Trump Executive Order prompts discussion of free speech, anti-Semitism

Thursday, January 23, 2020 - 12:36am

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Design by Michelle Fan

In the wake of an executive order targeting what President Donald Trump has described as anti-Semitism at colleges across the country, student activist groups on campus are concerned about possible implications for University students and free speech surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

The Dec. 11 executive order effectively adds a provision to Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which allows the government to withhold federal financial assistance from public institutions that do not protect against various forms of discrimination on the basis of race, color and national origin.

As a result of the executive order, Title VI will now protect against, as the official White House briefing stated, “prohibited forms of discrimination rooted in anti-Semitism as vigorously as against all other forms of discrimination prohibited by Title VI.”

The final order did not specify whether Judaism would be interpreted as a race or nationality. Instead, it instructed the Department of Education to use a particular definition in combating anti-Semitism. 

Jeffrey Veidlinger, Director of the University’s Frankel Center for Judaic Studies, explained what the definition and the order mean.

“All it did was say the Department of Education should use the working definition of anti-Semitism in evaluation Title VI programs,” Veidlinger said. “It was from an organization called the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, and it has already been accepted by the State Department and was already widely used within the Office of Civil Rights.”

The IHRA definition used in the order has been widely criticized for the examples of modern anti-Semitism to which it refers. One example describes anti-Semitism as “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.”

According to Student 1, a member of Direct Action for Palestine who wished to remain anonymous due to fear of professional repercussions, the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism is controversial.

“It has been sort of a site of controversy because the issue with the way that IHRA defines it is that it conflates anti-Semitism with critique of Israel,” Student 1 said. “So that is basically the lens through which I am understanding that defining Judaism as a nationality is really cementing that definition of anti-Semitism, which I believe it’s a grossly incorrect way of thinking about it.”

In a statement, the Anti-Defamation League, a nonprofit that fights anti-Semitism, praised the order, noting that it supported the IHRA definition. 

“This Executive Order is an important step acknowledging the growing concern about rising anti-Semitism on American college campuses,” the statement read. “Including Jews in Title VI protections is something that ADL and previous presidential administrations have supported for years. ADL has likewise long supported the IHRA definition, which has been adopted by more than 20 countries and entities around the world as a non-legally binding definition of anti-Semitism.”

LSA senior Becca Lubow, a student leader for If Not Now, a student organization opposing the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, said she does not support the executive order.

“I think that anti-Semitism is present and rising on college campuses, but Trump can’t be trusted to define anti-Semitism for us, because he incites deadly white nationalist violence against our community,” Lubow said. “He calls us disloyal; he refers to Israel as ‘your country’ because he believes we don’t really belong here.” 

Veidlinger agreed anti-Semitism was rising and should be addressed, but said he did not believe regulating speech on universities was the correct approach. 

“I think it’s significant to look at the definition of anti-Semitism and recognize that, although we haven’t seen that much in universities, I do think it is a growing problem around the world and in the United States,” Veidlinger said. “We have seen tragic evidence of that in the last few months, so I do think we need to pay serious attention, but I don’t think cracking down on institutions of higher learning is the way to do that.” 

Arwa Gayar, Public Policy senior and co-president of Students Allied for Freedom and Equality, expressed a similar belief that while combating anti-Semitism is important, this order is potentially problematic. 

“I do obviously support legislation that seeks to combat anti-Semitism, especially in a time where there’s rising white supremacy and there’s a need for these things,” Gayar said. “But I also am extremely hesitant because I recognize that a lot of times, people kind of undermine anti-Semitism and throw it at things or movements that are, for example, critical of policy of the State of Israel.”

David Zwick, LSA Sophomore and President of Wolverine for Israel, wrote in an email to The Daily that he believes criticism of the Israeli government can be productive, but may also signal anti-Semitic speech. He also offered a suggestion for how to differentiate between the two. 

