The executive order Trump says will help out Jews is actually worryingly antisemitic

Andrew Feinberg
Donald Trump has used antisemitic tropes, including making comments about Jews and money: MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

With all the impeachment news, you may not have noticed that President Trump stumbled into some antisemitic tropes again.

While speaking to the conservative-leaning Israeli American Council on Saturday, the 45th president — who not three months ago suggested that American Jews who vote for Democrats are being disloyal to Israel — told attendees they had "no choice" but to vote for him because the wealth tax favored by some Democratic presidential candidates would cause them financial losses.

“…You have to vote for me — you have no choice. You’re not gonna vote for Pocahontas, I can tell you that," the president said. "You’re not gonna vote for the wealth tax. Yeah, let’s take 100 per cent of your wealth away!”

Invoking the antisemitic lie that Jewish people are obsessed with money is nothing new for Trump, but after he was widely condemned by a number of Jewish groups earlier in the year, his administration has been trying to clean things up by throwing a bone to the minority of Jewish Americans whose biggest concern is American support for the state of Israel.

The solution to this self-induced political problem is just as bad.

Late Tuesday, the New York Times reported that Trump plans to sign a new executive order which would effectively designate Judaism as a race or nationality. This is in order to enable the Department of Education to force universities to be less welcoming to student groups that support the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions movement against Israel. BDS is a movement which attempts to use the economic tools which helped bring down South Africa's apartheid government to bring an end to Israel's occupation of the land it acquired control of during the 1967 Six-Day War.

Opponents of the BDS movement point out — correctly — that many of its supporters and leaders have trafficked in antisemitic rhetoric, and that it does not advocate for an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by way of a two-state solution. There are other groups that support using BDS tools in hopes of pressuring Israel to negotiate further towards the two-state solution that was the United States’ preferred policy outcome.

But in its zeal to cast itself as the most pro-Israel administration in American history, the Trump administration risks enshrining one of the oldest and most destructive antisemitic tropes into official US policy.

For centuries, Jews have been attacked as somehow alien to the countries which they call home. They have been accused of not really belonging to their countries, but instead being part of some sinister global cabal — think Henry Ford's antisemitic opus The International Jew or the Czarist Russian forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Some on the far right make dog-whistle allusions to such conspiracies by referring to prominent Jewish figures across the world as “globalists”.

Let’s not forget that one of the first major stops Adolf Hitler's Nazi government took on the road to the Holocaust was to enact the Nuremberg laws, which stripped Jews of their German citizenship. Underlying this action was the ideological belief that German Jews were not German; they were instead first and foremost members of some secret, unifying global group.

Obviously this executive order doesn't strip Jewish Americans of their American citizenship, and numerous other governments recognize Judaism as an ethnicity for the purpose of fighting discrimination.

But this supposed anti-discrimination measure feels less like a sincere attempt at fighting antisemitism by this administration — under which violent antisemitic attacks have become a frequent occurrence — as it does a cynical attempt to weaponize anti-discrimination law to restrict the free speech of pro-Palestinian groups.

And even if you assume that the Trump administration is approaching this policy change with the best of intentions, this idea is still an incredibly bad one.

A few months ago, Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway responded to a question I'd asked her (about which countries President Trump was suggesting four non-white members of Congress "go back" to in a tweet) by asking me: "What's your ethnicity?"

While many commentators suggested that Conway's remark was a dig at the fact that I am Jewish, I said at the time that I did not believe that was her intention, and I maintained that she was not being antisemitic. I still believe that, but policies like the one Conway's boss wants to enshrine into law will make it very, very hard for someone like me to give her the benefit of the doubt in the future.

No matter how well-intentioned this policy might be, it harkens back to some of the most damaging, insidious and hateful ideologies that exist in the world today. It's an idea promoted by notorious racists like David Duke and Richard Spencer, and it should have no place in official government policy.

There are lots of ways to fight antisemitism. This shouldn't be one of them.