On Tuesday, the New York Times reported that President Donald Trump was preparing to sign an executive order redefining Judaism in the eyes of the federal government as a race or a nationality, not just an religion, with the intent of providing additional ammunition for the Department of Education to withhold funding from colleges and universities that do not act sufficiently to combat anti-Semitism and critics of Israel, including the BDS movement.
The text of the executive order, leaked on Wednesday, does not redefine Judaism as a race or a nationality, and it appears that earlier reporting was inaccurate. However, the order still promotes legitimate and necessary discussion on questions of anti-Semitism, Jewish identity, and free speech.
“If light can be both a particle and a wave depending on circumstances and what we are looking at, then Jewishness can be at different times and for different people a religion, or a diverse culture, or family heritage, or all of the above.”
–Rabbi Adam Chalom of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation
Judaism has never been about just religion. American Jews practice their religion many different ways, and 22% of us are non-religious, including the secular Jewish members of the Society for Humanistic Judaism.
“62% say being Jewish is mainly a matter of ancestry and culture, while just 15% say it is mainly a matter of religion.”
It would nevertheless be problematic for the federal government, and especially the Trump Administration, to attempt to define Judaism as a nationality for legal purposes. “Governments defining Jewishness has not ended well in the past,” observes Rabbi Chalom, and “hearing this from an administration that has played footsy or worse with white nationalism does not make us feel safer; quite the opposite.”
The term “nationality,” in particular, may be construed to suggest that American Jews are loyal to a country beyond the United States.
“The furious responses from many Jews reflected, in part, simmering anger at a particular form of anti-Semitism characteristic of the Trump administration and elements of the broader conservative movement. President Trump has regularly and repeatedly suggested that America is not the country of American Jews. Israel is ‘your country,’ he says, and Netanyahu is ‘your prime minister.'”
–David Schraub of Berkeley Law School for The Atlantic
Combatting anti-Semitism is absolutely necessary, but it is equally important not to conflate the Jewish people with the modern-day State of Israel. We worry that the actions of the Trump Administration may actually be focused on silencing discussion of Israel’s behavior and the rights of Palestinians on college campuses, not anti-Semitism. Our friends at T’ruah noted that this order “will only serve to foment resentment and quash free speech on campus. Even though we disagree with the language and tone of some pro-Palestine campus activism, and even though we do not participate in boycotts of Israel, we know that the right of free speech applies also to speech with which we disagree — even vehemently.” JFASD agrees.