President Donald Trump signs an executive order combating anti-Semitism at the White House Hanukkah party, Dec. 11, 2019. (JTA/Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
President Donald Trump signs an executive order combating anti-Semitism at the White House Hanukkah party, Dec. 11, 2019. (JTA/Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

‘Completely wrongheaded’: Local Jewish studies profs skewer Trump’s order targeting campus anti-Semitism

Jared Kushner, senior adviser and son-in-law to the president, wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed that college campuses are where “discrimination, harassment and intimidation of Jewish students has become commonplace.”

The day it appeared, Dec. 11, was the same day the president signed an executive order that added anti-Jewish bias to a list of forms of discrimination prohibited under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. “I could not be more proud of President Trump’s new policy,” he wrote.

Kushner was not alone in praising the executive order to combat anti-Semitism, inked during an early Hanukkah celebration at the White House.

The action, which had stalled in Congress in part due to free-speech concerns, has garnered the support of national Jewish organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League, AJC and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. The latter entity, composed of 51 national Jewish organizations, called the order “historic” and hopes it will “abate the increasingly virulent Jew-hatred on display at some colleges and universities across the country.”

But professors in Jewish studies programs, many of whom have taught courses on Middle Eastern history and have found themselves at the center of campus Israel controversies for decades, are telling a different story.

In a series of recent conversations with Bay Area-based Jewish studies academics, a contrasting view has emerged, one defined not by enthusiastic support but by skepticism — and, in many cases, scorn.

Professors such as John Efron (Koret Professor of Jewish History at UC Berkeley) and Steven Zipperstein (Koshland Professor in Jewish Culture and History at Stanford University) said they could not offer support for the order, which relies on the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance resolution that anti-Israel activity is akin to anti-Semitism.

“You’ll have a very, very hard time finding such support [for the executive order] among those of us who understand the workings of university life,” Zipperstein wrote in an email to J.

The Jewish studies professors contacted by J. tended to see the order as, at best, an empty gesture by the administration meant to score political points or, at worst, a dangerous incursion into the free-speech rights of those who would critique Israel on college campuses, longtime bastions of free speech.

“I think this is a classic instance of bad faith,” said professor David Biale, director of Jewish studies at UC Davis, where he is the Emanuel Ringelblum Distinguished Professor of Jewish History. He, like others in this article, spoke to J. from San Diego, where he was attending this year’s Association for Jewish Studies conference.

David Biale
David Biale

Biale said the president has negative credibility on issues of anti-Semitism and prejudice and that the executive order — rather than being a serious effort to protect the civil rights of Jewish students — likely is a political ploy to win points with evangelical Christians, a key constituency of his political base.

“If there is anyone promoting anti-Semitism and violent attacks on Jews, it’s the president,” Biale stated. “He’s not saying ‘go into a synagogue and kill Jews.’ But he creates an atmosphere in which such attacks are possible.”

The executive order has become a flashpoint in the Jewish community. On one side are those who see it as overdue protection for Jewish students on college campuses that have become increasingly hostile to Israel and pro-Israel students. But others see it as unnecessary, counterproductive or even dangerous.

The ADL welcomed the order in a Dec. 11 press release, saying the adoption of the IHRA working definition of anti-Semitism is “an important step acknowledging the growing concern about anti-Semitism on college campuses.” AJC, an advocacy group also known as American Jewish Committee, stated in a press release that the order would “strengthen efforts to combat antisemitism” on college campuses, but reserved trust that a “careful application” of the measure would “avoid running afoul of free-speech protections.”

Professors interviewed for this article, however, say the IHRA examples of anti-Semitism are overbroad and threaten to punish actions that are not inherently anti-Semitic — including not only garden-variety criticism of Israel, but some sharp critiques, as well.

The order states that the executive branch, in determining whether an institution should receive federal funding, “shall consider” examples of anti-Semitism such as “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination,” “applying double standards” in judging Israel’s actions and “claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.”

Supporters say the examples bring to the fore what is prevalent on college campuses today: a pernicious undercurrent of anti-Semitism that includes efforts to deny the legitimacy of the Jewish state and/or ascribe crimes to Israel that reek of the demonization of Jewish people in general.

But the interviewed professors argue that the executive order confuses political disagreement with anti-Jewish prejudice. And it provides too much power to the Department of Education to enforce campus free-speech rules that should be handled by the universities themselves.

“Students have the right to support or not support BDS. Period,” UC Davis sociology professor Diane Wolf said of the boycott, divestments and sanctions movement against Israel.

