Behind the Scenes

How Trump’s executive order on antisemitism originated in Harry Reid’s office

executive order on antisemitism


President Donald Trump is expected to sign an executive order today that will formally adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism. 

Details: The measure, which penalizes colleges and universities under federal anti-discrimination laws if they tolerate antisemitic activities, comes in place of the Antisemitism Awareness Act, which had been stalled in Congress. The legislation would have applied the IHRA definition, which the State Department adopted in 2016, to the Department of Education. Trump’s executive order applies the definition to the Department of Justice’s enforcement of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as well. 

Worth noting: The groundwork for the executive order was laid in 2004 by Ken Marcus, at the time the assistant secretary of education for civil rights, and reaffirmed in 2010 by Russlynn Ali, who held the same position in the Obama administration. In a letter to colleagues at the time, Ali wrote, “While Title VI does not cover discrimination based solely on religion, 14 groups that face discrimination on the basis of actual or perceived shared ancestry or ethnic characteristics may not be denied protection under Title VI on the ground that they also share a common faith.” Ali listed Jews, Muslims and Sikhs among the groups facing discrimination.

Behind the scenes: Wednesday’s signing is the culmination of a multi-year effort led by an influential group of Democrats and a private equity businessman from New York. Five years ago, Apollo Global Management co-founder Marc Rowan visited then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in Washington to discuss the rise of antisemitism. Attendees at the meeting included Reid’s chief of staff, David Krone, and super-lobbyist Norm Brownstein, a long-standing Jewish community leader from Denver. Reid proposed the idea of pushing a wider adoption of the State Department’s definition and Rowan, Krone and Brownstein spent the next five years building a coalition of organizations to push legislation through Congress. Reid himself continued to work on the issue even after leaving the Senate, including hosting a town hall on antisemitism in Las Vegas earlier this year.

Multiple Tries: The bipartisan legislation, the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act of 2016, which was introduced by Sens. Tim Scott (R-SC) and Bob Casey (D-PA), passed the Senate on December 1, 2016 before being blocked in the House by former Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), the House Judiciary chair at the time. Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA) reintroduced the bill this past summer. In October, Collins accused the Democratic House majority of refusing to bring the legislation up for a vote because they “can’t seem to agree on condemning the rank antisemitism within their own party.” 

Plan B: “We had come to the realization that the legislation was not going to pass the House,” Krone explained, adding, “It is what it is.” So the group looked for Plan B and Rowan decided to approach Jared Kushner about the possibility of Trump signing an executive order. “To their credit, they took action,” Krone says of the White House. 

Notable praise: “There are a lot of people who were helpful along the way, but I have to give the president credit for getting this done,” Krone acknowledged. While it is certainly unusual for a longtime Harry Reid confidant to praise Trump, according to Krone, “the fight against anti-Semitism is too important to let partisanship play a role.”

The legal debate: Paul Clement, the former U.S. solicitor general, testified before Congress in 2017 that the effort does not violate the First Amendment. 

James Loeffler, a professor of Jewish history at the University of Virginia, explained in The Atlantic earlier this year why singling out American Jews for special protection could do more harm than good. Daniel Hemel, assistant professor at the University of Chicago Law School, pointed out that the Supreme Court — in a unanimous 1987 decision — has already characterized Jews as a race and nationality.

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