Jewishness Is Not a Nationality

by | Dec 11, 2019

On Wednesday, Donald Trump signed an executive order that implicity defines Jewishness as a racial or national catetory and not as just a religious category. The order further reinforces the Department of Education’s power to sanction colleges that receive federal tax dollars if they permit Palestinian solidarity activities. The Obama administration took a similar approach, which raises the question why Trump signed the order at all.

The New York Times first reported the story, but it was quickly criticized for misstating the nature of the order. However, the Times was correct in reporting that the “order will effectively interpret Judaism as a race or nationality, not just a religion, to prompt a federal law penalizing colleges and universities deemed to be shirking their responsibility to foster an open climate for minority students.” (Emphasis added.) This is true. The order does not openly declare that Jewishness is a racial or national category, but that is its indispensable premise.

The Times noted that “prominent Democrats have joined Republicans in promoting such a policy change to combat anti-Semitism as well as the boycott-Israel movement.”

The key sentence in the order is this: “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.” (See accompanying talking points here.)

How would authorities know this is the case? What if the persons accused insist their actions were not based on racial or national-orgin considerations? Would that be an acceptable defense? Most likely not. Moreover, this sounds like we’re in the area of thought crime. Someone charged with discrimination on the basis of race or national origin is treated differently from someone charged with discrimination on the basis of religion.

The impetus for Trump’s actions is not admissions or hiring policy at colleges and universities receiving federal money; it’s activism expressing Palestinian solidarity. Pro-Palestinian activism on campus is not “discrimination” even under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This is true even if it makes some students uncomfortable.

More importantly, such activism is not about religion, race, or national origin. It is about land theft and oppression. The Palestinians would have been victims of injustice no matter who stole their land or oppressed them. Religion and ethnicity are red herrings intended to shut down Palestinian solidarity..

Israel and many of its defenders insist that the world’s population of Jews consitute a single race, ethnicity, and nationality — which is patent nonsense. Does their insistence mean that anyone who criticizes Israeli oppression of Palestinians is in reality attacking a mythical Jewish race, ethnicity, or nationality? That would be unfair. And what does it have to do with discrimination anyway?

Imagine that a pro-Palestinian student group disrupted a pro-Israel speaker. That certainly would be objectionable, and schools shouldn’t let that happen. But why assume the disruption was based on race, national origin, ethnicity, or even religion? Why not assume that the action was based simply on objections to oppression and Israeli apartheid? Even someone who was prejudiced against all Jews could also hold a principled objection to Israeli policies.

You can see what’s going on here: it’s attempt to force schools to suppress protests against Israel.

Yes, of course, the government should not force taxpayers give money to anyone, but that’s not the point here. The point is that, according to Trump and Kenneth Marcus, who heads the office for civil rights at the Education Department, Hitler was right: Jews constitute a separate racial group. (Many Israelis and Israel supporters agree.) Jewishness in the blood. Once a Jew always a Jew. Hitler wasn’t the first to take this idiotic position, and Zionist leaders agreed with him. It was the view of pre-20th-century European rulers who confined Jews to ghettos (with rabbinic endorsement), treating them as mere members of a corporate entity rather than as individual citizens with rights. (Napoleon broke up this system and emancipated the Jews for a time.)

The problem that Trump and Marcus think they are solving, as I explain here, is that the 1964 Civil Rights Act doesn’t list religion as a forbidden discrimination category. It “prohibits discrimination [only] on the basis of race, color, or national origin.” That being the case, how can the Trump administration claim that colleges and campus groups act illegally when they allow or put on programs designed to bring attention to the Palestinians, who have suffered so long at the hands of Israel, the self-described nation-state of the Jewish people everywhere, including the United States?

The administration was hoping that Congress would pass a definition of anti-Semitism that would shoehorn Jewishness into the Civil Rights Act clause and force schools to crack down on support for, say, the BDS movement, which opposes apartheid policies in the West Bank. But Congress hasn’t passed the so-called Anti-Semitism Awareness Act. So here is the new tack: implicitly define Jewishness as a nationality or race. Voila! Problem solved. Students and professors who disparage the self-described Jewish state for its cruelty to the Palestinians can be charged with discriminating against Jewish American students who can be regarded as members of a nation or race, and the administration can cut off the money. It’s all about inoculating Israel from criticism.

Liberal Jewish groups are protesting what Trump’s up to, which is good. But in fact Israel itself defines Jews as constituting a nationality or race. As I explain here, no such thing as Israeli nationality exists in the Jewish state. For purposes of nationality, Israeli citizens are officially listed as Jewish, Arab, or any one of dozens of other categories. When fans of Israel point out that Palestinians are citizens, they ignore the fact that those citizens are not Israeli nationals and that it is nationality, not citizenship, that matters when it comes to Israeli policy regarding access to resources and services. Remember, Israel exists for the benefit of Jews — everywhere — and not for all of its citizens regardless of religion or religious background. It’s a rigged game that cleverly manipulates the terms citizen and national.

Some Trump critics try to tar him as an anti-Semite, but their case so far has been flimsy. His actions — including moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, declaring settlements in conquered territory legal contrary to international law, quitting the Iran nuclear agreement, and working toward a mutual defense alliance — fulfill every Zionists’ wishlist. He’s even overturned a classic alleged anti-Semitic trope by charging Jewish Americans with being insufficiently loyal to Israel.

But now some solid evidence is at hand. Declaring that Jewish Americans (including non-believers who have Jewish mothers) are members of a separate national and racial group is the essence of anti-Semitism — even when the assertion is pressed into the service of the so-called Jewish state. Jewish anti-Zionists said this from the start. Trump’s liberal Jewish critics will need to explain why he’s wrong and Israel and its apologists are right.

About Sheldon Richman

Sheldon Richman is the executive editor of The Libertarian Institute and a contributing editor at He is the former senior editor at the Cato Institute and Institute for Humane Studies; former editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education; and former vice president at the Future of Freedom Foundation. His latest books are Coming to Palestine and What Social Animals Owe to Each Other.

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