Trump stirs controversy with new Judaism definition

Trump stirs controversy with new Judaism definition

US President Donald Trump. (Reuters Photo)

US President Donald Trump celebrated the Jewish festival of Hanukkah on Wednesday with a controversial change to the definition of Judaism -- a move that will allow clamping down on boycotts of Israel.

"I will always stand with our treasured friend and ally the state of Israel," Trump told a gathering in the White House's ceremonial East Room.

Trump, who calls himself the most pro-Israeli US president in history, used the annual event to reinforce his determined effort to win over traditionally pro-Democratic American Jewish voters ahead of next year's presidential election.

Trump signed an executive order, which bypasses Congress, that essentially redefines Judaism as both a nationality as well as a religion.

The seemingly academic change will have the important legal effect of allowing the government to clamp down on a boycott movement spreading on university campuses against Israel over its treatment of Palestinians.

Trump said the order was to "combat anti-Semitism" and "applies to institutions that traffic in anti-Semitic hate."

Specifically, the order is aimed at quashing the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which has growing support on campuses, by forcing universities to block the movement or face a cut in government funds.

"Our message to universities," Trump said, is "if you want to accept the tremendous amount of federal dollars you get every year, you must reject anti-Semitism."

Activists say the BDS movement is a grassroots effort to punish Israel for its occupation of Palestinian lands. The Israeli government says it is based on anti-Semitism.

Trump's executive order tweaks existing civil rights legislation so that the government can intervene in BDS cases, because Judaism will now be classified not only as a national entity.

"President Trump's order makes it clear that Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 applies to anti-Semitic discrimination based on race, color, or national origin," the White House said in a statement.

"This action further demonstrates the unwavering commitment of President Trump and his Administration to combating all forms of anti-Semitism."

Critics say that Trump is pandering to the Israeli government while ignoring the right to protest.

"This executive order... appears designed less to combat anti-Semitism than to have a chilling effect on free speech and to crack down on campus critics of Israel," Jeremy Ben-Ami, the president of the left-leaning pro-Israel lobbying group J Street, said.

"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," he said.

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