President Donald Trump issued an executive order Wednesday that interprets members of the Jewish religion as part of a distinct nationality. The measure is aimed at helping combat growing anti-Semitism on U.S. college campuses.
Some major Jewish organizations hailed the action because it means universities could lose federal funding if they do not stop discrimination against Jews on their campuses. Others said they were uncomfortable with government action to create an ethnic categorization, and they also worried about the measure's potential to suppress free speech at schools.
"This is a very powerful document that we're signing today," Trump said as he announced the order at a Hanukkah ceremony in the White House East Room packed with Jewish supporters, including a 102-year-old Holocaust survivor.
"This is a very critically important move made by the president of the United States that will set an environment wherein Jewish students who were targeted with anti-Semitism on university campuses in America will actually have some semblance of protection and recourse," said Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a major Jewish human rights organization.
"This is not a Republican or a Democratic issue," Cooper, who attended the White House event, told VOA, noting that Trump's order "is essentially an executive version of the legislation that went through the U.S. Senate twice" and has had strong bipartisan support for years but always ran into a roadblock halting its passage.
"This year there's no roadblock because I'm doing it myself," Trump said just before signing the order.
Criticism that the order creates a nationalism definition of Jews is "complete and utter nonsense," Cooper said.
America is 'where I live'
Molly Jong-Fast, a Jewish American author who is a vehement critic of Trump, was rankled about having her nationality defined by religion or ethnicity.
"I'm an American because that's where I live," said Jong-Fast, stating Jewishness isn't a nationality.
On social media, some commentators noted how Nazi Germany also designated its Jewish citizens as a distinct nationality prior to the Holocaust.
Jong-Fast, who calls Trump (whose daughter Ivanka and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, are Jewish) "very anti-Semitic" based on his past rhetoric, told VOA the president's order was meant to satisfy his Orthodox Jewish supporters.
"Everything Trump does that he thinks is good for the Jews is ultimately bad for the Jews," she said.
"It is very interesting to see how the leading heads of various Jewish organizations and activists who are infected with Trump derangement syndrome twist themselves all in a knot to try and explain how a president, who earlier this week they were accusing of trafficking in anti-Semitism, just did the most historic action to defend the Jewish community from anti-Semitism ever in history," Matt Brooks, president of the Republican Jewish Coalition, told VOA.
The executive order triggers an element of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The federal law requires educational institutions receiving federal funding to not discriminate based on national origin.
Religion is not covered in that portion of the law. Thus, according to administration officials, it was decided there was a need to interpret Judaism as a nationality so violations on campuses could be punished.
Hindu, Muslim and Sikh students already are protected from discrimination under Title VI of the act, based on their shared ancestry or ethnic characteristics, according to officials.
"It is game changer," said Harvard Law School professor emeritus Alan Dershowitz, called on by Trump to speak at the Hanukkah event. "It will go down in history as one of the most important events in the 2,000-year battle against anti-Semitism."
Some of Trump's critics predicted the order would be used to muzzle free speech, especially regarding legitimate criticism of Israel's policies toward the Palestinians.
"This executive order, like the stalled congressional legislation it is based on, appears designed less to combat anti-Semitism than to have a chilling effect on free speech and to crack down on campus critics of Israel," said Jeremy Ben Ami, president of J Street, a liberal Jewish organization, which describes its stance as "pro-Israel, pro-peace."
According to the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, Trump's action will lead to an abuse of federal funding "to bully universities into suppressing academic freedom and freedom of speech in support of Palestinian rights under international law," something the group called "anti-democratic and anti-Palestinian."
The American Civil Liberties Union is calling the executive order unnecessary, contending anti-Semitic harassment is already protected until Title VI as interpreted by the Department of Education.
"But the government cannot equate speech criticizing Israel with unlawful discrimination,” said ACLU National Legal Director David Cole. “The ACLU has long defended the freedom of speech — if the administration attempts to undermine that freedom using this order, we will see it in court.”
Stifling of free speech feared
Democratic Representative Bobby Rush said the Trump administration "that claims to care so much about free speech on college campuses is now looking to stifle the speech of those they disagree with."
Rush contended that Trump "does not care about Jewish safety. Period."
Anti-Israel sentiment is strong on some U.S. campuses, with events frequently organized by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, targeting the Jewish state. Some of those events have led to harassment of Jewish students.