Trump executive order on Jewish nationality: ploy to limit free speech
A general view of a construction site in the West Bank Jewish settlement of Modiin Illit. B'tselem. President Trump has come out in support of illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank which restrict the movements and rights of the Palestinian people living there. | Oded Balilty/AP

On Wednesday, December 11, President Donald Trump signed an Executive Order which appeared to redefine Judaism as an ethnicity or nationality, eliciting a wide range of responses both pro and con.

It is important to keep in mind where this unprecedented move came from before jumping to alarming conclusions, at the same time recognizing the pernicious implications of this new formulation which on the face of it seems absurd to fall under a president’s authority.

At all levels of American government in the last couple of years, the Israeli state public relations division (hasbara) has worked with AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) to combat the growing worldwide BDS movement (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions), which aims to punish Israel for its decades-long suppression of Palestinian rights to self-determination and statehood. Statutes outlawing criticism of Israel which “delegitimizes” the state or singles Israel out among the nations for criticism have been passed by municipal, state and federal entities, raising fundamental questions about First Amendment rights to free speech.

College campuses have been a popular venue for students to voice their views, as young people tend to be idealistic, egalitarian-minded, and questioning. For many in that demographic, Israel has only “delegitimized” itself by continuing its campaign of expulsion, unequal treatment of its Palestinian citizens, annexation and occupation of Palestinian lands in the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan Heights, flouting international law. Attempts to criminalize criticism are happening now because Israel is in fact becoming more and more isolated around these issues, even among Jewish Americans. Campaigns for university divestment from illegal Israeli Occupation investments are starting to succeed.

Yousef Munayyer, executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights, has been quoted saying, “Many Israeli apartheid apologists, Trump included, are looking to silence a debate they know they can’t win.” Munayyer joins many critics who explicitly or analogously use the term “apartheid” to describe Israeli policy

U.S. law distinguishes between religion and nationality or ethnicity. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 says that educational institutions receiving federal money may not discriminate according to race, ethnicity, or national origin. Religious discrimination, however, is not covered: After all, there are many religion-based schools which privilege students and employees of that faith.

A draft copy of the Executive Order, which has not yet been formally released by the White House, states: “While Title VI does not cover discrimination based on religion, individuals who face discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin do not lose protection under Title VI for also being a member of a group that shares common religious practices. Discrimination against Jews may give rise to a Title VI violation when the discrimination is based on an individual’s race, color, or national origin.

“It shall be the policy of the executive branch to enforce Title VI against prohibited forms of discrimination rooted in anti-Semitism as vigorously as against all other forms of discrimination prohibited by Title VI.”

So by signing an executive order effectively reclassifying the Jewish people as an ethnicity or nationality, rather than a religion, Trump is able by the stroke of a pen (or so he imagines) to enhance their protected status under federal civil rights law. Claiming that the order serves the goal of giving government more power to combat anti-Semitism, especially on college campuses, Trump is simply trying to criminalize free speech. He is intensifying his commitment to the AIPAC and International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism, and to the most right-wing forces in Israeli politics.

Trump’s embrace of beleaguered Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu is of legendary fame. The executive order conforms in spirit with the Israeli Knesset’s declaration that Israel is a state of the Jewish people, in which other religions, ethnicities and persons are implicitly downgraded to second-class, or even third-class status.

Thus in essence, the executive order is designed to curry favor not only with right-wing Jews and donors (such as the billionaire GOP casino gambling magnate Sheldon Adelson), but more important from an electoral point of view, with the Protestant evangelical electorate which has a complicated but idolatrous, pro-Zionist affinity for the Biblical “Land of Israel.”

The order fits into the overall character of a president who, even impulsively and self-destructively, measures his every move in terms of satisfying his political base. From that point of view, the order can be seen as just another attempt to shore up his Electoral College majority in 2020, particularly in places which have come to be regarded as “swing states” such as Florida, Georgia, Texas, Iowa and Kansas, where evangelical movements are strong.

Can this executive order stand?

Although some Jewish organizations have hailed it, considering its rationale to suppress free speech on the Israel/Palestine issue, the order opens up a raft of questions as to why just Jewish Americans are singled out as a “national” entity. How about Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists, Zoroastrians or any number of other faith traditions, including Indigenous ones, which in one way or another trace their origins to some specific global locale? Roman Catholics had to fight off accusations of supreme loyalty to the Vatican for centuries, until that canard finally started to wane (though never completely) with the election of John F. Kennedy.

How about other groups not defined by religion but by origin, such as African Americans, Polish Americans or Italian Americans? The order is consistent with Trump’s obsession with national identity, but seems patently fraught with problematic and challengeable thinking, even as the pace of anti-Semitic incidents has risen geometrically during the Trump years.

The order was promulgated just one day after two assailants with automatic weapons burst into the Jersey City Kosher Supermarket, leaving six dead. In New York City, anti-Semitic hate crimes have risen 63% in 2019. White supremacists have murderously attacked synagogues in Pittsburgh and Poway, Calif., citing Trump’s own nativist language about immigrants invading the country. Over 1800 anti-Semitic incidents have been recorded since Trump became president. The specific Title VI application of the order would do nothing to enhance security at such centers of Jewish life which violent “Jews will not replace us” haters and hate groups now see as targets.

Familiar anti-Semitic tropes

Trump himself has a long, documented history of anti-Semitic word and act. He has regularly retweeted language and memes from openly white supremacist websites, most famously during the 2016 campaign when he slammed Hillary Clinton with an image of her against a pile of money and a big red six-pointed star.

