On Dec. 11, President Trump signed into law “The Executive Order on Combating Anti-Semitism,” which claims to combat the rise of anti-Semitism on college campuses by revoking federal funding for universities who do not combat anti-Semitism “as defined by the president.” The executive order’s underlying purpose, however, is to silence college students’ criticism of Israel and pro-Palestine advocacy such as the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS).
The connection to Israel may not seem obvious by reading the text of the executive order itself, but the Trump administration deliberately obscured the intentions of the order with vague, unspecific references. For example, the order refers to the International Holocaust Remembrance Association’s stated examples of anti-Semitism: “All executive departments and agencies charged with enforcing Title VI shall consider the following…The ‘Contemporary Examples of Anti-Semitism’ identified by the IHRA, to the extent that any examples might be useful as evidence of discriminatory intent.” The examples are left un-cited in the executive order but they include, “‘the targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity’; denial to ‘the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g. by claiming that the existence of a state of Israel is a racist endeavor’; and comparing ‘contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.’”
All of these supposed “examples of anti-Semitism” are merely expressions of anti-Zionism, opposition to the Zionist project of establishing the state of Israel in Palestine, that have been twisted through the false conflation of Judaism and Zionism. The state of Israel is a political entity that has and continues to engage in ethnic cleansing, occupation, displacement, indiscriminate bombing and apartheid as formally recognized by the United Nations, and these actions are not connected to the Jewish people at large.
The executive order’s intentions were openly revealed in an op-ed by Jared Kushner, Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law, as attacking anti-Zionism on college campuses. Kushner characterizes anti-Zionism as equivalent to anti-Semitism, and implicitly, Zionism to Jewish identity. He thereby neglects centuries of Jewish history, culture, and tradition predating the founding of Zionism as a political movement in addition to a long history of Jewish people opposing Zionism.
NYU has two student clubs — Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace — whose main purpose is to engage in raising awareness of and organizing for the cause of the liberation of Palestine. SJP and JVP have taken direct action protesting the NYU administration’s involvement with Israel, calling for divestment in adherence with BDS’ boycott list, which includes corporations and institutions complicit in or aiding Israeli apartheid, occupation, and war crimes. NYU currently works with three corporations targeted by the boycott — Caterpillar, Lockheed Martin and General Electric.
These efforts by SJP and JVP and other pro-Palestine students resulted in NYU Student Government passing a divestment resolution in December 2018 and over 50 student groups passing internal BDS resolutions and pledging non-cooperation with NYU’s two pro-Israel groups, TorchPAC and Realize Israel. Students involved with SJP and JVP and supporters of the Palestinian cause petitioned NYU’s Social and Cultural Analysis department to end cooperation with the university’s Tel Aviv campus, which the department pledged to do last May.
SJP and JVP’s success has already provoked the ire of the administration. In an April 2018 town hall, NYU President Andrew Hamilton announced his opposition to the decision of over 50 student groups to pass BDS resolutions. The administration also stated it would not comply with the student government divestment resolution. Hamilton also called SJP “divisive” in response to their reception of an NYU Presidential Service Award last April, asserting they would not have received the award if it were up to him personally. NYU is already hostile to pro-Palestine student organizers and Trump’s executive order will only give the university more justification in opposing and even shutting down their activism entirely.
There is a long history of student anti-colonial, anti-imperialist student movements like SJP and JVP and of the US government cracking down on them. One of the most notable examples is the Vietnam War, where students all across the country mobilized against an imperialist war from NYU to Kent State to the University of Tennessee, University of California, Berkeley, and dozens more. The US government tried to censor, repress and violently attack student demonstrators who dared to stand up against its aggressive, imperialistic foreign policy. Now, the US government leverages federal funding and weaponizes anti-Semitism to carry out censorship and repression of student groups.
Trump’s executive order follows a pattern of the government suppressing pro-Palestine student organizers and an even longer history of attacking anti-imperialist movements. The executive order is an affront to the struggle for freedom and justice everywhere.
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A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Jan. 27, 2020 print edition. Email Asha Ramachandran at [email protected]