WASHINGTON – The White House is pushing back against criticism of its new executive order on anti-Semitism, specifically with regards to accusations that it will harm free speech on U.S. campuses.
The executive order was signed by President Donald Trump last week and has drawn strong praise from leading mainstream Jewish-American organizations, but also criticism from the American Civil Liberties Union and from several progressive Jewish groups.
The first wave of criticism focused on media reports that characterized the executive order as redefining Jewishness as a nationality. That description was not based on the order’s actual text, which states that Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – which prohibits federal funding of institutions that discriminate against a person or a group based on nationality, race or color – will also include anti-Semitism.
The main reason for the “Jewishness as nationality” interpretation was because Title VI does not apply to religious groups. However, the U.S. government has been treating anti-Semitism as a form of discrimination that falls under Title VI for more than a decade, thanks to decisions taken by government agencies during the presidencies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, played a key role in getting the president to sign the executive order. He rejected that interpretation in a New York Times Op-Ed published last week. “When news of the impending executive order leaked, many rushed to criticize it without understanding its purpose,” Kushner wrote. “The executive order does not define Jews as a nationality. It merely says that to the extent that Jews are discriminated against for ethnic, racial or national characteristics, they are entitled to protection by the anti-discrimination law.”
The confusion over the nationality issue wasn’t limited only to the executive order’s critics but also to some of its supporters. Brooke Goldstein, executive director of The Lawfare Project – an organization that uses lawsuits to fight the movement to boycott Israel and the settlements in the occupied territories – praised Trump for a “groundbreaking executive order that acknowledges Judaism as a nationality – not just a religion.”
A participant wearing a “Make America Great Again” yarmulke at the White House Hanukkah reception where U.S. President Donald Trump signed the executive order on anti-Semitism, December 11, 2019.TOM BRENNER/REUTERS
The White House battled these interpretations following the initial news reports about the executive order, and the criticism lessened once the full text became available. (It was first published by journalist Jacob Kornbluh in Jewish Insider on December 11.)