It’s long been an article of faith in the pro-Israel community that the increasing attacks on Israel’s legitimacy that are part of the BDS movement have morphed from anti-Zionism to anti-Semitism.
Now, it appears, the U.S. government agrees.
The Trump administration, in announcing its adoption of a universally accepted definition of anti-Semitism for use on college campuses, could significantly impact how the Israel wars play out in higher education nationwide. If implemented, it would undermine the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement that seeks to isolate Israel politically and economically just as it has been gaining traction on U.S. campuses. And, in an additional step, the Department of Justice is now including Jews within the Title VI definition of groups that are protected from discrimination based on ethnicity.
The decisions were applauded by most Jewish groups this week after the Trump administration announced that they would reopen a case of alleged discrimination against Jews who were charged admission to a free program sponsored by a pro-Palestinian group at Rutgers University in 2011.
The Department of Justice’s new assistant secretary in the Office of Civil Rights, Kenneth Marcus, informed the Zionist Organization of America in an Aug. 27 letter that he has decided to re-examine the case after an earlier complaint by the ZOA had been dismissed. In so doing, he wrote that he would be including Jews within the Title VI definition of groups that are protected from discrimination based on “actual or perceived shared ancestry or ethnic characteristics.” Among other groups already included are African-Americans and Hispanics.
“In determining whether students face discrimination on the basis of actual or perceived Jewish ancestry, we rely where appropriate upon widely established definitions of anti-Semitism,” Marcus wrote, adding that the department would embrace one adopted two years ago by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) and that was recommended last year for use by the European Parliament.
In the Rutgers case, a $5 admission fee was added, according to an email, because “150 Zionists just showed up.” The email added, “if someone looks like a supporter, they can get in for free.”
Marcus said also in his letter that his office would be opening an investigation of Rutgers to “determine whether a hostile environment on the basis of national origin or race currently exists at the university for students of actual or perceived Jewish ancestry or ethnic characteristics.”
Mort Klein, president of the ZOA, said the action of the pro-Palestinian group, Belief Awareness Knowledge and Action, was clearly anti-Semitic.
“It was a Jew-bashing event that had been advertised as free and [when Jews showed up] they said Jews would be charged,” he said. “That is an example of discrimination because they were Jews. It has nothing to do with their practice of Judaism.”
Rabbi Andrew Baker, director of international affairs at the American Jewish Committee, said he did not “know where the review will lead, but it allows the department to say it is employing the working definition of anti-Semitism” that is now widely accepted.
“There was always a question of where the criticism of Israel crossed over to be a form of anti-Semitism,” he said. “Definitions are meant to be guidelines, not etched in stone. Certain expressions can be recognized as being anti-Semitic. That was always the importance of the definition. Now it has gained more acceptance internationally — [Great Britain’s] Labor Party has just accepted it.”
Rabbi Baker noted that “Marcus in his letter says that when you look at a question of whether there is a hostile environment for Jews on campus and how you determine it, the definition is a helpful way of understanding what could be anti-Semitism. Then you have to determine at what point there is a hostile environment [for Jews] and what is the university doing about it. What we saw in the UK is how the word Zionist could be a substitute for Jew. We have said use the definition but be mindful of free speech. And on college campuses there is a significant debate about where free speech should end. …. This is the challenge for every university.”
Dan Mariaschin, executive vice president of B’nai B’rith International, also welcomed the decision, saying it is a “reflection of the way we look at anti-Semitism in the 21st century. … I believe what we have here is a course correction to what anti-Semitism is. I think for too long the cover of saying this is only legitimate criticism is now being exposed in many cases. This is discrimination based on ethnicity — and now we are going to see more of it” being recognized for what it is.
“The defamation of Israel is so prevalent in today’s battle with anti-Semitism that something like this is to be expected,” he added. [Former Secretary of State] Colin Powell said at a 2004 conference on anti-Semitism that [one has crossed the line] when Israel or its leaders are demeaned or vilified by the use of Nazi symbols and racist caricatures. The most recent definition of anti-Semitism includes denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination by claiming their state is a racist endeavor and applying a double standard by requiring of Israel a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.”
Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said he too agrees with the Marcus’ decision.
“Every person has a right to criticize anybody else,” he said. “This is a free country. But when the only criticism you ever utter is directed against the State of Israel — and you refuse to do the same for other countries — that is anti-Semitism. It means you have a problem with Jews — and that is also my criticism of the United Nations. Look at its history of U.N. resolutions. … These are not political discussions but a form of bigotry.”
And Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, said in a tweet: “Without prejudging outcome of the process, academic freedom & strongly held political views are not a shield to harass or intimidate students and/or treat them differently because of their race or religion. No matter who is targeted, that’s bias plain & simple.”
But criticism of the decision came from the pro-Israel lobbying group J Street, which said in a statement that reopening the case demonstrates that the Trump administration “is inclined to suppress criticism of Israel on college campuses — even if that means trampling on constitutionally-protected free speech.”
“Its reopening is not about upholding civil rights or a serious effort to combat anti-Semitism, but about advancing a right-wing agenda that seeks to silence open discussion and debate of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” it said. “To do so, the Trump administration intends to wield a controversial definition of anti-Semitism that equates criticism of Zionism with anti-Semitism — and which was never intended for use on college campuses.
Ken Stern, the renowned anti-Semitism expert (and former CEO of National Public Radio and lifelong Democrat) who authored this definition, has argued vehemently against its application to college life, publicly opposing proposed congressional legislation that would codify it into U.S. law.
“Stern has written that ‘If this bill becomes law it is easy to imagine calls for university administrators to stop pro-Palestinian speech … students and faculty members will be scared into silence, and administrators will err on the side of suppressing or censuring speech.’ That is likely precisely what Marcus and his backers now intend.”
Echoing that refrain is Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, who told The Jewish Week in an email: “Instead of aiming to address real instances of anti-Semitism, the Trump administration is trying to violate students’ First Amendment rights by shutting down all criticism of Israel.”
“Like any country, Israel is subject to having its laws, policies, and leadership criticized — even if some may disagree with such criticisms, even vehemently,” she said. “At a time when the Trump administration is allying itself with white supremacists, attacking immigrants and refugees, and decreasing enforcement of most civil rights offenses, we do not need bogus policies that shut down campus free speech, while likely stirring up anger against the very Jewish students they purport to protect.”
But Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, insisted that “this case has nothing to do with speech. They were charging $5 for Zionists – meaning Jews.”
He noted that the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism has already been adopted by the Senate and that the Wiesenthal Center hopes that “by the end of the session it will also pass the House. If it becomes law, it means we will have a working definition of anti-Semitism” that would not be subject of interpretation by each new administration.
The co-founder of CEO of StandWithUs, Roz Rothstein, said in a statement that at the same time her international Israel education organization “strongly supports free speech, open discourse about Israeli policy, and protections against discrimination,” it applauds the Department of Education “for adopting the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism. This definition is already being used by the EU, Canada, U.S. State Department, and most importantly, the majority of the organized Jewish community. The loudest opponents of the definition should stop promoting hate against Israel and the Jewish people, instead of engaging in cynical attempts to avoid accountability.”