President Donald Trump listens during a roundtable on school choice in the Cabinet Room of the White House, Monday, Dec. 9, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)
President Donald Trump listens during a roundtable on school choice in the Cabinet Room of the White House, Monday, Dec. 9, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci) (Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

President Donald Trump will sign an executive order on Wednesday to interpret Judaism as a nationality and not just a religion, a move that the Trump administration believes will fight what they perceive as anti-Semitism on college campuses, a White House official said.

It's an order that would allow Trump to take further steps to combat anti-Israel sentiments and divestment movements on college campuses by requiring colleges and universities to treat those movements as discriminatory in order to keep their funding.

The expected order generated widespread reaction from Jews and Jewish groups, with some calling it a necessary measure against what they see as a rising tide of anti-Semitism on campuses and others calling it a chill on free speech.

The BDS movement, which stands for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, aims to "end international support for Israel's oppression of Palestinians" and boycott Israel for its activities in the West Bank and Gaza. The global movement has gained traction on some college campuses across the US, which critics say has led to Jewish students feeling targeted.

Trump's executive order would trigger a portion of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 that requires educational institutions receiving federal funding to not discriminate based on national origin, according to senior administration officials. The Department of Education can withhold federal funding from any college or educational program that discriminates based on race, color or national origin, according to the Civil Rights Act.

Religion is not covered in that portion of the law, so the administration would have to interpret Judaism as a nationality in order to potentially punish universities for violations. The definition of anti-Semitism will be adapted from the State Department, administration officials told The New York Times, which first reported the impending order.

The State Department cites the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, which defines anti-Semitism as "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 US is a member of the alliance.

Jared Kushner, the President's son-in-law and a senior White House adviser, pushed for the executive order, the Times said.

Reports of the expected order drew widespread reaction from Jewish groups.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center commended the order, tweeting that it "sends a global message at a time of surging #antisemitism on both sides of Atlantic."

Israel's Foreign Minister, Yisrael Katz, also welcomed the upcoming announcement and called on other countries to follow the Trump administration's lead. "These are significant steps in the ongoing fight against antisemitism and the BDS movement on college campuses," Katz said in a statement Tuesday evening.

But Jeremy Ben-Ami, the president of J Street, a progressive Jewish advocacy group, argued that the executive order was designed to have a "chilling effect on free speech and to crack down on campus critics of Israel" rather than fight anti-Semitism.

"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," he said in a statement.

The executive order comes just days after several Jewish groups criticized Trump over a speech he delivered Saturday to an Israeli-American organization. The groups accused him of using anti-Semitic stereotypes when he suggested that many of the attendees at the event are wealthy and in real estate, and that their wealth would guide their votes in the 2020 presidential election.

"A lot of you are in the real estate business because I know you very well. You're brutal killers, not nice people at all. But you have to vote for me, you have no choice," Trump told the Israeli American Council National Summit in Florida. The President also admonished some Jewish Americans for not loving Israel "enough."

Trump drew similar condemnation during his 2016 presidential campaign when he told a group of Jewish Republicans, "You're not going to support me because I don't want your money."

And while the US had traditionally called for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Trump has offered public flexibility on the matter and supported Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Last month, the Trump administration announced a major reversal of the US' longstanding policy on Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, rejecting a 1978 State Department legal opinion that deemed the settlements "inconsistent with international law."

The announcement, which breaks with international law and consensus, is the latest in a string of hardline, pro-Israeli moves that have further inflamed tensions between the Trump administration and Palestinians.

The policy reversal was hailed by right-wing Israeli leaders and Netanyahu, who faces criminal indictment in three corruption probes as he fights to remain the country’s leader after two indecisive elections.