In a time of extraordinary political polarization, knee-jerk reactions and quick judgments about the news of the day take the place of reason and measured analysis. Such is the case with a presidential executive order signed today, designed to protect Jewish college students. Despite the hysterical chatter on social media, this executive order and its potential impact deserve careful review.
For starters, the order is actually the culmination of a yearslong bipartisan effort to include Jewish students as a protected group under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. The statute, which addresses discrimination based on “race, color or national origin,” now will include discrimination “rooted in anti-Semitism as vigorously as against all other forms of discrimination.”
Moreover, the order adopts language from the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, whose definition of anti-Semitism includes denying Jews the right to self-determination, claiming the State of Israel is “a racist endeavor” and “drawing comparisons with contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.”
The new interpretation of Title VI means the government can withhold federal funding from colleges that do not sufficiently safeguard students against anti-Semitism. While the potential to squelch free speech on campus is undeniably present under this ruling, there is no question that Jewish students need some legal protection from anti-Semitic hatred. For years they have faced extreme hostility, physical threats and discrimination on some campuses, much of it masquerading as criticism of Israel by the extreme left.
As the American Jewish Committee put it, the order “merely gives Jews what other groups have long enjoyed — the right not to be subject to a hostile environment on campus.”
Not surprisingly, reaction to the order has been mixed. The Anti-Defamation League welcomed the move, calling it “an important step acknowledging the growing concern about anti-Semitism on American college campuses.” Meanwhile, J Street labeled it “a cynical, harmful measure designed to suppress free speech on college campuses, not fight antisemitism.”
There is another troubling aspect to this executive order: It ignores the very real and deadly threat posed by anti-Semitism on the extreme right. The hatred and violence at the heart of the white nationalist movement has already claimed lives in Pittsburgh and Poway, and it continues to encourage attacks on Jews nationwide — including in our own backyard, where we have been closely following the case of a Concord man accused of threatening to kill Jews, and reporting on a rash of incidents at San Francisco State, where Jewish students have felt unsafe for years. We will keep a close eye on how the enforcement of Title VI plays out.