Progress on ‘the Jewish Question’

If you happen to be an anti-Semite, you’ve had a disappointing week. In Britain, the Labour Party suffered its worst defeat in decades. That British voters are eager to get on with Brexit was the main reason. But the election also was a stunning rejection of Jeremy Corbyn, the party leader, who has called members of Hamas and Hezbollah his “friends.”

Though British Jews can breathe a sigh of relief, Corbyn is hardly unique. A report prepared by the Jewish Labour Movement and submitted to Britain’s Equality and Human Rights Commission details the “relentless” anti-Semitism that has prompted many Jews to leave the party, and some to consider leaving the country. (Jexit?)

If you happen to be an anti-anti-Semite, you should recognize that this was one battle in a forever war. Jew-hatred, an ancient and shape-shifting pathology, is on the rise almost everywhere, often with lethal results.

Anti-Semitism can’t be cured, but it can be treated. Which brings us to the other most recent setback for this form of bigotry: U.S. President Donald Trump’s executive order (EO) giving Jews on college campuses legal protections equal to those extended to other minorities facing discrimination.

How did this come about? In 2016, Sens. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and Bob Casey (R-Pa.) introduced legislation based on a 2010 opinion from the Obama administration Department of Education stating that while Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 “does not cover discrimination based solely on religion, groups that face discrimination on the basis of actual or perceived shared ancestry or ethnic characteristics may not be denied protection under Title VI on the ground that they also share a common faith.”

Their legislation, which included a definition of anti-Semitism adopted by the State Department in 2010, unanimously passed the Senate, but was blocked in the House by Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) then-chairman of the House Committee on the Judiciary.

Sens. Scott and Casey pressed on and, last July, Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) reintroduced the bill. House Democrats refused to bring it up for a vote. Indeed, that same month Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) sponsored a resolution designed to encourage anti-Israeli activism and boycotts. It didn’t pass.

The next step, favored by presidential adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner, was the drafting of an EO authorizing, under Title VI, the withholding of federal funds to educational institutions that fail to counter anti-Semitism under the State Department definition. This approach has been supported by groups on both the right and the left.

There also has been opposition, for example from the American Civil Liberties Union. Faiz Shakir, former national political director of the ACLU, is currently campaign manager for Bernie Sanders. In 2000, Shakir co-chaired Islam Awareness Week at Harvard, which ended with a fundraiser for the Holy Land Foundation (HLF), a group later convicted in federal court of providing material support to Hamas, a “designated foreign terrorist organization.” Jamil Dakwar, head of the ACLU’s Human Rights Program, also has a history of anti-Israeli activism.

Though opponents of the EO charge that it threatens free speech, the EO states plainly that government agencies “shall not diminish or infringe” the First Amendment. And when the legislation that this EO is based upon was introduced, former Solicitor General Paul Clement and former White House Counsel Kathy Ruemmler—representatives of the Bush and Obama administrations respectively—wrote opinions stating it did not violate the First Amendment, nor raise other constitutional issues.

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The other criticism being leveled at the EO is that, in the words of a New York Times news story, it “effectively interprets Judaism as a race or nationality, not just a religion.” Untrue. The EO simply says that, “Discrimination against Jews may give rise to a Title VI violation when the discrimination is based on an individual’s race, color, or national origin.”

Also: Is the Times suggesting that anti-Semitism is only about Judaism, the religion of the Jewish people? When the Nazis were ascendant in Europe, millions of Jews—secular and observant alike—were sent to concentration camps and murdered. Following World War II, hundreds of thousands of Jews—not all of them religious—were forced to flee Arab lands.

Identity is a puzzle—one we’re unlikely to solve anytime soon. For now, suffice to say that such terms as people, nation, tribe, ethnicity and even race have fluid meanings.

An example: In 1939, when Bernard Lewis joined His Majesty’s Armed Forces, he was asked his race. He didn’t know what to say until the presiding sergeant explained that there were only four choices: English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish.

Sixty years later, established as a great historian, Professor Lewis would write that in America, “Every citizen, in addition to his US citizenship, has other identities, defined by race, by ethnic origin or, often, origins, and by his personal or ancestral religion.”

At issue now is what in past centuries was called “the Jewish question.” Should the government should turn a blind eye to discrimination based on this identity? Or do Jews, like other minorities, deserve protection? President Trump’s decision, coupled with the defeat of Jeremy Corbyn, adds up to an encouraging week—at least if you happen to be an anti-anti-Semite.

Reprinted with author’s permission from Jewish News Syndicate