Backgrounder: Executive Order on “Combating anti-Semitism”

Executive Order on “Combating anti-Semitism”

Following the decision of U.S. President Donald Trump to sign an executive order regarding anti-Semitism, we would like to provide the following background information and provide links to JFNA and ADL statements on the matter.  There has been much commentary on whether this order codifies Jews as a nationality.  The following information is aimed at clarifying what the executive order actually does say.  Please see this additional ADL FAQ for important context, and read below for more information from the JFNA.

  • Wednesday, December 11, at the White House Chanukah Party, President Trump signed an Executive Order which codifies the adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism.
  • The legislation follows the definition currently being used by the U.S. State Department since May 2016 and the U.S. Department of Education since September 2018.
  • The same language was also used in The Anti-Semitism Awareness Act of 2019 (S. 852), which passed in the Senate unanimously, and by 20 nations and nearly 200 organizations, universities, states and municipalities.
  • The EO reflects no change in policy, because many agencies, including the Department of Education, is already using the IHRA definition as a guide. 
  • The purpose of the EO is to require that the Department of Education, when reviewing whether there has been a violation of title VI, considers an individual's actual or perceived shared Jewish ancestry or Jewish ethnic characteristics, as "anti-Semitism" is currently defined, as part of its assessment of whether the alleged practice was motivated by anti-Semitism.
  • The EO will also cover other agencies and encourage them to use the IHRA definition. 
  • There is much discussion about how this EO codifies Jews as a nationality, it in fact does not do that. Both the Department of Justice and the Department of Education under previous administrations have properly concluded that Title VI also prohibits discrimination against Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, and members of other religious groups when the discrimination is based on the group’s actual or perceived shared ancestry or ethnic characteristics – or when the discrimination is based on actual or perceived citizenship or residence in a country whose residents share a dominant religion or a distinct religious identity.

Below is an excerpt from a letter sent in 2010 from the Assistant Secretary of the Department of Education, who served under President Obama. It helps explain why the EO is important. 

“Over the course of a school year, school employees at a junior high school received reports of several incidents of anti-Semitic conduct at the school. Anti-Semitic graffiti, including swastikas, was scrawled on the stalls of the school bathroom. When custodians discovered the graffiti and reported it to school administrators, the administrators ordered the graffiti removed but took no further action. At the same school, a teacher caught two ninth-graders trying to force two seventh-graders to give them money. The ninth-graders told the seventh-graders, “You Jews have all of the money, give us some.”

When school administrators investigated the incident, they determined that the seventh-graders were not actually Jewish. The school suspended the perpetrators for a week because of the serious nature of their misconduct. After that incident, younger Jewish students started avoiding the school library and computer lab because they were located in the corridor housing the lockers of the ninth-graders. At the same school, a group of eighth-grade students repeatedly called a Jewish student “Drew the dirty Jew.” The responsible eighth-graders were reprimanded for teasing the Jewish student.

The school administrators failed to recognize that anti-Semitic harassment can trigger responsibilities under Title VI. While Title VI does not cover discrimination based solely on religion, 14 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. These principles apply not just to Jewish students, but also to students from any discrete religious group that shares, or is perceived to share, ancestry or ethnic characteristics (e.g., Muslims or Sikhs). Thus, harassment against students who are members of any religious group triggers a school’s Title VI responsibilities when the harassment is based on the group’s actual or perceived shared ancestry or ethnic characteristics, rather than solely on its members’ religious practices. A school also has responsibilities under Title VI when its students are harassed based on their actual or perceived citizenship or residency in a country whose residents share a dominant religion or a distinct religious identity.

For reference: IHRA definition:

Adopt the following non-legally binding working definition of antisemitism:

“Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”

To guide IHRA in its work, the following examples may serve as illustrations:
Manifestations might include the targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity. However, criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic. Antisemitism frequently charges Jews with conspiring to harm humanity, and it is often used to blame Jews for “why things go wrong.” It is expressed in speech, writing, visual forms and action, and employs sinister stereotypes and negative character traits.
Contemporary examples of antisemitism in public life, the media, schools, the workplace, and in the religious sphere could, taking into account the overall context, include, but are not limited to:

  • Calling for, aiding, or justifying the killing or harming of Jews in the name of a radical ideology or an extremist view of religion.
  • Making mendacious, dehumanizing, demonizing, or stereotypical allegations about Jews as such or the power of Jews as collective — such as, especially but not exclusively, the myth about a world Jewish conspiracy or of Jews controlling the media, economy, government or other societal institutions.
  • Accusing Jews as a people of being responsible for real or imagined wrongdoing committed by a single Jewish person or group, or even for acts committed by non-Jews.
  • Denying the fact, scope, mechanisms (e.g. gas chambers) or intentionality of the genocide of the Jewish people at the hands of National Socialist Germany and its supporters and accomplices during World War II (the Holocaust).
  • Accusing the Jews as a people, or Israel as a state, of inventing or exaggerating the Holocaust.
  • Accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations.
  • Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.
  • Applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.
  • Using the symbols and images associated with classic antisemitism (e.g., claims of Jews killing Jesus or blood libel) to characterize Israel or Israelis.
  • Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.
  • Holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel.

Anti-Semitic acts are criminal when they are so defined by law (for example, denial of the Holocaust or distribution of anti-Semitic materials in some countries).
Criminal acts are anti-Semitic when the targets of attacks, whether they are people or property – such as buildings, schools, places of worship and cemeteries – are selected because they are, or are perceived to be, Jewish or linked to Jews.
Anti-Semitic discrimination is the denial to Jews of opportunities or services available to others and is illegal in many countries.

For further information, please contact David Cohen, JCRC Director for the Jewish Community Federation of Richmond at