Trump has sought to closely align himself with Israel, a move that appeals to many evangelical voters, too. He said Wednesday that the order sends a message to universities: “If you want to accept the tremendous amount of federal dollars that you get every year, you must reject anti-Semitism. It's very simple," Trump said.
Under the order, the Department of Education will consider the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance's definition of anti-Semitism — which can include criticism of Israel — when evaluating discrimination complaints under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. The department could withhold funding from schools that it finds in violation of Title VI.
The order comes as the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against the Israeli government for its treatment of Palestinians becomes more prominent on some college campuses.
The Israeli government has urged allies to rein in the boycott movement, while its backers deny anti-Semitism charges and describe themselves as critical of Israeli decision-making, not Jews.
“My administration will never tolerate the suppression, persecution or silencing of the Jewish people," Trump said. “We forcefully condemn this anti-Semitic campaign against the state of Israel and its citizens.
The Anti-Defamation League, which has been critical of Trump in the past for comments the groups has described as echoing “racist talking points" welcomed the executive order. The group's CEO, Jonathan Greenblatt, said it would give law enforcement and campus officials an important tool in fighting anti-Semitism.
But critics said the order is based on stalled legislation designed less to combat anti-Semitism than to have a chilling effect on free speech and to crack down on campus critics of Israel.
“We feel it is misguided and harmful for the White House to unilaterally declare a broad range of nonviolent campus criticism of Israel to be anti-Semitic, especially at a time when the prime driver of anti-Semitism in this country is the xenophobic, white nationalist far-right,”said Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street, a Democratic-aligned advocacy group.
Trump signed the executive order at a Hanukkah reception at the White House, the first of two on Wednesday. New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz were among those in attendance who spoke in favor of Trump's actions.
The Jewish Democratic Council of America called it a political stunt.