To counter Trump’s executive order, rethink America’s blank check to Israel

Against the backdrop of an emboldened global right-wing movement, American public officials need to take concrete action to end the obscenity of occupation once and for all.

President Trump seen during the lighting of the Menorah during an evening Hanukkah Reception in the East Room of the White House, December 11, 2019. (Joyce N. Boghosian/White House)
President Trump seen during the lighting of the Menorah during an evening Hanukkah Reception in the East Room of the White House, December 11, 2019. (Joyce N. Boghosian/White House)

Last week, President Trump signed an Executive Order that codified a stalled bill in Congress, the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act, into law. In supposed pursuit of enforcing Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the order directs all executive departments and agencies to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of anti-Semitism, which the Administration has speciously interpreted as categorizing anti-Zionism as anti-Semitism.

Trump signed the order just before the White House Hanukkah party, in which pro-occupation, Jewish leaders on both sides of the congressional aisle stood beside Evangelical Christians. It was the last embodiment of the unholy alliance that has joined together to “protect” Israel from human rights activists on college campuses, even if it means Jews collaborating with an openly white nationalist administration.

The order, in fact, has nothing to do with confronting anti-Jewish racism and everything to do with attacking free speech and upholding the Israeli military occupation of millions of Palestinians. As the lead drafter of the IHRA definition, Kenneth Stern, wrote last week, the organization’s description of anti-Semitism was “never intended to be a campus hate speech code.” Stern worries that the order “will harm not only pro-Palestinian advocates, but also Jewish students and faculty, and the academy itself.”

By singling out Palestinian rights advocates for special state scrutiny and punishment, this order will infringe on academic freedom, hamstring efforts to promote the basic rights of Palestinians, and set a dangerous precedent for the power of the president to censor those who do not share their political agenda. All in the name of “fighting anti-Semitism.”

A protester takes part in a protest marking the 70th anniversary of the Nakba, New York, May 18, 2018. (Joe Catron/CC 2.0)
A protester takes part in a protest marking the 70th anniversary of the Nakba, New York, May 18, 2018. (Joe Catron/CC 2.0)

None of this should come as a surprise to anyone paying attention to the Trump Administration’s “Israel first, Jews last” approach to Palestine-Israel over the past three years. As Trump provides cover to white nationalists and incites them against American Jews at home, the administration lavishes the most right-wing, authoritarian government in Israel’s history with free gifts, including by moving the American embassy to Jerusalem, recognizing the occupied Golan Heights as sovereign Israeli territory, cutting off funding for Palestinian humanitarian relief agencies, and green lighting further settlement expansion in the West Bank. All of these aim to bolster the position of embattled Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu amidst the corruption investigation against him while also advancing a pro-settlement, annexationist agenda.

Trump’s moves cater not only to right-wing American Jews, such as mega-donor Sheldon Adelson (historically a major backer of both Trump and Netanyahu), but also to Evangelical Christian Zionists, who, organized under the umbrella of Christians United For Israel, make up the numerically largest “pro-Israel” group in the country. (CUFI’s pro-Israel advocacy is based on the anti-Semitic idea that in order for the Messiah to come, Jews must return to Israel, where they will then be killed or converted by the Messiah.)

For decades, self-styled “pro-Israel” advocates and politicians from both parties have pursued an American foreign policy which grants Israel a blank check to support its military occupation. Thanks to persistent and well-funded organizing, under Obama these forces secured the largest funding package for Israel in history, with $38 billion promised over 10 years. All the while, pro-occupation Jews worked happily alongside conservative hawks — as well as anti-Semites in CUFI.

However, in this present moment of resurgent, violent anti-Semitism in America, the inherent contradiction of this “pro-Israel” organizing strategy cannot be ignored: As white nationalists are attacking us in our synagogues and in our communities, the American Jewish community will no longer tolerate a political project that places a premium on short-term “wins” for Israel over the long-term prosperity of our community in the United States.