“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,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of the pro-Israel, pro-peace advocacy group J Street.

On Sat., Dec. 7, Trump addressed an Israeli American Council National Summit in Hollywood, Fla., headlined by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, “President Donald Trump slammed American Jews who he said did not sufficiently ‘love Israel.’” According to the official White House transcript,Trump simultaneously flattered, cajoled, insulted and joked with his receptive listeners:

“So many of you voted for people in the last administration. Someday you’ll have to explain that to me, because I don’t think they liked Israel too much. I’m sorry. (Applause.) I don’t think they liked Israel too much….

“We have to get the people of our country, of this country, to love Israel more. I have to tell you that. We have to do it. We have to get them to love Israel more. Because you have people that are Jewish people, that are great people—they don’t love Israel enough. You know that. You know that. (Applause.).…

“A lot of you are in the real estate business because I know you very well. You’re brutal killers. (Laughter.) Not nice people at all. But you have to vote for me; you have no choice. You’re not going to vote for Pocahontas, I can tell you that. (Laughter and applause.) You’re not going to vote for the wealth tax….”

The entire text of that speech is worth reading to capture the pandering, folksy, heart-to-heart jingoism Trump pushes out to his pre-selected audiences, who in this case responded with chants of “Four more years!…. USA! USA! USA!”

It’s significant to note that Trump signed his order at a Khanukah reception at the White House (Khanukah begins Dec. 22), where he introduced Pastor Robert Jeffress, a prominent evangelical Trump supporter. Jeffress has a documented history of incendiary remarks about other religions, yet Trump and his top-drawer Jewish guests at the White House party, including celebrity lawyer Alan Dershowitz and Sheldon Adelson, appeared to have no problem with that. Ed Mazza in Huffington Post has cited this choice passage from a 2009 sermon by the pastor whom Trump calls a “tremendous faith leader”:

“Not only do religions like Mormonism, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, not only do they lead people away from the true God, they lead people to an eternity of separation from God in hell. You know, Jesus was very clear. Hell is not only going to be populated by murderers and drug dealers and child abusers. Hell is going to be filled with good religious people who have rejected the truth of Christ.”

Predictable dangers

Republican Jews, and those who continue to associate with Trump either out of a drive for self-advancement or out of a perceived advantage for Israel, forced to stomach his inherently anti-Semitic spouting, might be classified as “court Jews,” about whom I have written in the past.

On the same day that Trump issued his order, Jared Kushner, his Jewish son-in-law and father to Trump’s Jewish grandchildren, came out with an obviously pre-conceived op-ed in the New York Times clarifying the executive order. “The executive order does not define Jews as a nationality. It merely says that to the extent that Jews are discriminated against for ethnic, racial or national characteristics, they are entitled to protection by the anti-discrimination law.”

If on the one hand, the executive order would appear to apply only to campuses as a way to stifle pro-Palestinian activism, legally enshrining the Jewish people in the cloak of nationalism holds predictable dangers. Trump is confounding loyalty not to Israel per se but to a revanchist, racist Likud Party vision of Israel according to Bibi Netanyahu, with loyalty to himself and the GOP as protectors and saviors of the Jewish people.

Trump thinks nothing of labeling anyone who has disagreements with him as an “enemy of the people” and seeks to drive a wedge between Jews who “love” Israel and others who don’t “love” Israel enough. That same language was used in the 1990s against Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by a right wing led even then by the same Bibi Netanyahu. Fanaticized by such thinking at a time when Rabin was trying to make a peace deal with the Palestinians, a passionate Orthodox yeshiva student took it upon himself to assassinate the Israeli leader. Such are the fruits of such prescriptive either/or talk of “love” and “loyalty.” We have seen such politically motivated violence in the U.S. over and over again.

Aside from formidable logistical issues such as determining exactly who is a Jew (the Hitler rule perhaps?), establishing a “national” identity for the Jewish people in the U.S. could be a set-up for future discrimination or worse—whispering campaigns, attacks, pogroms and expulsion against the disloyal “fifth column” among us. After all, the Jews already have their own nation—Israel.

Emily Mayer, political director of the Jewish anti-Occupation group IfNotNow, says, “The order’s move to define Judaism as a ‘nationality’ promotes the classically bigoted idea that American Jews are not ‘American.’”

In short, is nationality now to be determined by ethnicity and not citizenship? Considering the president’s constant assaults on people of color, Muslims, immigrants, women, labor, and the LGBTQ community, among others, he is clearly heading in the direction of limiting full citizenship rights to rich, straight white men, leaving all others to scramble to defend themselves and their place in his America.

As law professor and former chief Bush Jr. White House ethics lawyer (2005-07) Richard W. Painter tweeted, “Jewish people are of many different nationalities. The notion that a Jewish citizen of the United States (or a Jewish citizen of Germany) is of a different nationality than fellow Americans (or Germans) is lunacy. Been there, done that. Didn’t end well.”

“Back to the question of what makes U.S. Jews politically different,” writes Paul Krugman in a New York Times piece called “Donald Trump Is Bad for the Jews,” “Much of the answer is historical memory. Most of us, I think, know that whenever bigotry runs free, we’re likely to be among its victims.”


Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon, People’s World Cultural Editor, wrote a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein and co-authored composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. He has translated all nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, available from International Publishers NY.