In issuing an executive order aimed at combating anti-Semitism on Dec. 11, President Trump stated “it shall be the policy of the executive branch to enforce Title VI against prohibited forms of discrimination rooted in anti-Semitism as vigorously as against all other forms of discrimination.” The measure adopts the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA’s) definition of anti-Semitism, at a time when violent attacks and bias incidents targeting Jews are on the rise across the U.S.
But Jewish and non-Jewish groups have questioned Trump’s political motivation, taking into account his past promotion of Jewish stereotypes and association with white supremacist groups. Concern is centered on how the president’s order could stifle free speech, criticism of Israel’s government and advocacy of Palestinian rights, particularly on American college and university campuses.
Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Josh Ruebner, senior principal at Progress Up Consulting and author of the book, “Israel: Democracy or Apartheid State?” Here he examines President Trump’s executive order and the threat it could pose to open political debate about Israel’s policies toward the Palestinian people and support for the international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.
JOSH RUEBNER: The last person in the world who should put themselves forward as someone who promotes the fight against anti-Semitism is the white supremacist-backed administration of Donald Trump. Donald Trump is someone who has equivocated between people who support anti-racism and Nazis, saying that there are good people on both sides. He’s someone who issued a Holocaust Remembrance Day statement and didn’t even make reference to the fact that it was Jewish people who were targeted by the Nazis for extermination. So the idea that someone who rose to power on a wave of white supremacism and anti-Semitism is now suddenly the champion of fighting anti-Semitism is a joke. The anti-Semitism that has been unleashed on this country — which is a very real phenomenon if you look at the synagogue shootings in Pittsburgh and in California and the latest Jersey City attack — these have all been done by white nationalists, the type of people who’ve been emboldened by Trump’s racist rhetoric to commit these acts.
And second, let’s be very clear that the executive order has absolutely nothing to do with anti-Semitism, but instead about suppressing the right of people to engage in activism for Palestine on college campuses, which was a sworn objective of his campaign in 2016. That’s what this executive order is really about. So what it does, the operational part, it actually sounds pretty innocuous. It mandates federal agencies to take into consideration the definition of anti-Semitism that was constructed by something called the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. This is a international non-governmental body.
And in fact, the definition of anti-Semitism is unobjectionable. But the issue is when they get to what they call contemporary examples of anti-Semitism and talk about criticisms of Israel’s policies, that’s where you run into First Amendment issues. And here’s where you run into the issues with quashing activism for Palestinian rights on campuses. So, according to this International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, it could be considered an act of anti-Semitism if you say that Israel is a racist endeavor. Or if you say that the Jewish people should not have self-determination. Or if you hold Israel to a standard that you don’t hold other so-called democracies to.
So what does this mean? That’s very vague language. Does that mean if you advocate for there to be one state where indigenous Palestinians would be equal to Israeli Jews and deny the premise of a separate and supremacist Jewish state? Does that mean you violated the definition? Probably. Do you violate this definition? If you point to the foundational racist characters of some of Israel’s laws that discriminate between Jewish and non-Jewish citizens of the state? Probably you do violate this definition.
And if you run a campaign to boycott companies that are profiting from Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian people while not simultaneously boycotting every single other country in the world at the same time with as much vigor, are you violating this definition of the anti-Semitism? Probably you are. So you see, you get into a whole host of First Amendment-protected issues when this definition and its examples are used. And the very vagueness of these example lends itself to overzealous prosecution by the Trump administration, which as I mentioned during the campaign of Donald J. Trump, he swore he was going to do this and believe me, everything he said he promised to do, he’s doing. Or at least trying to do.
BETWEEN THE LINES: So the effect of this executive order for university boards of trustees and administrators is really the bottom line being federal funds coming into these colleges and universities. Is that what’s going to drive the policy on the campus itself?
JOSH RUEBNER: That’s exactly right. And holding over a dean’s head, the threat of a loss of federal funding if he or she doesn’t crack down on campus organizing for Palestinian rights, that’s a powerful, powerful weapon in the hands of the government. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has tried to strip funding from Duke and the University of North Carolina for hosting a symposium about the Israeli-blockaded Gaza Strip. A congressman from Virginia just filed a complaint with the Department of Education against Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. for allowing scholars on campus to criticize Israel. This is the extent to which there is this huge crackdown because you know what — Israel and its supporters, they have just simply lost the debate. They cannot debate Israel’s claims on its own merit. So it’s all about suppressing the debate from happening and suppressing the organizing from happening because where students are organizing, they’re doing so very effectively and on dozens of campuses across the country, we’ve seen student governments agree with Palestine rights organizers that universities should divest their funds from corporations that are profiting from Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian people.
For more information, visit Josh Ruebner’s website at joshruebner.com.