For the last four months, my 11th grade students and I have tried to make a study not only of American history, but also our public history. From Charlottesville to Emmett Till, Boston’s Faneuil Hall to Utah’s Promontory Point, how do our fellow citizens confront, hide, re-tell and wield history in the present day?
Nothing prepared us for the conversation we’ve had to take up this week, about whether we are equal citizens in the United States.
My students and I are Jews at a Jewish academy. This week, at the request of a student, I gave over a class to discussing and understanding President Trump’s new executive order, which reclassifies being Jewish as one of three things — "a race, color, or national origin”-- under the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
According to the White House, the purpose of this order is to put an end to debates about Israel on college campuses that the administration sees as anti-Semitic. If found to be anti-Semitic, schools’ federal funding will be in jeopardy. To define anti-Semitism, the order uses a debated definition issued in 2016 by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
The order was first announced in a New York Times piece that quickly became the subject of debate because of its focus on the national origin component of the order. Responses from President Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and many Jewish groups have made the argument that this reporting ignores the Obama administration’s consideration of a similar action, while also arguing that detractors of the order are being simplistic. The issue, they say, is more nuanced and related specifically to speech on campuses.
However, all of this dances around the key problem raised by the president’s order. American Jews are not, and have never been, a nation unto ourselves. We are an ethnic group within this republic. But make no mistake, our nationality is American. We do not come from the country of Jew.
Now we are encircled by arguments claiming that this issue is more nuanced and complex than we think, that the order doesn’t really classify us incorrectly, and that this is nothing to be worried about. Those kinds of arguments rarely work with teenagers. They are a red flag that typically indicate that adults are telling them the opposite of what is true.
In our class, we looked at the language of the Civil Rights Act and quickly dispatched with the idea that we fit the definition of a race or a color. As Jews we are neither, and the racial classification of Jews has a horrible history of being wielded against us. Instead, we focused on the pros and cons of this order, and the question of whether Jews can be classified by national origin.
Right away — even among students who may support aspects of this order — the idea of classifying us according to national origin stood out as “confusing” “unclear” and potentially “really scary.” Why scary? Some argued that it’s perhaps because the president himself appears to have little understanding that being against a policy of the Israeli government is not de facto anti-Semitism.
But make no mistake, our nationality is American. We do not come from the country of Jew.
This is the very problem that the president is trying to address with college campuses, and it is certainly true that discourse at universities on the issue of Israel today — especially by critics — ranges from imperfect to coarse and sloppy. If changing this rhetoric is the goal, then threatening funding at universities may be a potent way get people’s attention. But doing it this way could also backfire terribly, leading to old anti-Semitic tropes about Jews secretly influencing people in power in order to get what we want. This is no abstract argument given the violent attacks against Jews in New Jersey just this week.
Of course it is true that the president says he is issuing this order to help us, so, his imperfections aside, why be concerned? The reasons are many.
It is easy to envision a situation in which legitimate criticism of Israel, including criticism by Jews, is determined to be anti-Semitic, and could risk the funding of the very institutions we need in order to foster productive discourse. The approach attacks symptoms, not causes. Nowhere does this enhance the quality of debate. It threatens those who dare to do it. Colleges that do continue to have these conversations are likely destined to have one-sided pro-Israel conversations.
It is also possible to envision Israelis being concerned about Trump’s methods. The Israeli government may want American Jews to become Israeli ones, but making Jews a separate nationality in our own nation doesn’t help that cause.
Nowhere does this enhance the quality of debate. It threatens those who dare to do it.
This is perhaps the most concerning point. Grouping us as no other religious group has been in this country, and making us clearly “dual citizens,” raises the trope of dual loyalty that has been a source of segregating, ghettoizing, and murdering Jews for centuries.
Why does the president have the right to do this? Does he plan to furnish us with passports in our own nation? Do the Jews who purportedly urged him to do this get to decide for us, their fellow Americans, what our status in this nation is? Perhaps this is an overreaction and the scope of this order is as limited as its supporters say, but given the history of persecution against Jews, we are well-founded in being suspicious of actions that start small and get big, and don’t do so in our favor.
That is the context in which our discussion will continue on in our classroom. Anti-Semitism is on the rise in America. The very man who issued this order makes such comments all the time. Just this week he told the American Israeli Council:
A lot of you are in the real estate business, because I know you very well. You’re brutal killers, not nice people at all. But you have to vote for me — you have no choice. You’re not gonna vote for Pocahontas, I can tell you that. You’re not gonna vote for the wealth tax. Yeah, let’s take 100% of your wealth away!
We need to fight this hate in all its forms, wherever it appears, even if in the guise that it is here to help us. But all of that rests on the answer to a crucial question raised by one of my students in the midst of our discussion. Are we still Americans?