Trump Gets it Right about Antisemitism (Updated)

Note: since this post was written, the order was issued, and it was not precisely what was expected. Nevertheless, I think the post is still interesting, if not relevant to the same degree. See the update at the end for a full explanation.


President Trump is expected to issue an executive order that Jews should be treated as a “nationality*” as well as a religious group. This means that Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bans the use of federal funds for programs or activities that discriminate on the basis of “race, color, or national origin,” will now apply to antisemitism. And an administration official has said that the government would use the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, which the State Department adopted in 2016, as a working definition of antisemitism (a previous working definition in use from 2010 is similar in relevant respects).

This is a big deal, because the extreme anti-Zionism (misoziony) that characterizes the discourse on many Western colleges and universities clearly falls under the IHRA definition, which specifically mentions

Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.

Applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.

Using the symbols and images associated with classic antisemitism (e.g., claims of Jews killing Jesus or blood libel) to characterize Israel or Israelis.

Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis…

which are all the bread and butter of Students for Justice in Palestine, as well as countless other anti-Israel organizations. Of course, antisemitism in the form of assaults, discrimination, and other more subtle forms of harassment in the guise of “free expression” – incidentally, things that would never be tolerated if their object were other minorities – also will be able to trigger a shutoff of federal funds.

Naturally, the usual suspects are outraged. Some of the outrage comes from those who would be outraged if Trump were to issue an order recognizing motherhood and apple pie, because he is Trump. Halie Soifer of the Jewish Democratic Council of America accused Trump of “hypocrisy,” blamed him for “emboldening white nationalism, perpetuating anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, and repeating stereotypes that have led to violence targeting Jews.” Even if these accusations were true (I am convinced that they are not), they are irrelevant to the reasonableness of this executive order.

But there are more substantive objections. They either deny that Jews are a nationality, or they object to the IHRA definition, usually saying it limits free speech by conflating “legitimate” anti-Zionism with antisemitism. Let’s take the issue of nationality first.

One group that objects to the idea that Jews are a people or a nationality, of course, is the PLO and the Palestinian Authority, who have always insisted that “Jewish” refers only to a religion, not a nation. They have therefore refused to accept the “two states for two peoples” formula or to recognize that Israel is the state of the Jewish people. This is one of the main reasons that the Palestinians have never accepted any of the generous offers of statehood proffered to them. Interestingly, there is also a strong current of “nationhood denial” among liberal American Jews. Some seem to think that attributing nationhood to the Jewish people would mean that they would somehow be “less American.” But of course nobody believes that granting this status to Italian-Americans would make them less American, or that Title VI doesn’t apply to discrimination against them.

This prejudice in the diaspora against the idea of Jewish nationhood goes back to the late 18th and early 19th century when Jews were first beginning to acquire rights in newly-enlightened Europe. The spectre of their “dual loyalty” to their country of residence and to the Jewish nation quickly arose. In 1789, the French Count of Clermont-Tonnerre, in a speech about the treatment of minorities in the new Republic, said “[w]e must refuse everything to the Jews as a nation, and accord everything to the Jews as individuals.” Let them have their religion and their quaint customs, but their national loyalty can only be to France.

Many Jews were happy to agree. In Germany, the newly-created Reform Movement adopted the idea of being “Germans of the Mosaic Persuasion,” nationally identical to their neighbors of the Lutheran persuasion. In America, the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform of the American Reform Movement included this unequivocal statement: “[w]e consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community, and therefore expect neither a return to Palestine, nor a sacrificial worship under the sons of Aaron, nor the restoration of any of the laws concerning the Jewish state.” By 1999, their platform refers to the Jews as “a people.” But many liberal Jews, uncomfortable about the possibility (and often the actuality) of accusations of dual loyalty, take pains to insist that they do not see themselves as anything other than Americans (or Canadians, or Britons). Their Jewishness is only a matter of religion, ethnicity, or some cultural artifacts.