Mourners take part in a vigil for the victims of the shooting at Tree of Life Congregation, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, October 29. (Governor Tom Wolf/CC BY 2.0)
Mourners take part in a vigil for the victims of the shooting at Tree of Life Congregation, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, October 29. (Governor Tom Wolf/CC BY 2.0)

What does it mean to oppose this unholy alliance? To be sure, many public officials and the majority of American Jews have roundly criticized Trump’s racism. However, calling out this administration’s white nationalism and anti-Semitism is not enough: it also must reject the underlying logic that equates supporting the Israeli government unconditionally with the protection of Jews. As long as the freedom of Palestinians and the freedom of Jews are presented as mutually exclusive — rather than as intimately interconnected parts of the larger fight against authoritarianism and ethno-nationalism — both causes will suffer.

Thus, in order to effectively push back against Trump’s strategy to slander his political opponents as anti-Semites, our representatives must loudly and proudly call for freedom and dignity for both Palestinians and Israelis.

Jewish representatives in Congress have a particular responsibility to unmask this president’s “pro-Israel” brand of anti-Semitism. Pro-human rights, anti-occupation Jewish champions like Representatives Jan Schakowsky and Andy Levin have both the bonafides and the chutzpah to defy this president and his right-wing backers, deny his Jew-hatred any cover, and push for bold U.S. action to hold Israel accountable for its increasingly permanent military occupation.

But there is only one Jewish public official in Congress who has the positional power required to totally explode Trump’s anti-Semitic, “pro-Israel” strategy: Congressman Eliot Engel. As the chairman of House Foreign Affairs Committee, Engel has the ability to signal to Trump and Netanyahu that our representatives will not give Israel a blank check to fund home demolitions, child detention, and the theft of Palestinian land. Representative Engel has a duty to lead that fight. Leaving Trump’s anti-Semitic, “pro-Israel” policy uncontested amounts to handing a win to Trump and his strategy of weaponizing the fears of Jews in order to destroy multiracial democracy, both in the United States and all over the world.

An important first step in this process is more oversight. The public, as well as our public officials, have a responsibility to understand the extent to which the $3.8 billion of U.S. military assistance to Israel is funding the policies of a military occupation. More oversight and accountability for military assistance to Israel is not only just, it’s also common sense policy already codified in U.S. law.

The Leahy Law and the Arms Export Control Act stipulate that American military assistance cannot go to any unit found to have committed gross human rights abuses or be used for such purposes outside the scope of “legitimate self-defense.” Many of our representatives in Congress are already fighting to ensure that our government is not footing the bill for the daily indignities of the occupation. Congresswoman Betty McCullom’s bill, House Resolution 2407, applies the Leahy Law to Israel’s use of child detention. Meanwhile Reps. Ro Khanna, Steve Cohen, and Anna Eshoo have recently penned a letter requesting an investigation into whether U.S. equipment is used to demolish Palestinian homes. Both are important steps toward ultimately defunding the military occupation once and for all.

Activists with IfNotNow protest in Rep. Engel’s office, Washington D.C., November 20, 2019. (Courtesy of IfNotNow)
Activists with IfNotNow protest in Rep. Engel’s office, Washington D.C., November 20, 2019. (Courtesy of IfNotNow)

That’s why members of the Jewish-American anti-occupation group IfNotNow have spent the past month protesting in the offices of their representatives from coast to coast, demanding they hold a “Defund Occupation” hearing in the House Foreign Affairs Committee, where our leaders are able to investigate how our tax dollars go to support the occupation. A Defund Occupation hearing in Engel’s committee would be a crucial opportunity to educate the American public about our complicity in the myriad of injustices of Israel’s military occupation. Furthermore, such a hearing would push back against Trump’s disastrous strategy in the Middle East, while undermining his ability to use unconditional aid for Israel as a weapon against his political opponents.

Against the backdrop of an emboldened global right-wing movement, our public officials now need to stand up and take concrete action to end the obscenity of occupation once and for all. For years, too many of our representatives in Congress have believed that by supporting the two-state solution, they were backing a process that would end the occupation while affirming the national rights of both the Israelis and the Palestinians. In today’s de facto one-state reality, in which the U.S. gives a free pass to Israel to rule over millions of Palestinians without granting them civil or political rights, our leaders must go further.

Now is the time for bold intervention that goes beyond empty rhetoric that signals support for two states. Both public officials and American Jews must stand up and proclaim that the fight for Jewish safety is one and the same as the fight for Palestinian freedom, and that the United States will stand for an end to racism everywhere.