Mark Silk on Trump’s Anti-Semitism Order is Much Ado About Not Much

President Donald Trump speaks at the Israeli American Council National Summit in Hollywood, Florida, on Dec. 7, 2019. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college’s Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of BCNN1.

At Wednesday’s White House Hanukkah party, President Donald Trump presented his guests with one of his patented executive orders, titled Combating Anti-Semitism. Its stated purpose is to ensure that Jews in educational institutions receiving federal funds are protected against discrimination under Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

According to the Republican Jewish Coalition, the order is “a truly historic and important moment for Jewish Americans.” According to J Street, it is “a cynical, harmful measure designed to suppress free speech on college campuses, not fight anti-Semitism.”

It’s neither. Here’s the story.

Title VI prohibits discrimination in federally assisted programs and activities on the basis of race, color and national origin but not religion. Over the years, however, there’s been some recognition in federal law that Jews (and other religiously identifiable groups) might be entitled to protection on grounds other than religion.

In 1987, the U.S. Supreme Court determined that Jews may be found to be victims of racial discrimination because a section of the U.S. Code written in 1866 ensuring property rights to nonwhites understood “race” to mean something different from what it means now. Thus, as Justice Byron White wrote for a unanimous court, “Jews and Arabs were among the peoples then considered to be distinct races and hence within the protection of the statute.”

With respect to Title VI, in 2004 the Office of Civil Rights in the Bush administration’s Department of Education wrote a letter declaring that just because a particular group held a common faith didn’t mean that it might not be subject to discrimination on grounds of race or ethnicity. For that reason, the letter said, the office “aggressively investigates alleged race or ethnic harassment against Arab Muslim, Sikh, and Jewish students.”

This position was reiterated in 2010 by Thomas Perez, assistant attorney general in the Obama administration, in a letter to DOE. “Although Title VI does not prohibit discrimination on the basis of religion,” Perez wrote,”discrimination against Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, and members of other religious groups violates Title VI when that discrimination is based on the group’s actual or perceived shared ancestry or ethnic characteristics, rather than its members’ religious practice.”

So by the official position of the Trump administration’s two predecessors, the federal government already includes anti-Semitism within the purview of Title VI.

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Source: Religion News Service