They have a right to say that if they wish, and to distance themselves from the Jewish nation, but they do not have the right to say that there is no Jewish nation. The Jewish people, in fact, are the paradigm case of a nation: if you want to know what the characteristics of a nation are, look at the Jews. The Jewish people have

  1. A common geographical origin and a connection to their aboriginal home.
  2. A shared genetic heritage.
  3. A unique ancestral language.
  4. A unique religion.
  5. A shared culture.
  6. A shared historical experience.
  7. Self-identification as a nation.

It’s ironic that the Palestinian Arabs, who have multiple origins, a relatively short period of shared history, no unique language or religion, a culture based entirely on opposition to the Jews, and who have only self-identified as a nation since the mid-1960s, have the chutzpah to deny nationhood to the Jewish people!

What about the argument that the IHRA definition conflates antisemitism with anti-Zionism and thus limits speech that is critical of Israel? Despite what some say, it is actually quite easy to distinguish between legitimate criticism of Israel and antisemitism. The criteria were provided by Natan Sharansky, who called it the “3D Test of Antisemitism.” I’ll quote him:

The first “D” is the test of demonization. When the Jewish state is being demonized; when Israel’s actions are blown out of all sensible proportion; when comparisons are made between Israelis and Nazis and between Palestinian refugee camps and Auschwitz – this is anti- Semitism, not legitimate criticism of Israel.

The second “D” is the test of double standards. When criticism of Israel is applied selectively; when Israel is singled out by the United Nations for human rights abuses while the behavior of known and major abusers, such as China, Iran, Cuba, and Syria, is ignored; when Israel’s Magen David Adom, alone among the world’s ambulance services, is denied admission to the International Red Cross – this is anti-Semitism.

The third “D” is the test of delegitimization: when Israel’s fundamental right to exist is denied – alone among all peoples in the world – this too is anti-Semitism.

I call irrational, extreme hatred of Israel misoziony. Misoziony is a form of antisemitism, the traditional Jew-hatred raised to a higher level of abstraction. And there is no better test for misoziony than Sharansky’s 3D criteria, which are implicit in the IHRA working definition of antisemitism. There is no reason to oppose the IHRA definition, except to enable antisemites to disguise their poison as legitimate political speech.

The growing phenomenon of antisemitism in Western universities – where it usually takes the form of misoziony – has given rise to a great deal of consternation and hand-wringing on the part of university administrators, who have in general done nothing practical to reduce it. Yet again, Donald Trump has come along and cut what appeared to be a Gordian Knot, just as he did when he finally fulfilled the promise of the US Congress to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish state.

And just as they did last May, Jewish progressives displayed their remarkable ability to cut off their own noses to spite their faces.

Update [12 Dec]:

This post was written on Wednesday morning in Israel, after news reports indicated that President Trump was going to issue an order that, among other things, would treat Jewishness as a “nationality” as well as a religious group.

It was thought that this would broaden the applicability of Title VI to prohibit discrimination against Jews, as Jews.

Apparently the reports were wrong. The final version of the order says nothing about treating Jews as a nationality, and reemphasizes that Title VI applies only to discrimination on the basis of “Race, color, or national origin.” It does note – something that the Justice Department already recognized back in 2010 – that belonging to a “group sharing religious practices” does not disqualify someone from being protected against discrimination on the basis of the initial three criteria.

This means that the applicability of Title VI has not been broadened.

However, as Prof. Avi Bell has noted (correspondence), the incorporation of the IHRA working definition of antisemitism into the order is important. The examples in the IHRA definition, in which Sharansky’s 3D criteria are implicit, clearly show what kind of “criticism of Israel” constitutes antisemitism. Therefore a university (e.g.) will not be able to excuse its inaction on complaints of antisemitism by groups like SJP on the grounds that they are “just” engaging in “criticism of Israel.”

The official text of the order can be found here.

* It should be understood that “nationality” is used in the older and broader sense of belonging to a people, or nation, and not in the narrow modern sense of citizenship in a country.

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One Response to Trump Gets it Right about Antisemitism (Updated)

  1. nudnikJR says:

    This is another impressive piece with cogent references to some fairly obscure pieces on historical European and American prejudices, both Jewish and non-Jewish.
    Also, the list defining the characteristics of a nation would be hard to improve upon.
    Finally, the Update provides an important clarification re Title VI.
    An outstanding effort by Victor.

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