CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - Critics are questioning one of the president’s recent executive orders. The new rule of law would combat anti-Semitism on college campuses by keeping federal dollars from institutions that fail to protect Jewish students.
However, some argue the action could, instead, fuel the discrimination it claims to fight.
“My administration will never tolerate the suppression, persecution, or silencing of the Jewish people,” said President Donald Trump from the White House on Dec. 11.
Trump signed the order amid a Hanukkah celebration while flanked by Christian leaders who have come under fire in the past for their statements condemning Jews.
However, both parts of the presentation were criticized in the days that followed, along with the contents of the order.
“What is going on when you have the president himself engaging in honest to God anti-Semitic tropes, announcing an executive order with a bunch of Evangelicals, themselves engaged in really troubling anti-Semitic rhetoric. It seems to me it really isn’t about the Jews. The whole thing was about the Evangelicals, all along trying to pander to them,” said Joshua Shanes, the College of Charleston’s director of the Arnold Center for Israel Studies and associate director of the Yaschik/Arnold Jewish studies program.
Shanes wrote about his concerns in an article for The Washington Post’s “Perspective” section last week.
“President Trump signed an executive order to fight anti-Semitism on college campuses while flanked by two evangelical Christian pastors, Robert Jeffress and John Hagee. Jeffress has literally damned Jews to hell, while Hagee has warned of an international plot led by the Rothschilds to undermine American sovereignty, described Hitler as a “hunter” sent by God to kill Jews who refused to move to Israel and described the Antichrist as a “half-Jew homosexual,” said Shanes.
He’s been critical of the potential impacts of the order. Shanes fears the order’s measures of protection could come at a cost to free speech, stifling opposition to Israel’s government.
“Trump is using Jews in dangerous ways. The order seeks to silence dissent on campuses against Israeli behavior to appease open Jew-haters, some of whom imply that the Jews’ proper place is not here but in Israel, where they will ultimately receive Christ or die. Its effect will silence not only dissent but even education as faculty and administrators turn away from teaching about Israel for fear of running afoul of the order’s definition of ‘anti-Semitism.’ Even respected textbooks, such as Alan Dowty’s ‘Israel/Palestine,’ could generate accusations of anti-Semitism for presenting Palestinian narratives that question Zionist claims in Israel,” Shanes wrote.
The order defines Judaism as a race or nationality under federal civil rights protections. Critics argue the designation could portray American Jews as foreigners within their own country.
The change is based on an international definition of anti-Semitism adopted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance and US Dept. of State. However, some believe it doesn’t go far enough to clarify what is considered anti-Semitic speech.
“I do think it’s important we separate the meaning of anti-Semitism from Israel,” Shanes said.
Overall, scholars worry the action could impact how people talk about the complicated history of Israel.
“I want the freedom to teach the full story of Israel…warts and all,” Shanes said. “This will have a stifling effect. If I’m a non-tenured faculty out there, and I’m concerned that teaching Israel the way I understand it best is going to get me in trouble with someone who is raised with a different view of Israel and views anything challenging that as anti-Semitism, I just won’t teach Israel. I’ll teach 19th century Polish Jewish history or something else instead.”
Shanes believes the executive order perpetuates the same anti-Semitic myths it claims to fight.
“In short, the executive order will not act to protect Jews — and it doesn’t aim to. On the contrary, its very promotion reinforces the most dangerous and hateful images of both modern and pre-modern anti-Semitism, framing worldwide Jewry as belonging to the secular state of Israel, responsible for the latter’s actions and less than fully equal here at home,” Shanes wrote for The Washington Post. “Trump’s indulgence of anti-Semitism is especially dangerous, because it presents these insidious ideas as being good for Jews. They are not. Instead, he is advancing a politics of ethno-nationalism, which will not be easily reversed at the end of his term.”
The order follows reports from the Anti-Defamation League that anti-Semitism reached near-historic levels in 2018, including the single deadliest attack against the Jewish community in American history. A mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh resulted in 11 dead and 6 wounded.
In 2018, South Carolina became the first state to pass legislation to fight anti-Semitism on college campuses, and some of the same arguments were used to oppose the action.
The bill passed through the SC General Assembly, though, as a part of a state spending package. The move was applauded by the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights.