Trump tells universities to halt campus criticism of Israel

Pro-Palestine group brands order a ‘dangerous, authoritarian attempt to silence student activism’

December 12, 2019
White House

US president Donald Trump has signed an executive order designed to allow the punishment of US universities that do not do enough to stop what he considers antisemitic practices on campuses – including criticisms of Israel.

In signing the order at a White House Hanukkah reception, Mr Trump cast himself as defending Jewish people against a rising tide of religious-based violence in the US, especially in schools and on university campuses.

He acknowledged, however, that he was also acting with a mind towards deterring students who promote boycott and divestment campaigns against Israel that are designed to protest against the country’s treatment of Palestinians.

The executive order codifies Mr Trump’s understanding that actions as broad as criticising the Israeli state or its policies – those defined by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance – could be considered antisemitic acts.

US universities that allow such acts, the White House said, could be deemed to be in violation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and, thus, liable to losing their share of tens of billions of US taxpayer dollars spent annually on higher education.

“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 antisemitism,” Mr Trump told the Hanukkah reception. “It’s very simple.”

The order generated a mix of reactions in the US Jewish community, with some religious leaders conflicted by their recognition of the need to confront antisemitism and their sense that Mr Trump – who has a history of comments widely regarded as antisemitic – was acting more to please his evangelical Christian base.

Free speech experts also questioned the practical value of the executive order, given the overriding status of the nation’s First Amendment protections of free speech.

Jewish Voice for Peace, a group that organises US campus activism in support of Palestinians, noted that the Trump order does nothing to address antisemitic violence on college campuses.

The executive order “instead is a dangerous, authoritarian attempt to silence student activism in support of Palestinian rights”, the group said in a statement.

Congress has declined in the past to write into law language similar to the presidential order. Speaking to an audience that included Holocaust survivor Rosalee Glass, Mr Trump said such proposals hit procedural roadblocks despite enjoying near universal support among lawmakers.

Mr Trump then invited comments on the executive order from one of his most prominent academic supporters, retired Harvard University law professor Alan Dershowitz, who said he had seen “no more important event” in his career “to turn universities away from being bastions of hatred and discrimination”.

Earlier this year, Mr Trump’s Education Department became more directly involved with an attempt to protect Israel from on-campus criticisms by threatening to withdraw federal money from a Middle East studies programme operated jointly by the University of North Carolina and Duke University on the grounds it was biased against Israel.

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

Again this muddled thinking that confuses racism against people of a Jewish heritage (which is, of course, quite unacceptable) with completely valid criticism of the nation-state of Israel. Until people can get their heads around this distinction, any accusation of 'anti-semitism' has to be regarded as dubious until it is determined what is actually going on.

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