Posted on December 17, 2019 at 6:51 PM
by Craig Klugman, Ph.D.
Last week I became a Jewish-American. No, I did not change my citizenship. No, I did not change religions. In the morning I was an American (born a U.S. Citizen) who was raised in conservative Judaism and by the afternoon, I was part of a new nationality. What changed last week was President Trump signing an order stating that Title VI applies to anti-Semitism. According to Title VI, “No person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” Thus, for this law to apply, Judaism has to be a race, a color, or a nation.
Jewish people or people who are Jewish (there is a distinction here) have a wide variety of skin tones ranging from very pale (from northern Europe) to very dark (from Africa). So clearly, color was not the basis of the order. Are Jewish people (as opposed to people who are Jewish), a race? In biological anthropology, race is a social construct, a label placed by those in power on those who they wish to “other”. Race is often defined based on skin tone, historic place of familial origin, the “legal” racial classification of one’s ancestor, or some other arbitrary characteristic. According to commercial DNA testing companies, the answer is yes. My spouse took a DNA test and learned that he was 100% Ashkenazi Jew. Under 23andMe’s “reference populations” Ashkenazi Jewish is an identifiable group. But they do not have a separate sample for Sephardic Judaism or for people who convert to Judaism (people who are Jewish). Does one’s DNA change upon religious conversion? Does a Bris or Naming ceremony (traditional welcomes to infants into the Jewish community) somehow transform the genetic code? While many Jewish people do have ancestors from Northern and Eastern Europe, many do not. Does the executive order apply only to people from certain parts of Europe?
Thus, we are left with the idea that protection for being Jewish must be based on “national origin.” The problem here is that there is no “Jewishlandia”. Certainly, there is the state of Israel which considers itself to be a Jewish homeland, but lots of people who live in Israel are not Jewish. Lots of Jewish people do not trace their family back to Israel (at least not since Biblical times). And many Jews in the U.S. disagree with the politics of Israel. However, “national origin” is clearly the order’s intent as on many occasions, Trump has connected being Jewish with being a citizen of Israel. To him and to many of his supporters, the two things are one, and thus, they view an attack on Jews as an attack on Israel. While they are not necessarily supporters of Jews (see the rise in anti-Semitic hate crimes and white nationalism under Trump) they are supporters of Israel (due to its religious relevance): For evangelical Christians, this connection is important in their faith for two reasons: (1) that God chose Israel as the Jewish homeland and (2) the establishment of Israel and the return of the Jews there is a necessary step to the Second Coming of Christ, something that they strongly desire (though of course for Jews, there hasn’t been a first messiah yet). The subconscious (or perhaps conscious) thought behind this executive order is to support Israel, which is support, for religious reasons, to a large section of Trump’s evangelical base.
The President’s order adopts a definition of antisemitism described by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance: “Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.” Some critics of Israel have raised concerns about this definition and that it might be chilling to free speech. One of the motivations for the executive order is a rise in anti-Semitism on college campuses, often related to the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement; a Palestinian-based attempt to encourage college students to rally against Israel (seen as “oppressors” and “occupiers”). However, the Antidefamation League and others see BDS as a hate group. Under the new executive order, even peaceful language (such as a classroom debate, or an OpEd) that is against Israel could be considered a Title VI violation. While the intent is to reduce violence against Jews, the unintended action is a suppression of debate.
One of the legal ironies here is that Title VI clearly does not include religion as a basis of discrimination. In other attempts to expand the definitions of laws to include groups not explicitly mentioned, the Trump Administration has argued for a narrow, letter-of-the-law approach. In a Title VII case that seeks to establish LGBQT as falling under “sex discrimination” (as it was under Obama), the Trump administration has argued vehemently that it does not: If Congress had intended such coverage, then the law would have stated that. Besides pointing out the inconsistency in philosophical and legal thinking here, is there a significant difference between the two stands? For Trump’s followers, discrimination against LGBQT is acceptable but discrimination against Israel is not.
Other critics have expressed fear that this executive order is an effort to “other” Jews in the population. According to anthropologist Karen Brodkin, “Prevailing classifications have sometimes assigned Jews to the white race and at other times have created an off-white racial designation for them. Those changes in racial assignment have shaped the ways American Jews of different eras have constructed their ethnoracial identities.” Our notions of race and sex are tied to our notions of nationalism—who is an American and who is not. Trump and his supporters have demonstrated a fondness for tactics that divide populations and pit them against one another. While on the surface, this order appears to offer protections for Jews, what it does is say that Jewish people are something “different” in that they are another nation (race or color). Those of us who were raised with stories told by Holocaust survivors know that the Final Solution did not begin with killing Jews, but began with othering them. The Nuremburg Race Laws said that Jews in Germany were not German citizens but were state subjects. A 1935 news report from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency writes about the new laws and a Zionist conference in Switzerland, “Jews are being put on a national minority basis…Jews are a nation in themselves, and therefore speakers proclaimed demands for national interests of Jewry”. This is not dissimilar to Trump’s speech where when speaking before an American Jewish group, he called the Prime Minister of Israel, “your prime minister” and has repeatedly says the Jews who are Democrats are “disloyal” to Israel. The parallels are chilling.
If you have stuck with me this far, you may be wondering why this discussion is on a bioethics blog. In part, it is because as blog editor I am a Jewish person, a person who is Jewish, and a Jewish-American (as of last week). In larger part, I write on this topic because bioethics teaches us that the worst abuses of the life sciences are found when researchers, scientists, and doctors “other” their patients and subjects. When any person or any group of people is seen as something “other” it is usually as something “lesser” than those who make the categorization. Good science and good medicine can only occur when all people are viewed as valuable and respected. The same goes for inclusion in politics and human rights. As a nation, our executive branch has othered people of LatinX backgrounds (see our treatment of undocumented immigrants and caging children). Now Jews. Then who is next? In the United States, we can only have one nation if we wish to attain the equality necessary to prevent the past abuses that led to the need for bioethics in the first place.
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