A “working definition of antisemitism” was never intended to be a campus hate speech code, but that’s what Donald Trump’s executive order on December 12, 2019 accomplished. This order is an attack on academic freedom and free speech, and will harm not only pro-Palestinian advocates, but also Jewish students and faculty, and the academic institutions themselves.
The problem began in 2010, when rightwing Jewish groups took the “working definition”, which had some examples about Israel (such as holding Jews collectively responsible for the actions of Israel, and denying Jews the right to self-determination), and decided to weaponize it with title VI cases. While some allegations were about acts, mostly they complained about speakers, assigned texts and protests they said violated the definition. All these cases lost, so then these same groups asked the University of California to adopt the definition and apply it to its campuses. When that failed, they asked Congress, and when those efforts stalled, they went directly to the president.
With the encouragement of the powerful Israel lobby, President Trump based this executive order on a category mistake. He identified protests against Israeli state behavior with anti-Semitic racism and declared that any university or college that allows the former (permitting criticism of Israel for its violent suppression of Palestinian rights) to be found guilty of the anti-Semitism, and therefore should not receive federal funds. This effort constitutes a tragedy of the highest order not only for the Palestinians, but for the Jewish people as well.
After World War II, every sane individual knew that racism, particularly racism expressed through state power, was wrong. The consequences of such empowered bigotry were seen across the world. That was why, as early as the late 1940s, an expansion of international law and the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights sought to make such behavior criminal, particularly when carried out as government policy.
As it turned out, such resolutions constituted a direct obstacle to the Zionist goal of a “Jewish State” in Palestine. To get around this obstacle, racist policies and practices were often obscured behind a façade of benign-sounding declarations that, more often than not, had little impact on minority rights. In this way, racism became an essential tool for achieving the Zionist goal of ethnic exclusivity.
Apparently, it was not enough for the Israeli government to convince its own citizens that Zionist racism was righteous self-defense and support of Palestinian rights the equivalent of anti-Semitism. This logical fallacy had to be pushed on Israel’s ally, the United States. In Congress, this effort has been remarkably successful because the Zionist lobby has a lot of money that can sway our elected officials or, in some stubborn cases, hinder ambitious politicians.
Coming as we are to the end of the first decade of the 21st Century, there is something particularly Orwellian about a president who, through executive order, expects Americans to accept a specific category contradiction that he and the Zionists are pushing.
Do we defend the category of state-sponsored racism, as President Trump proposes, or do we oppose his misplaced, category contradiction and defend, instead, the category of human, civil and political rights?
Cathy Sultan is the author of Israeli and Palestinian Voices: A Dialogue with both Sides. Her book can be purchased here: