World, Americas

Trump signs contentious order to fight BDS on campuses

Critics say measure billed as effort to push back on anti-Semitism is actually move to curb free speech

Michael Hernandez   | 12.12.2019
Trump signs contentious order to fight BDS on campuses

WASHINGTON 

U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday signed an executive order steeped in controversy that seeks to thwart the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement and what he and others say is rampant anti-Semitism on college campuses.

The order will change enforcement of Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act to apply to anti-Semitic discrimination by defining Judaism as a nationality, not a religion. The law currently prohibits "discrimination on the basis of race, color and national origin in programs and activities receiving federal financial assistance."

It does not explicitly address religion, and Trump said his executive order seeks to allow the federal government to withhold funds to colleges, universities and educational institutions it deems to be hotbeds of anti-Semitism. The full text of Trump's order was not immediately available, however.

"We have also taken a firm stance against the so-called Divestment and Sanctions Movement, or BDS," Trump said during a Hanukkah reception at the White House. “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.”

The Palestinian-led BDS movement, formed in 2005, calls for a boycott of Israeli companies involved in the Palestinian occupation or violating Palestinian human rights and for other institutions to divest their interests in those companies.

Opponents of the movement, Trump included, view it as a front for anti-Semitism.

In announcing his order, Trump said he is condemning the "anti-Semitic campaign against the state of Israel and its citizens."

But critics have called the measure into question, describing it as a thinly-veiled attempt to curb free speech on campuses.

Bend the Arc, a progressive Jewish-American group, challenged the president's stated rationale, saying "Trump isn’t defending Jews. He’s using us as a weapon to attack student activists, Muslims, & people of color."

"Kushner is the one tolerating anti-Semitism. He’s a shanda," the group said on Twitter, referring to the president's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who played a leading role in advancing the order. In Yiddish, "shanda" means a disgrace.

J Street, a left-leaning pro-Israel lobbying group, said in a statement that Trump's order "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."

"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," said Jeremy Ben-Ami, the group's president.

"The same right-wing groups who turn a blind eye to the president’s hateful rhetoric have promoted this executive order as part of a cynical push to turn the issue of anti-Semitism into a partisan political weapon, instead of seriously combating it in all its forms,” he added.

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