Skip To Content
Back to Opinion
We’ve Taken Down the Forward Paywall: An Open Letter to Our ReadersRead Now

The Lesson Of Trump’s Executive Order That Wasn’t

Two things happened to Jewish Americans on Tuesday. Only one of them was real.

A Jewish grocery store in Jersey City really was attacked in a murderous rampage. There really was a synagogue and yeshiva in the same building, with real children who sat huddled in terror for hours who were then evacuated lest they be executed.

The second thing that happened was not real. The New York Times reported that the Trump Administration had issued an executive order reclassifying Jewish college students as belonging to a nationality rather than a religion, thus bringing them more firmly under the protection of the relevant statutes that allow for federal aid to be withheld from universities, with the presumable purpose of combating Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions efforts on college campuses.

The only problem is, it wasn’t true. As the Jewish Insider reported, there is no mention at all of a redefinition of what it means to be Jewish in the order, and no effort to recategorize Jews as a different protected class. This order actually alters very little; it suggests — rather than mandates — that U.S. government departments adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism when enforcing anti-discrimination statutes, which, far from criminalizing criticism of Israel, specifically states that “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic.”

The remarkable thing about fake news is that it reveals real truths. Before the actual draft of the order emerged, the story — particularly, the report that the Trump Administration would begin to classify Jews as a nationality — unleashed a firestorm on the Jewish left. It was compared to Nazi legislation and Soviet oppression. “The GOP-Nazi Party is legislating a new definition of American Judaism,” read one tweet. “The defining label is very… Soviet,” read another.

In response to the idea that Jews are part of a nation, progressive Jews stumbled over themselves hurrying to declare themselves Americans first. Lengthy Twitter-threads were composed alleging that the protection of Jews from anti-Semitism necessarily involves the targeting of Palestinian students. Beyond simply questioning the executive order, the very idea of Jewish nationhood seemed to be received with visceral disgust.

It was remarkable, if telling. On the very same day that Jews were slain in a storefront pogrom by assailants who were reportedly members of the Black Hebrew Israelite Movement executing a targeted attack, the tastemakers on the Jewish left saw the gravest outrage against American Jews elsewhere: in the expansion of protection for Jewish college students, and in the outrage over the Jewish people being called a nation.

There wasn’t absolute silence about Jersey City. There were a few acknowledgements. But they were completely drowned out by the hysteria around the assault against Jews that simply wasn’t.

After years of maintaining that combating anti-Zionist hate was a distraction from the real anti-Semitism of synagogue shootings emanating from the extreme right, the Jewish left was too distracted talking about a non-assault against anti-Zionist speech to react to a massacre of Jews, except in the most instrumental way; thus, IfNotNow’s first comment on the shooting, which didn’t come until this morning, was a Tweet-reminder that “anti-Black racism is never an acceptable response to antisemitic violence.”

A fake story about an attempt to protect Jews garnered more outrage than a real one about dead Jews.

The outrage over the executive order and the lackluster response to the shooting in Jersey City might seem related only by a freak of timing; in fact, they are deeply connected.

The former explains the latter. After all, what is left to connect people who are horrified at the notion that they belong to a Jewish nation to the Hassidic victims of the Jersey City massacre, absent a sense of shared nationhood?

The denial of the idea of Jewish nationhood — an idea that is exactly as old as Judaism itself — speaks of a fear of Jewish assertion. Do not champion our cause too overtly, it begs those in power. Bless those who curse us, it insists. We are a mere religion with one commandment and that is to repair the world and to help those whose misfortunes outnumber our own, it insists. And for God’s sake, don’t mistake us for those Jews. Or, as one liberal rabbi put it on Twitter, “Our Torah is a book of actions, not a rallying point for mumbling in an ancient tongue while wearing the garb of our grandfathers and gathering for a shtickle herring afterwards.”

How odd, at a time when the Jewish body is increasingly a perforated one in pews pooling with blood, to perversely declare that we want not more protection, but less. What a strange spectacle to see Jews, whom nobody asked to choose, declaring themselves American uber alles.

But being a nation is a difficult thing. It can be hard and awkward. But it is infinitely beautiful, and this particular one, the Jewish one, is worthy of celebration. What a nation we are, after all.

We have too many threats to our bodies and souls to be distracted by ghosts of our own creation.

Ari Hoffman writes about politics, culture, and Jewish ideas.


Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.