“Fair and proportionate criticism of the Israeli government should not only be permissible, but given the right circumstances, it can actually be a very healthy activity,” Zwick wrote. “On the other hand, unfair and disproportionate criticism of the Israeli government is usually antisemitic and should be treated as such by the University. The general rule for evaluating into which category a various statement or act falls is by asking whether it meets any of Natan Sharansky's 3 D's': Demonization, Delegitimization, and Double Standard.” 

According to Student 1, Palestinian activist organizations have historically struggled with issues of free speech on campus.

“In organizing around Palestine, what we call is the ‘Palestinian exception to free speech,’” Student 1 said. “In the United States, you can have a position on something, you can advocate for that and be vocal about that, but when it comes to Palestine, all of a sudden, things become very controversial, and then an issue arises which also Palestinian activists, in particular, have been asked to step back and step down. Their calls for justice have been framed as discriminatory and hateful, and there’s been administrative action against those activists for a long time.”

Lubow also voiced concerns that the order would limit the free speech of students on campus. She said she believed Trump was using the order to silence opposition to his administration’s policies. 

“As a Jewish college student, I know that this order isn’t meant to keep me safe. It’s meant to silence, in particular, Palestinian and Muslim students,” Lubow said. “It could even silence Jewish students who are critical of occupation and the Israeli government and students who speak out against the occupation on campuses are already targeted and censored. Now Trump wants to crack down even further, and he’s doing it in the name of Jewish safety, which makes me angry. He has no right to co-opt our voice in that way.” 

Gayar said the University has faced challenges in handling free speech issues.

“College campuses, especially this University, in recent years have kind of struggled with free speech and kind of evaluating, what exactly is free speech? At what expense does freedom of speech come? And kind of acknowledging that freedom of speech is something that’s very valuable,” Gayar said. “But then again, you know, I think as a country we value free speech and our ability to speak our minds and our ability to, you know, be able to exercise, our personal politics, additional views.” 

Miriam Saperstien, LSA junior and student organizer for Jewish Voice for Peace, said this executive order would have important implications for free speech, especially for the Palestinian students who have faced these challenges in the past.

“Palestinian students at this University and across the country are already being targeted,” Saperstein said. “I guess I’d put it simply that a future of Palestinian freedom depends on supporting, not silencing, this important advocacy.”

Student 1 said that the capacity of the executive order to stifle student freedoms should prompt a response from the University.

“Now for me, the executive order is a really egregious stance on this government that impedes on the possibility of academic freedom and student activism on campus,” Student 1 said. “And so, what the University should do — what I believe they’re obligated to do — is to take an active stance against that executive order.”

Saperstein said the University should make specific efforts to support Palestinian students on campus, especially following the executive order. 

“I think the way the University supports dialogue with feeling no need to actually repair for the harm the University has caused Palestinian students (is problematic),” Saperstein said. “There needs to be an acknowledgment first that we can’t just talk to each other, we need to change the material conditions of what it means to live in Palestine and to be a Palestinian in the U.S. when there’s so much suppression.” 

Zwick also expressed his belief there is an urgent need for campuses to combat anti-Semitism and discrimination. 

“There exists a clear correlation between anti-Israel activities on college campuses and anti-semitic acts on those same campuses," he wrote. "If the American people do not stand up against this hate (...) we risk turning into Europe where anti-semitic beliefs are held and Jews are attacked with growing regularity."

The Jewish Resource Center and Chabad House of Ann Arbor did not respond to requests for comment. Hillel could not provide a statement to The Daily in time for publication.

University spokeswoman Kim Broekhuizen told The Daily the University aims to provide an inclusive environment for all students. 

“The University works hard each and every day to foster an environment that supports all our students and their diverse faith traditions,” Broekhuizen said. “This includes our work to support Jewish students and to call out anti-Semitism, which is anathema to our mission and values. We do and will, of course, comply with the law. But, more importantly, we do this work because it is the right thing to do.”

Reporters Atticus Raasch and Emma Ruberg can be reached at eruberg@umich.edu and ratticus@umich.edu.