An Ominousness Act: Jewish Nationality

Last week, President Trump signed an executive order that implicitly defines Jewishness as a racial or national category and not as just a religious category. This is ominous.

The order reinforces the Department of Education’s power to punish colleges that receive federal tax dollars if they allow Palestinian solidarity activities that offend pro-Israel Jewish students who dubiously equate any criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism. (How is that discrimination?)

The key sentence in the order is this: “Discrimination against Jews may give rise to a [Civil Rights Act] violation when the discrimination is based on an individual’s race, color, or national origin.”

In fact, Judaism is a religion, not an ethnicity, race, or nationality. There is no Jewish gene, and the very suggestion echoes eerily from the 1930s.

Jews worldwide are of nearly every ethnicity, color, and nationality. Yet many American defenders of Israel insist otherwise. One incentive for doing so is that the 1964 Civil Rights Act doesn’t prohibit “discrimination” on the basis of religion, but only on race, color, or national origin.

Unless Judaism is classified as a race or nationality, how can Israel’s defenders claim that “offensive” pro-Palestinian activism on campus constitutes “discrimination”–that is, anti-Semitism–under civil-rights law? Trump’s civil-rights enforcer at the Department of Education (DOE), Kenneth Marcus, made a career of filing such claims.

The administration was hoping Congress would pass a definition of anti-Semitism that would shoehorn Judaism into the anti-discrimination clause and force schools to crack down on support for, say, the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement, which opposes apartheid policies in the West Bank. That definition outrageously lists particular criticisms of Israel among its examples of anti-Semitism.

But Congress hasn’t passed the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act because of First Amendment concerns. So here is the administration’s new tack: Effectively define Jewishness as a nationality or race. Problem solved. Now students and professors who disparage the self-described Jewish state for its mistreatment of Palestinians can be charged with discriminating against Jewish American students on the basis of national origin or race, and the DOE can cut off federal money.

It’s all about inoculating Israel from criticism and has nothing to do with discrimination. If Palestinian activists disrupt a pro-Israel event on campus, or if pro-Israel students disrupt a pro-Palestinian event, schools can respond without the heavy hand of the U.S. government.

Liberal Jewish groups are protesting Trump’s order. But Israel officially defines all Jews as constituting a nationality or race. There is no Israeli nationality. For purposes of nationality, Israeli citizens are officially listed as Jewish, Arab, or any one of dozens of other categories. When defenders of Israel point out that Palestinians are citizens, they ignore the fact that despite this, non-Jewish citizens are not Israeli nationals and that nationality, not citizenship, is what counts for access to resources and services.

By its own declaration, Israel exists only for the benefit of Jews–everywhere, even in the United States–and not for all its citizens regardless of religion. It’s an undemocratic ruse that cleverly manipulates the terms citizen and national.

Some Trump critics tar him as an anti-Semite, but their case so far has been flimsy. His actions–including moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, declaring Israeli settlements in conquered territory legal contrary to international law, quitting the Iran nuclear agreement, and working toward a mutual defense alliance–fulfill every Zionist’s wish list. He’s even overturned a classic allegedly anti-Semitic trope by charging Jewish Americans with being insufficiently loyal to Israel.

But now some solid evidence may be at hand. Suggesting that Jewish Americans (even atheists with Jewish mothers) are members of a separate national or racial group is the essence of anti-Semitism–even when the groundless assertion is pressed into the service of Israel. Anti-Zionist Jews have been saying this for well over a century.

With concern rising about anti-Semitic crime and vandalism, even hinting that Jewish Americans are less than full Americans seems like an especially bad idea.

Sheldon Richman, author of Coming to Palestine, keeps the blog Free Association and is a senior fellow and chair of the trustees of the Center for a Stateless Society, and a contributing editor at  He is also the Executive Editor of The Libertarian Institute.