Diane Wolf
Diane Wolf

An author-editor of three books on the Holocaust, Wolf said that while she does not personally support BDS, “I do not think it is inherently anti-Semitic. And it is non-violent. We have to understand that, too.”

Of the rising tide of anti-Semitism not only on college campuses but across the nation in general, Wolf said, “I am afraid of the white nationalists, no question about it. But this [executive order] was not about white nationalists, who are the real danger. It’s about anyone who is pro-Palestinian.”

Pro-Palestinian movements on campus, such as Students for Justice in Palestine or the General Union of Palestine Students at San Francisco State University, often are populated by a small fraction of the student body but are highly vocal, and make efforts to shape campus discourse around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Sometimes they cross the line, pro-Israel students say. Just last week, the group Bears for Palestine at UC Berkeley received pushback from Jewish groups (including Bears for Israel) for publicly “glorifying violent terrorists,” according to a student senate resolution. And last year at SFSU, “Zionism=Racism” was scrawled in chalk in the quad, an offense that, under the new rules, might gain the attention of the Department of Education.

Chalk writing at San Francisco State University, Feb. 23, 2018. (Photo/Courtesy SF Hillel)
Chalk writing at San Francisco State University, Feb. 23, 2018. (Photo/Courtesy SF Hillel)

The professors interviewed for this article see these incidents as concerning, but generally view the executive order as a blunt instrument ill-suited to address student discourse in a university setting.

Biale, for example, said equating Zionism with racism, though possibly anti-Semitic in some instances, is an “issue that requires much more discussion.”

“If your claim is that Jews can’t have a state of their own because that would be, by definition, racist, that is probably kind of anti-Semitic,” he submitted.

“On the other hand, if you say some Israeli policies toward Arab minorities and Palestinians who live under Israeli control in the West Bank — if you say some of those policies are motivated by a racist worldview, you wouldn’t necessarily be wrong.

“Ehud Barak, a [former] prime minister of Israel who cannot be called a left-wing peacenik, said the occupation is becoming an apartheid regime,” Biale continued. “If he is using that language, it is entirely legitimate for others to use that language and to discuss the question.”

Ari Y. Kelman, the Jim Joseph Chair in Education and Jewish Studies at Stanford, called the executive order “completely wrongheaded.”

Ari Y. Kelman
Ari Y. Kelman

“American Jewish students are not concerned with anti-Semitism on their campuses in the main,” he said, citing his 2017 study, “Safe and on the Sidelines,” which interviewed 66 Jewish undergraduate students at five California universities. The vast majority of the students said they felt safe on campus as Jews, although some felt the “tone of campus political activism” around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to be “severe, divisive and alienating.”

“This doesn’t mean there haven’t been chilling stories about students encountering anti-Semitism from peers, speakers or from faculty,” Kelman said. “But that American Jewish students are under threat from anti-Semitism flies in the face of the best research we have about American college students. It’s a complete fallacy.”

Turning toward the executive order itself, Kelman said, “The weaponization of anti-Semitism on behalf of Israel is to me the most galling piece of it — especially by an administration that has shown utter callousness toward Jewish people and other minorities. It’s borderline insulting.”

Trump, however, sees the measure as a feather in his cap on Jewish issues.

“This is our message to universities: If you want to accept the tremendous amount of federal dollars that you get every year, you must reject anti-Semitism,” he said at the signing ceremony. “It’s very simple.”

Many of the interviewed professors acknowledged problems on campus, and even said they support Section 1 of the order, which says the executive branch shall enforce discrimination “rooted in anti-Semitism as vigorously” as all other forms.

The problems do exist. In the Bay Area alone over the past three years, flare-ups have included the mayor of Jerusalem being shouted down during a speech at SFSU, a student at UC Berkeley being asked to leave a student government meeting for displaying an Israeli flag sticker on her laptop and an SFSU professor writing in a Facebook post that welcoming Zionists on campus was a “declaration of war” against Arabs and Palestinians.

“For sure there is reason for criticism,” said Biale, referring to SFSU’s handling of, among other things, a university president equivocating as to whether “Zionists are welcome on campus.” “But the question is: Should that criticism end up in federal action? End up in federal court?”

An achievement of Zionism, Biale added, is that “the questions of the practices of the Jewish state are political questions. They can be debated politically without being anti-Semitic.”

Though conversations around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are often “uncomfortable” and can even turn “nasty,” it is “very difficult to shut them down entirely,” he continued. “They’re going to happen.”

Gabe Stutman
Gabe Stutman

Gabe Stutman is a J. staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @jnewsgabe.