WASHINGTON -- President Donald Trump signed an executive order Wednesday targeting what his administration describes as a growing problem with anti-Semitic harassment on college campuses.
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.
“My executive order prohibits federal funding to any college or university that spreads, promotes, tolerates or supports anything having to do with anti-Semitism," Trump said.
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 not stand for these malicious attacks upon the state of Israel," Trump said in describing the boycott movement.
The Anti-Defamation League, which has been critical of Trump in the past for comments the group 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 and is 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 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.
At both events, Trump cited how the U.S. has officially recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and how he moved the U.S. Embassy there. He also noted his proclamation that recognizes Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, reversing decades of U.S. policy.
The Jewish Democratic Council of America said Trump was engaging in a political stunt with the executive order ceremony and “has zero credibility” to take meaningful action against anti-Semitism.
“It’s not up to Donald Trump to define, stereotype, or use Jews for his own political advantage, and we reject his attempts to do so," said the group's executive director, Halie Soifer.
The executive order states that federal agencies in following the directive shall not infringe upon the First Amendment and its protection of free speech.
The American Civil Liberties Union said it would be monitoring the administration's action to ensure that's the case. “If the administration attempts to undermine that freedom using this order, we will see it in court," said David Cole, the ACLU's national legal director.