This article contains commentary which reflects the author's opinion
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Frenzy Over Judaism, Language
Last night the White House announced President Trump would sign an executive order defining Judaism as a nationality, not just a religion, in order to combat anti-Semitism. According to the FBI in 2018, Anti-Semitism has been on the rise: Jewish people were the targets of over 58% of religious hate crimes while representing only 2% of the American population. According to the New York Times, “In signing the order, Mr. Trump will use his executive power to take action where Congress has not, essentially replicating bipartisan legislation that has stalled on Capitol Hill for several years.”
The executive order does not actually change that much in current law and will be based on the State Department definition of anti-Semitism, which it has been using since 2010. The language, updated in 2016 to reflect the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), of which the United States is a member, is a “working definition” of anti-Semitism at its plenary in Bucharest. According to Jewish Insider, “Initial reporting indicated that the order would include language defining Judaism as a “national origin,” setting off a frenzy among major Jewish organizations, activists and lawmakers. The draft text of the order obtained by JI makes no such reference. “
Critics Pounce on Antisemitism Order
As soon as the order was announced, like clockwork the critics pounced. I watched as non-Jews began to pontificate on social media about what a Jew is or is not. Those same “experts” gave their own definition of our status, race, religion, culture, heritage, history, and origin to fit their narrative. They were quickly joined by known Jewish critics of Israel and the president.
They were upset because they believe this order will directly punish the ongoing demonization and delegitimizing of Israel, which more often than not are rooted in anti-Semitism. The usual anti-Semitic tropes of “dual loyalty” and more accompanied many of the posts that I saw. For one second, imagine the reaction by these same people if this was done to any other race, religion or minority.
What the critics are truly concerned about is a perceived threat to the ideological campus strongholds they read about in the New York Times. Under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Department can withhold funding from any college or educational program that discriminates “on the ground of race, color or national origin.” Religion was not included among the protected categories, so Trump’s order will have the effect of embracing the argument that Jews are a people or a race with a collective national origin in the Middle East, like Italian Americans or Polish Americans.
BDS Misinformation and Distortion
All of the assumptions about what the order says distract from the realities of Jewish life in American universities. The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement is growing exponentially on American college campuses. Jewish College students no longer feel safe on campus. I know the Antisemitism that my students dealt with on college campuses and I worry about sending my own children to college.
No one should have to worry about safety when considering education options for their children. We should be thinking about majors, prerequisites and roommates, not if they will be safe from persecution. There have been countless incidents of speaking events being boycotted or protested, derogatory posters being hung on dorm rooms, harassment, slurs being hurled at Jewish students walking through campus, and even physical attacks. They claim anti-Israel sentiment and statements are not anti-Semitism. They even claim that they know what anti-Semitism is and we do not, that we are merely “weaponizing Antisemitism” to further our own agenda.
According to the Anti-Defamation League, “The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS), which rejects Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, is the most prominent effort to undermine Israel’s existence. The BDS campaign is rampant with misinformation and distortion. Advocates of BDS target multinational companies, college communities and well-known institutions, meaning it touches almost everyone. College and university campuses have become battlegrounds.”
Jewish Life Amid Antisemitism
Often these critics judge a perspective by the person’s “life experience.” Here is mine. At 16 while walking to synagogue, Neo-Nazis dumped a Slurpee on me. When I ran, they chased me through backyards. I was lucky to get away. This was not the only time I dealt with such incidents growing up. This is my life experience as a Jew in America.
In 2004, I was running a Jewish youth group in greater Seattle when we announced the opening of a school-approved Jewish Culture Club by posting flyers at Bellevue High School . The same day the flyers went up, someone drew swastikas on them. Would you consider this Antisemitism? In 2009, Swastikas and the words “4th Reich” were painted on the two Seattle synagogues that I attended. Would you consider this Antisemitism?
In May 2018, Seattle City Council Member Kshama Sawant and the Seattle LGBTQ Commission, using taxpayer dollars, organized an event at Seattle City Hall called “Pinkwashing Exposed: Seattle Fights Back!” They claimed Israel promoted itself as gay-friendly to hide their supposed “terrible human rights violations.” Council Member Sawant also refused to identify Hamas as a terrorist organization even though the State Department had done so for decades. Would you consider this anti-Semitism?
In June 2019, when I was a candidate for office, my family was targeted with death threats which specifically described burning the Israel flag on my house, and methods on how to kill my children while using anti-Semitic slurs. Would you consider this anti-Semitism? In August 2019, anti-Semitic/anti-Israel posters were plastered to those same synagogues, plus several others in the neighborhood, by known hate group the Daily Stormer Book Club. Would you consider this anti-Semitism?
In October 2019, two Jews in Seattle, one of whom was a Rabbi, were assaulted multiple times over the course of the Jewish Holiday of Succos (Booths) by a member of Antifa screaming anti-Semitic slurs. This person was arrested and charged with hate crimes. Would you consider this anti-Semitism? Many Jewish residents of New York, like myself, are familiar with the Black Hebrew Israelites because we were constantly berated by them, spouting racist slurs anytime we walked past them in Times Square. Would you consider this anti-Semitism?
Antisemitism Legislation: Long Past Due
According to the New York Daily News, the shooting yesterday in New Jersey – the same day as the president’s announcement about the executive order – was a targeted attack on a Jewish business. One of the shooters was a member of the Black Hebrew Israelite movement and had published anti-Jewish and anti-police posts online; a manifesto was found in their van. Anti-cop and Anti-Jewish posts were also found on his social media pages.
I am watching as people spin this executive order to fit a narrative for political purposes. It is likely that many did not read any of the text and are just basing their tweets and posts on an insane game of Social Media Broken Telephone. Whether it is symbolic or a real step forward, it is long past due for this kind of legislation to be moving ahead.
I am tired of being defined by people who don’t understand my life experience, my religion or my race. I am tired of finding out about anti-Semitic attacks that quickly disappear from headlines because they do not fit a narrative. I do not expect that anti-Semitism in America will be eradicated by this order, but I do expect people to be held accountable for their actions to the fullest extent of the law.
I love this country, and American Jews have enjoyed unparalleled freedoms here. It is long past due that we deal with the blemish of anti-Semitism in our society, and I question why some would choose partisan politics over an effort to improve our culture. We, as Jews, can only hope that the legislation is enforced.