13 December, 2019
This week, United States President Donald Trump signed an executive order aimed at fighting anti-Semitism at universities and colleges across the country.
The measure interprets part of a U.S. civil rights law to include members "of a group that shares common religious practices." Part of the law bars discrimination based on race, color and national origin in federally-supported programs.
The Trump administration said it will, as a policy, extend protections under the law to Jewish people.
Some major Jewish organizations praised the action. They said it means that universities could lose federal money if they do not stop discrimination against Jews at their schools.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper is with the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish rights organization. He said, "This is a very critically important move...that will set an environment wherein Jewish students who were targeted with anti-Semitism on university campuses in America will actually have...protection and recourse."
Cooper added that he believed the issue had support in both major political parties. "This is not a Republican or a Democratic issue," he said.
Other Americans, however, said they were unsure about recognizing Jews as a national group.
Moly Jong-Fast is a Jewish American writer and a critic of Trump. She says Jewishness is not a nationality. "I am an American because that's where I live," she said.
Jong-Fast told VOA that she believes Trump is, in her words, "very anti-Semitic."
But Matt Brooks, president of the Republican Jewish Coalition, disagrees. He says Trump's executive order was meant to protect Jewish people. He said that some organizations and activists who oppose Trump are having a hard time explaining the president's "action to defend the Jewish Community from anti-Semitism."
The Civil Rights Act of 1964
The executive order triggers Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That law requires colleges and other educational organizations that receive federal money not to discriminate based on race, color or national origin.
Religion is not covered under the Civil Rights Act. Administration officials say they decided to interpret Judaism as a nationality so that violations at colleges could be punished.
Officials said that Hindu, Muslim and Sikh students already are protected from discrimination under Title VI of the law. They said that is because of the shared ancestry and ethnic qualities that each group has.
On Wednesday, President Trump signed the order at a ceremony marking the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah at the White House. He called the order "a very powerful document."
Some opponents of the measure worry that it could limit freedom of speech at schools. They say it could be used to stop criticism of Israel's policies toward Palestinians.
Jermemy Ben Ami is president of J Street, a non-profit group that deals with Jewish issues. He said the executive order appears designed less to fight anti-Semitism than to limit free speech and hurt critics of Israel.
Also criticizing the order was the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. It said the action will lead to abuse of federal funding to limit academic freedom and Palestinian rights.
The American Civil Liberties Union called the order unnecessary. It said the protection already exists under Title VI. The group's National Legal Director David Cole said, "The government cannot equate speech criticizing Israel with unlawful discrimination."
Anti-Israel feelings have increased at U.S. colleges and universities. The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement has organized events targeting the Jewish state. Some of those events have led to harassment of Jewish students.
I'm Mario Ritter, Jr.
Mario Ritter Jr. adapted this Associated Press report for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.
Words in This Story
Semitism – n. a policy or program designed to help Jews
interpret –v. to explain the meaning of something in a certain way
origin –n. the place where a person or group comes from
recourse –n. the ability to do something in order to deal with a problem or situation
trigger –v. to cause someone to behave in a certain way
academic – adj. of or related to a school or education
harassment –n. to bother someone in a repeated way over time