The Risky Business of Letting the Government Define a Religion | Sojourners

The Risky Business of Letting the Government Define a Religion

The birth of the modern state of Israel in 1948 brought blessings and challenges. One of those blessings was the notion that Jews would return to having agency over our destiny. We could cease being the object of other people’s actions. We would control how we defined ourselves. One of the beauties of the diversity of the Jewish residents of Israel, and Jews across the world, is that there is a multiplicity of definitions, identities, and expressions of Jewish life. We even have Jews of “no religion” as recent Pew studies in the U.S. have demonstrated.

This is one of the reasons I am extremely concerned about the recent executive order signed by President Trump. In its simplest form, it purports to be a defense of Jewish students on college campuses from anti-Semitic attacks. Such attacks are nefarious and frightening. I couldn’t agree more that we need to ensure that Jewish students and all religious minority students are protected from hate crimes.

The problem is with how Trump and his advisers are using Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as the basis for the executive order. Section 601 of Title VI states the following: “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 financial assistance.” In other words, if college campuses want to maintain their federal funding, they must do everything in their power to prevent discrimination against protected classes. Note that religion is not such a class.

In section one of Trump’s executive order, the following sentences appear: “While Title VI does not cover discrimination based on religion, individuals who face discrimination based on race, color or national origin, do not lose protection under Title VI for also being a member of a group that shares common religious practices. Discrimination against Jews may give rise to a Title VI violation when the discrimination is based on an individual’s race, color, or national origin.” The Trump administration would now like the United States to consider Jewish students — for the purposes of this executive order — a race, or color, or nation. This is when I begin to feel fear.

Things never turn out well for Jews when governmental authorities use their power to decide what a Jew is and what kind of protections we are entitled to. Is a Jew a nationality, a religious identity, an ethnicity, a race, a civilization? Do we really want any administration, Republican or Democrat, to debate this question? In the perfect world, Title VI should now include a protection of discrimination based on religion, for which Jews, Muslims, and other religions would be included.

Not surprisingly, there has been a lot of passionate arguments in the Jewish community about this executive order. Once again, this administration has sowed discord among our people. Many claim that the order does not explicitly say that Jews are being declared a nation. Technically, that’s correct. This executive order does not have a sentence that states: “The United States government shall now consider all Jews a nation.” But it doesn’t need to. If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck.

That is why there are many, like me, who are afraid of what the repercussions of such an order will be. Does this signal to those in our country who are anti-Semitic, who are less and less afraid to speak out and use their fire power, that yes, Jews are a nation, distinct and apart from America? Will this be another opportunity for Jews to be accused of being disloyal citizens? Will this lead to more and more Jews being vilified for acts committed by the Israeli government, given our supposed “nation status?”

One of the strengths of Jewish life in America, particularly since the birth of Israel, has been our ability to be who we want to be, not who others said we were. I pray that era is not over.

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