Last year, anti-Semitic attacks killed more Jews around the globe than in any year in decades. Worshipers were gunned down during Saturday services at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue. Attackers took the lives of a Jewish college student in California and a Holocaust survivor in France. German Jews were cautioned not to wear skullcaps or Stars of David on the street.
Charlottesville, Va., rang out with cries of “Jews will not replace us!” one year before. When local residents turned up for services at Charlottesville’s Congregation Beth Israel, they found men with semiautomatic rifles at the synagogue doors, offering protection they didn’t know they’d need.
On Tuesday, two gunmen, including one said to have published anti-Semitic posts, killed four people in a rampage in Jersey City that appears to have targeted a kosher market.
The tides of anti-Semitism continue to rise higher, and more government action is sorely needed. The Department of Homeland Security’s recent strategy shift to focus on the growing threat of white nationalist terrorism was an important step. On Wednesday, President Trump stepped in — but he did as much to stir the waters as he did to settle them.
Mr. Trump signed an executive order to combat anti-Semitism on college campuses by using Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to withhold federal money from schools that fail to counter discrimination against Jews. Similar congressional legislation has had bipartisan support, and previous administrations, both Democratic and Republican, have taken similar actions to prevent hate and discrimination.
While Mr. Trump’s action might seem like a gesture of real concern, it does little to target the larger source of violent anti-Semitism in America and possibly threatens free speech rights.
The object of the government’s response is the increased campus debate about Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, a movement advocating economic measures opposing Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. Whatever its intent, B.D.S. has helped to create a hostile environment for Jewish students, most of whom support Israel. At Emory University, for example, students with mezuzot on their door posts were served with mock eviction notices.
Such incidents are frightening. But the larger threat to American Jews goes beyond college students sparring over Israeli policy. Violent anti-Semitism is being fomented most significantly by white nationalists and the far right.
The gunman responsible for a shooting at a Chabad in Poway, Calif., said he was inspired by Adolf Hitler’s ideology. Robert Bowers, who killed 11 in the Pittsburgh massacre, posted anti-Semitic messages on the social media platform Gab, popular with white supremacists and the alt-right. Blaze Bernstein, a gay Jewish University of Pennsylvania sophomore, was murdered near his California home in January 2018, and the suspect awaiting trial is a known neo-Nazi.
The threads tying much of the anti-Semitic violence to white nationalist ideology are impossible to ignore. Those seams grew ever clearer in Charlottesville, at “Unite the Right,” where demonstrators displayed swastikas on banners and shouted slogans drawn from Nazi ideology, like “blood and soil.” When white nationalist Richard Spencer was interviewed about the role of anti-Semitism at the rally days later, he said Jews are overrepresented on the left and establishment as “Ivy League-educated people who really determine policy” while “white people are being dispossessed.”
The president himself has trafficked in anti-Semitic stereotypes, frequently endorsing crude, negative caricatures about Jews. On Saturday, speaking before the Israeli American Council, Mr. Trump said that Jews should support him because Senator Elizabeth Warren’s wealth tax would put them out of business.
“A lot of you are in the real estate business because I know you very well, you’re brutal killers,” the president said. “Not nice people at all, but you have to vote for me. You have no choice.”
Criticism of the president’s executive order has come from across the ideological spectrum. The Foundation For Individual Rights in Education, a group that advocates free speech on campus, often for conservatives, said the executive order would “impermissibly threaten the expressive rights of students and faculty at institutions across the country.”
Senator Brian Schatz, a liberal Jewish Democrat from Hawaii, summed it up: “The idea that a college campus would have its views on Israel regulated by the federal Department of Education? Oy Gevalt.”
Mr. Trump’s executive order points agencies to the definition of anti-Semitism prepared by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. This definition includes several examples of speech that should be covered by the First Amendment, like “claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.” For this reason Kenneth Stern, the lead author of the definition, wrote in The Times that it shouldn’t be applied to higher education. The agency’s definition was prepared for data collectors writing reports in Europe, not for government officials policing campus speech.
It is true that anti-Israel speech, whether on campus or in Congress, makes some Jews feel unsafe, especially those who feel that Zionism is intrinsic to Jewish identity. Some worry that critics of Israel too often blame all Jews for the actions of the Jewish state halfway around the world. Others share critics’ concerns about Israeli actions but find themselves unwelcome as allies, because of hostility toward the Jewish state.
The solution to these worries isn’t to stifle conversation. It’s to allow a healthy discourse about the country’s policies, its future and the role of American diplomacy and aid in the region.
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