Trump Targets Anti-Semitism and Israeli Boycotts on College Campuses

By Peter Baker and Maggie Haberman

The president’s order would allow the government to withhold money from campuses deemed to be biased, but critics see it as an attack on free speech.

President Trump at the Israeli American Council National Summit last week in Hollywood, Fla.
President Trump at the Israeli American Council National Summit last week in Hollywood, Fla.Credit...T.J. Kirkpatrick for The New York Times

WASHINGTON — President Trump plans to sign an executive order on Wednesday targeting what he sees as anti-Semitism on college campuses by threatening to withhold federal money from educational institutions that fail to combat discrimination, three administration officials said on Tuesday.

The order will effectively interpret Judaism as a race or nationality, not just a religion, to prompt a federal law penalizing colleges and universities deemed to be shirking their responsibility to foster an open climate for minority students. In recent years, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions — or B.D.S. — movement against Israel has roiled some campuses, leaving some Jewish students feeling unwelcome or attacked.

In signing the order, Mr. Trump will use his executive power to take action where Congress has not, essentially replicating bipartisan legislation that has stalled on Capitol Hill for several years. Prominent Democrats have joined Republicans in promoting such a policy change to combat anti-Semitism as well as the boycott-Israel movement.

But critics complained that such a policy could be used to stifle free speech and legitimate opposition to Israel’s policies toward Palestinians in the name of fighting anti-Semitism. The definition of anti-Semitism to be used in the order matches the one used by the State Department and by other nations, but it has been criticized as too open-ended and sweeping.

For instance, it describes as anti-Semitic “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination” under some circumstances and offers as an example of such behavior “claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.”

Yousef Munayyer, the executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights, said Mr. Trump’s order is part of a sustained campaign “to silence Palestinian rights activism” by equating opposition to Israeli treatment of Palestinians with anti-Semitism.

“Israeli apartheid is a very hard product to sell in America, especially in progressive spaces,” Mr. Munayyer said, “and realizing this, many Israeli apartheid apologists, Trump included, are looking to silence a debate they know they can’t win.”

Administration officials, who insisted on anonymity to discuss the order before its official announcement, said it was not intended to squelch free speech. The White House reached out to some Democrats and activist groups that have been critical of the president to build support for the move.

Among those welcoming the order on Tuesday was Jonathan Greenblatt, the chief executive of the Anti-Defamation League, who said the group recorded its third-highest level of anti-Semitic episodes in the United States last year.

“Of course we hope it will be enforced in a fair manner,” he said. “But the fact of the matter is we see Jewish students on college campuses and Jewish people all over being marginalized. The rise of anti-Semitic incidents is not theoretical; it’s empirical.”

David Krone, a former chief of staff to Senator Harry Reid of Nevada when he was Senate Democratic leader, has lobbied for years for such a policy change and praised Mr. Trump for taking action.

“I know people are going to criticize me for saying this,” Mr. Krone said, “but I have to give credit where credit is due.” He added, “It’s too important to let partisanship get in the way.”

Mr. Reid helped push for legislation similar to the order called the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act of 2016. It passed the Senate in December 2016 unanimously but died in the House as that session of Congress ended. It has been reintroduced by Democrats and Republicans but has made little progress to Mr. Trump’s desk.

Mr. Krone continued to work on the issue after Mr. Reid retired and reached out through a mutual friend last summer to Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser. The Jewish grandson of Holocaust survivors, Mr. Kushner embraced the idea, which also had been explored over the past year by the president’s domestic policy aides. With Mr. Kushner’s support, the White House drafted the order and Mr. Trump agreed to sign it.

Mr. Trump over the years has been accused of making anti-Semitic remarks, turning a blind eye to anti-Jewish tropes or emboldening white supremacists like those in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017. Just last weekend, he drew criticism for remarks in Florida before the Israeli American Council in which he told the Jewish audience they were “not nice people” but would support his re-election because “you’re not going to vote for the wealth tax.”

But he has also positioned himself as an unflinching supporter of Israel and a champion of Jewish Americans, moving the United States Embassy to Jerusalem, supporting settlements in the West Bank and recognizing the seizure of the Golan Heights. He also assailed Representative Ilhan Omar, Democrat of Minnesota, when she said support for Israel was “all about the Benjamins,” meaning money.

Jeremy Ben-Ami, the president of J Street, a liberal Israel advocacy group, said the president’s order was a cynical effort to crack down on critics, not to defend Jews from bias. “It is particularly outrageous and absurd for President Trump to pretend to care about anti-Semitism during the same week in which he once again publicly spouted anti-Semitic tropes about Jews and money,” he said in a statement.

The president’s action comes soon after the Education Department ordered Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to remake their joint Middle East studies program on the grounds that it featured a biased curriculum. The move was part of a broader campaign by Betsy DeVos, the education secretary, and her civil rights chief, Kenneth L. Marcus, to go after perceived anti-Israel bias in higher education.

The order to be signed by Mr. Trump would empower the Education Department in such actions. Under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the department can withhold funding from any college or educational program that discriminates “on the ground of race, color, or national origin.” Religion was not included among the protected categories, so Mr. Trump’s order will have the effect of embracing an argument that Jews are a people or a race with a collective national origin in the Middle East, like Italian Americans or Polish Americans.

The definition of anti-Semitism to be adopted from the State Department and originally formulated by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance includes “a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews.” However, it adds that “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic.”

The American Civil Liberties Union was among the groups that opposed using the definition in the 2016 legislation, deeming it overly broad. “It cannot and must not be that our civil rights laws are used in such a way to penalize political advocacy on the basis of viewpoint,” the group said in a letter to Congress at the time. Kenneth S. Stern, the original lead author of the definition, also objected to using it, saying that “students and faculty members will be scared into silence, and administrators will err on the side of suppressing or censuring speech.”

But Representative Ted Deutch, Democrat of Florida, who was among the sponsors of the 2016 legislation, wrote in an op-ed article in The Times of Israel last week that the definition “was drafted not to regulate free speech or punish people for expressing their beliefs.” Instead, he wrote, “This definition can serve as an important tool to guide our government’s response to anti-Semitism.”

Last week, a group of 80 education, civil rights and religious organizations sent a letter to Ms. DeVos complaining that some Middle East studies centers on college campuses financed by the government under Title VI have sought to boycott Israel or shut down their universities’ study abroad programs in Israel.

“Recent incidents have demonstrated the willingness of faculty across the country to implement the academic boycott of Israel on their campuses,” the letter said.

The president is expected to be joined at the signing by several prominent Republican lawmakers, including Senators Tim Scott of South Carolina and James Lankford of Oklahoma and Representative Doug Collins of Georgia. But Democrats who have advocated the legislation in the past are not expected, including Representative Jerrold Nadler of New York, who on Tuesday released articles of impeachment against Mr. Trump.

While an executive order is not as permanent as legislation and can be overturned by the next president, Mr. Trump’s action may have the effect of extending the policy beyond his administration anyway because his successors may find it politically unappealing to reverse.

Peter Baker reported from Washington, and Maggie Haberman from Hershey, Pa.