Update, Dec. 11, 2019, at 1:18 p.m.: After the text of the executive order was released Wednesday morning, it became clear that the changes were not as drastic as initially reported. Read Mark Joseph Stern’s explanation of why it won’t change much at all.
Original post: President Donald Trump is set to sign an executive order Wednesday that will reclassify Jewish people as an ethnicity or nationality, rather than a religious classification, changing their status under federal civil rights law. The Trump administration says the move is part of an effort to give the government more tools to combat anti-Semitism, particularly on college campuses, where the federal government can use its funding as leverage, penalizing schools that don’t do enough to combat discrimination. The Anti-Defamation League said it had recorded 201 anti-Semitic incidents on college campuses last year, which was down from 204 in 2017. The distinction between a religion and a nationality or ethnicity is an important one in U.S. law, as Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 bars educational institutions that receive federal money from discriminating on the basis of race, ethnicity, or national origin, but does not cover religious discrimination.
The move has supporters on both sides of the aisle, including the CEO of the Anti-Defamation League. Former Democratic leader Harry Reid unsuccessfully pushed for similar legislation in 2016. Critics of the order say it will stifle legitimate criticism of Israel on college campuses, particularly in relation to Israel’s treatment of Palestine, and serve to stifle free speech writ large. The move is seen as targeting the boycott Israel movement—formally known as the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (or BDS) movement—that has gained traction on college campuses. The movement aims to support Palestinian statehood by putting financial pressure on the Israeli government.
The expected order embraces a sweeping definition of what constitutes anti-Semitism that many see as overly broad. Then, of course, there is Trump’s surreal tightrope positioning on the issue, as he has been an unflinching supporter of Israel but also a magnet for, and amplifier of, anti-Semitic tropes and views. “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,” the president of the liberal Israel advocacy group J Street said in a statement. “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.”