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Trump's Executive Order On Anti-Semitism Sparks Debate


President Trump issued an executive order today that would ensure incidents of anti-Semitism be treated under federal law as vigorously as other forms of discrimination. He signed the order today at a White House event celebrating Hanukkah, which starts a week from Sunday. Here's how he explained the order.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: This is our message to universities. If you want to accept the tremendous amount of federal dollars that you get every year, you must reject anti-Semitism. It's very simple.


SHAPIRO: Joining us now with more on this story is NPR's Tom Gjelten. Hi, Tom.


SHAPIRO: What is the administration's rationale for this executive order?

GJELTEN: Well, it pertains to a very specific issue, which is a loophole in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VI of that act says program supported by federal funds cannot allow discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin. But it does not mention religion, and that makes it hard to apply to anti-Semitism because Judaism is a religion. So there's been concern that anti-Semitism is not covered. What this executive order says is that there actually can be a kind of racial anti-Semitism.

SHAPIRO: This is a debate among Jews. Many Jews don't consider Judaism to be a race or a nationality. It's a religion, they would say.

GJELTEN: Exactly. And this is one of the reasons this has been controversial because, in fact, it's - the idea of Jewishness as a race or nationality has been used in the past to separate Jews out for persecution. This was what happened, of course, under the Nazis. The way the administration gets around this, Ari, is it does not say that Jewishness is a nationality or race. It says that sometimes anti-Semitism is expressed in racial terms, and that's what would be covered here.

SHAPIRO: Explain why the White House is singling out Jews here. What about other religious minorities that are sometimes subjected to discrimination in racial terms, like Muslims, for example?

GJELTEN: A very good question. In fact, there were been some versions of this proposal that did include Muslims and Sikhs. I actually asked a professor of Jewish history at the University of Virginia, James Loeffler, about this. Here's what he said.

JAMES LOEFFLER: The fact that it kind of singles out the Jews, I think, is what elicits alarm on the left and why parts of the Jewish right say, oh, this is OK. Anti-Semitism is a real problem, and someone is finally identifying it and calling it out by name.

GJELTEN: I can tell you, Ari, that some of the people that do support this executive order think it could be interpreted as applying also to those groups. But they...

SHAPIRO: Muslims and Sikhs, you mean.

GJELTEN: Yeah. But they're not mentioned.

SHAPIRO: So how is racial anti-Semitism defined in this executive order? I mean, what would be some examples?

GJELTEN: Well, this is where it gets really controversial. The executive order cites a definition used by the State Department that's very sweeping. That definition says, for example, that denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination by claiming the state of Israel is a racist endeavor, that would be an example of anti-Semitism.

Now, critics like pro-Palestinian groups would say that that effectively would bar some of their criticism of Israel. It would limit their First Amendment rights. It could be taken as applying to these so-called BDS movement - boycott, divestment and sanctions - which is targeting Israel.

SHAPIRO: So kind of conflating Judaism with support for the state of Israel and its government policies.

GJELTEN: Exactly. So I say this has been very controversial. I actually asked Jonathan Greenblatt, the president of the Anti-Defamation League, about this today. This is what he had to say.

JONATHAN GREENBLATT: Holding Jews to a double standard, demonizing the Jewish state, denying Jews the right to self-determination that you would afford all other peoples, that's anti-Semitism, plain and simple.

GJELTEN: Now, Ari, the ADL has actually been critical of Israel itself. So that's one thing to keep in mind. Another thing is that this executive order only says officials who are enforcing Title VI should consider this definition of anti-Semitism. It's not really required.

SHAPIRO: So tell us about the impact of this executive order. At the top, we heard Trump referencing federal funding for colleges.

GJELTEN: And that's the main impact that it would have, that some of those programs could theoretically be targeted as a result of this executive order. Now, what it would not include is any other form of anti-Semitism. We just had this example of violence in New Jersey. I mean, you can't - you know, this would not apply to any of those other forms of anti-Semitism, just the anti-Semitism that is seen on college and university campuses.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Tom Gjelten, thank you.

GJELTEN: You bet.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Gjelten reports on religion, faith, and belief for NPR News, a beat that encompasses such areas as the changing religious landscape in America, the formation of personal identity, the role of religion in politics, and conflict arising from religious differences. His reporting draws on his many years covering national and international news from posts in Washington and around the world.