This week President Trump signed an executive order explicitly naming Jews as a protected class under Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Title VI does not currently include religion status as a protected identity. This significant change carves out the protection of Jews as separate and different from the protection of all other religious groups in the United States by implying that Judaism is a nationality, worthy of protection under that category within Title VI. Additionally, the executive order relies on a distorted definition of anti-Semitism that deems any criticism of Israel as an act of anti-Semitism.
The order has caused waves of panic among Jews and non-Jews who see the move for what it is – an attempt to stifle pro-Palestine activism on college campuses by slandering their work as anti-Semitism, and to further isolate Jewish people in the U.S. political landscape by setting them apart from other groups as a “protected” class of people. Under the executive order, this new interpretation of anti-Semitism would allow the Department of Education to withhold funds from colleges and universities it deems to be discriminatory against Jews. This could pose a threat to universities that host campus groups tied to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.
As Jewish activists and students of history, when we learned of Trump’s executive order, we immediately thought of another white supremacist government that politically isolated Jews to attack a different nation’s movement for liberation in a similar way. In 1870, the French government, operating as a colonizing power in Algeria, enacted the Crémieux Decree. It gave Algerian Jews the privilege of French citizenship (and all of the rights and protections that came with it) while Muslim and Amazigh Algerians remained second-class citizens. The privilege of citizenship for Jewish Algerians was later revoked when the Nazis took over Europe and the Vichy regime came into power in France.
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White supremacist governments, a category that both the French colonial regime in Algeria and the current U.S. regime fall into, rely on their ability to pit religious and ethnic groups against one another in order to isolate those groups and prevent solidarity from forming. In the case of France, the privileged status of Jews at the start of the 20th century allowed the French government to deflect Algerians’ anger over the violence of colonization onto Jewish Algerians.
The ultimate result of the Crémieux Decree was that Jewish and Muslim relationships in Algeria broke down, leaving the country more vulnerable and less capable of fighting against the French colonial power that oppressed both groups. Many Jews went to France following a sudden rise in anti-Semitism, and accordingly abandoned the anti-colonial movement. By 1940, the Vichy regime had stripped Jews of their temporary citizen status, showing that the Crémieux Decree had been nothing but a political tool used to disempower both Muslim and Jewish Algerians. Muslims now faced the deadly fight against colonization at home while Jews faced genocide, exiled in Europe.
By setting Jews apart from other religious groups and labeling criticism of Israel as “anti-Semitism” (thus undermining the BDS movement), the Trump administration is effectively dividing Jews and Muslims both in the United States and around the world, making it more difficult for us to work together against the white supremacist threats that are being fueled by the policies and rhetoric of Trump and his cronies. Now, more than ever, we need to unite in the face of anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, anti-immigrant, and generally racist policies coming from the White House everyday. And make no mistake, an attack on the BDS movement from this high up in the U.S. government sends the racist message that Palestinians’ efforts to live with freedom and dignity are unacceptable — even when those efforts are nonviolent like those of the BDS movement. President Trump’s order makes it seem as though Palestinian liberation work and fighting anti-Semitism are at odds with each other. We feel strongly that these goals overlap and in fact must be achieved in tandem.
We can use the Crémieux Decree as a lens through which to understand what Trump’s move with this executive order is today: In France today, there is rampant anti-Semitism and Islam0phobia. Can we say that the Crémieux Decree had any positive effect whatsoever on Jewish safety in France, or on French acceptance and tolerance of Jews? In the last year, the country saw a 74 percent rise in anti-Semitic attacks; the answer is obviously no.
To those who say that Jews becoming a protected class as a nationality is a positive change, we hold up this example from history as a warning. We do not need to wait for clues that the same leader who gave us this “privilege” is animated by the anti-Semitic ideologies that would lead him to revoke it when expedient — just this week, our supremacist-in-chief referred to Jews in real estate as “brutal killers, not nice people at all,” an anti-Semitic statement that needs no demystifying. To see this executive order as a gesture by Trump or his administration to “protect” Jewish students is to let ourselves be fooled by supremacist power.
We refuse to let white supremacist governments use our safety as a tool for the repression and oppression of the Palestinian people — especially because we know that the safety they offer is a lie. We will not find safety in allowing the ruling class to use us as pawns or weapons against movements for decolonization. Not in the U.S., not in Algeria, not in Palestine.