After Trump anti-Semitism executive order, uncertainty for Stanford administration, Jewish community

March 16, 2020, 7:15 p.m.

In the wake of the Trump administration’s December “Executive Order on Combating Anti-Semitism,” both Stanford and Jewish groups on campus are grappling with the potential consequences, including what further steps the University may have to take and whether the order unduly politicizes the issue of anti-Semitism by tying it to anti-Zionist and pro-Palestinian activity.

Much of the controversial order codifies existing guidance laid out by the U.S. Department of Education under President Barack Obama. That guidance clarified that Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin, applies to ethno-religious groups such as Jews as well.

However, many are concerned that the executive order threatens free speech on college campuses specifically due to its use of the International Holocaust Remembrance Association’s (IHRA) “contemporary examples” of anti-Semitism, which include some statements that are critical of the State of Israel but not necessarily Jewish people. As an educational institution that receives significant federal funding, Stanford is required to uphold Title VI; failure to do so could potentially result in a loss of funding.

While most of the IHRA examples are relatively uncontroversial, a few remain disputed, such as referring to the State of Israel as a “racist endeavor” or holding Israel to certain “double standards.” Many worry that the inclusion of these broader examples will provide the impetus for a tightening of restrictions on anti-Israel speech on college campuses.

University still determining response

The University recently formed a working group to examine the executive order and its implications on religious life, student affairs and legal matters. Chaired by Vice Provost for Student Affairs Susie Brubaker-Cole, the group has now met twice, on Jan. 6 and Feb. 7.

“We see the purpose of this committee as educating and informing the work of our university in light of the executive order,” said Rev. Dr. Tiffany Steinwert, dean for Religious Life and a member of the working group alongside Brubaker-Cole, Rabbi Patricia Karlin-Neumann, Associate Vice Provost Emelyn dela Peña, Senior Associate Vice Provost Lauren Schoenthaler and University Counsel Erin Dolly. The group does not have a set timeline or mandate, but has instead been formed on an ad-hoc basis to address the questions raised by the executive order.

The working group is “still assessing” the order’s impact, Schoenthaler said, but she stressed that the executive order “will not alter principles of free speech on campus — the ability to put information into the marketplace of ideas.”

“Most of the acts of anti-Semitism that we’ve seen … have been acts of religious intolerance, and yet the executive order is very specific around Israel, and having an Israel-focused definition of anti-Semitism,” said dela Peña. 

The executive order has prompted questions that touch on the work of other existing working groups, such as those overseeing free speech guidelines as well as the existing “Acts of Intolerance” (AOI) protocol, she said. While the AOI protocol deals more broadly with ensuring a comfortable and safe environment for students, it does not necessarily involve legal action.

The politicization of anti-Semitism and free speech concerns

Of concern to many on campus is the potential politicization of anti-Semitism and constraints on free speech.

“It seems so obvious to me that it had really nothing to do with combating anti-Semitism, but had everything to do with suppressing anti-Israel speech or critiques of Israel on college campuses,” said Kate Frimet ’22, vice president of J Street U at Stanford, “a pro-Israel, pro-Palestinian, pro-Peace student organization dedicated to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict,” according to the Haas Center’s website.

Still, she said because of J Street’s pro-Israel, pro-Palestinian position, she has little concern that the order may have implications for the group. 

“I think that we tend to take a diplomatic enough stance in our programming that it wouldn’t affect us too much,” she said.

Groups such as Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) at Stanford, on the other hand, may be at greater risk. 

“The targeting of activists is and has been a constant and very severe concern for pro-Palestinian organizing,” said Zaeda Blotner ’21, SJP’s financial officer. “These considerations factor into virtually everything SJP does.”

Blotner said pro-Palestinian activists have faced challenges such as doxing, threats, harassment and refusal of entry into Palestinian territory by the Israeli Defense Forces. The executive order, she said, “enshrines” those challenges into the political landscape.

Citing the “double standards” example within the IHRA definition, Blotner said, “As a Jew, I find the notion that we as a people are so fragile that we cannot engage in critical conversation to be wildly offensive.”

SJP will again host a “Palestine Awareness Week” in the spring, as it does each year, even while considering how the executive order may impact the organization’s work and what steps it may take to protect itself while still being true to its message. 

“This executive order makes it virtually impossible to alter our language without fundamentally altering our message,” Blotner said. 

Courtney Cooperman ’20, co-president of the Jewish Student Association (JSA), disagreed, saying that she “personally does not believe that incorporating [the IHRA definition] into the executive order poses a standalone threat to free speech or pro-Palestinian activism.” However, she added, “the president’s [Trump’s] choice to single out Jews, rather than promote safety and respect for students of all religious and ethnic backgrounds who might be targeted on college campuses, makes me skeptical of his intentions.”

But Rabbi Jessica Kirschner, executive director of Hillel at Stanford, expressed concerns that the order might lead to potential outside litigation over the issue of free speech. 

“The complication that the executive order might bring into the question is that it potentially gives new power or opportunity to organizations who don’t necessarily partner regularly with the University to bring in challenges,” Kirschner said.

Increasingly, outside advocacy groups such as the Zachor Legal Institute — a prominent legal group on issues related to the Boycott, Divestmest, Sanctions (BDS) Movement — have brought challenges under Title VI against universities for perceived discrimination against Jewish students because of anti-Israel programming, most recently at UCLA. 

“I think challenges like that are very unlikely to come from Hillel,” Kirschner said.

Implications for the Jewish community at Stanford

All of this unfolds against a backdrop of rising concerns over anti-Semitism both locally and nationally. Just last month, potentially anti-Semitic graffiti was found on a park bench on Palm Drive. 

Amid these incidents, some worry that the executive order may be an added strain.

“The executive order allows President Trump to unduly proclaim himself a champion of the Jewish community without acknowledging how his own Administration has willfully embraced anti-Semitic stereotypes and emboldened hatred within our society, including Neo-Nazism and other blatantly anti-Semitic groups,” Cooperman said. “When the president talks about American Jews — even ostensibly for the purpose of supporting us — he tends to play off our divisions and disregard our core values.”

Frimet agreed, saying that the executive order “weaponized” Jews and “used [them] as a political tool to fill politicians’ personal agendas.”

Kirschner expressed a mixture of hope and concern for the executive order’s potential effects on the community. 

“It brings heightened awareness to the issue and that can be both positive and negative,” she said. “If it leads us all to create a campus environment that is actually safer for everyone … I think that is to the good. If it makes everyone really anxious about litigation and makes it harder for us to talk to each other, or if it exacerbates feelings that some groups get more attention or have more power than other groups, then I think it’s problematic for us.”

dela Peña echoed Kirschner’s sentiment, drawing on her her 25 years of experience working with diversity and inclusion issues and dealing with past instances of contention related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on campuses.

“My role in that interaction has been to support all sides, and to look at what does healing look like in your own communities as well as across community,” dela Peña said. “The challenge now is that if it becomes a policy issue, then how do we bring communities together under that kind of stress?”

Despite these issues, Steinwert said Stanford is taking the signing of the executive order as an opportunity to better address issues of anti-Semitism more broadly.

“We can never control the motivations of others, but it’s our responsibility to take what happens and to use it for the greater good,” she said, noting that the executive order has provided an impetus to spur greater engagement with both JSA and Hillel. “This has really drawn that community back more closely into the University, and I think that’s been a really wonderful result of something that feels fraught and complicated.”

Contact Bryan Metzger at bmetzger ‘at’

Login or create an account