President Trump’s recent executive order is a significant step forward in combating the anti-Semitism faced by vulnerable Jewish students on college campuses across America. Unfortunately, this act of good policy does not come without detractors.
Title VI of the Civil Rights Act already prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin in institutions receiving federal funds. However, the Civil Rights Act is almost never enforced against one of the most prevalent types of bigotry, even as statistics show anti-Semitic incidents are to record levels on university campuses. A flaw in the classification of victims of these incidents has, until now, thwarted efforts by university administrators to eradicate the threat: A failure to recognize that Judaism is not just a religion. The new executive order sets the record straight — in no uncertain terms.
The fact that Judaism is a religion is widely accepted; but the concept of the Jewish people as a nation has been challenged by those who seek to establish a semantic distinction that would enable them to continue discriminating against Jews with impunity. The Bible is certainly clear on this matter: At the time of the Exodus from Egypt, the Jewish nation was born, with its religious character being introduced shortly thereafter. Thousands of years later, this multifaceted identity remains strong among the Jewish people.
There are Jews who do not identify with their Jewishness as a matter of religious faith or adherence, yet they self-identify as Jews nevertheless. That is because Jewishness is an identity that transcends religious belief. This dynamic defines the identity and experience of many Jews who continue to relate through celebrating communal aspects of Jewish holidays/traditions, supporting Israel as the Jewish national homeland, working toward a vision of the world based on “social justice,” or even enjoying special Jewish lifecycle events and foods.
In her website “Judaism 101,” Tracey Rich explores the question:
“What is Judaism? What does it mean to be a Jew? Most people, both Jewish and gentile, would instinctively say that Judaism is a religion. And yet, there are militant atheists who insist that they are Jews! Is Judaism a race? If you were to say so, most Jews would think you were an anti-Semite! So what is Judaism? … The most traditional Jews and the most liberal Jews and everyone in between would agree that these secular people are still Jews, regardless of their disbelief. Clearly, then, there is more to being Jewish than just a religion.”
It seems that many Jews in America have been led to believe that if Title VI protections under federal law are applied to those who support Jewish self-determination, then ultimately American Jews will thereby be accused of harboring dual loyalty to Israel. The dual loyalty canard has a well-known history in America, including its recent invocation by figures such as Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN). It is indeed a legitimate sensitivity. However, with that in mind, it is important to understand that the executive order does not actually reclassify Jews as a nationality. Rather, what it does is clarify that those who persecute Jews are oftentimes actually targeting Jewish peoplehood — characteristics that extend beyond their status as a religious group. This is merely a statement of the obvious.
We applaud President Trump’s executive order for affirmatively seeking to combat the rising tide of anti-Semitic crime and discrimination head-on. We are confident that its full implementation will be a meaningful step in identifying and eradicating this “oldest hatred” on university campuses.
Ron Machol is the COO of Zachor Legal Institute, an organization using the law to oppose antisemitism. Joseph Sabag is Executive Director of IAC for Action.