*This release may be updated once the final executive order is available.*

(New York, NY) – President Trump today signed an executive order targeting anti-Semitism on campus. PEN America said the impulse to respond forcefully to rising anti-Semitic attacks is well warranted and urgent, as yesterday’s horrific attack in a kosher market in Jersey City attests. The literary and free expression organization welcomes the order’s affirmation that civil rights laws will be enforced as robustly to address anti-Semitism on campus as they are other forms of discrimination. But PEN America has reservations about the order’s invocation of a State Department definition of anti-Semitism and its associated examples, for fear that these may be misapplied to impinge upon freedom of speech.   

“Rising incidents of anti-Semitism on campus, in U.S. cities, and around the world are cause for alarm and grounds for urgent action,” said PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel. “These types of attacks and the ideology behind them evoke some of the darkest chapters of human history. Their resurgence represents a dangerous trend. But President Trump would better serve the nation by enforcing existing laws, reining in his own propensity to invoke anti-Semitic tropes, and adopting a zero-tolerance policy toward anti-Semitism among his supporters.” 

PEN America’s concern with the order centers on its reference to a broad and detailed definition of anti-Semitism as relevant in evaluating claims of discrimination on campus under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. That definition was created for a different purpose – tabulating incidences of anti-Semitism worldwide – and its widening use by the government raises serious free speech concerns in the U.S. 

While a wide range of factors can and should be considered in discerning discriminatory intent, an effort to officially enumerate every variant of bigotry cuts against the sort of case-specific determination that the order recognizes as necessary. The order rightly specifies that the definition is non-binding and the examples offered in it are purely illustrative. Nonetheless, its invocation may be misconstrued to raise questions about whether debate and criticism over Israel is inherently anti-Semitic or grounds for civil rights complaints. The executive order mirrors language in the proposed Anti-Semitism Awareness Act, about which PEN America has registered longstanding reservations.

“At a time of rising anti-Semitism, university leaders have a special obligation to address this scourge,” Nossel said. “But the fact is that while some criticism of Israel is indeed tainted with anti-Semitic bias, there must be space on campus for reasoned and objective critiques that bear no trace of bigotry. The order’s invocation of the examples in the State Department anti-Semitism definition risks misinterpretation that could chill legitimate debate about Middle East policy. It could also trigger a backlash among critics of Israel who believe that their speech is being stifled. Rather than helping to bridge divisions, this order will only inflame the already-pitched debates over Israel on campus. It also invites other ethnic or national groups – Muslims, Latinos, or African Americans – to devise similarly detailed descriptions of potentially discriminatory language or ideas, collectively turning the campus into a free speech minefield,” Nossel said.

PEN America has previously addressed flaws in the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act in its 2017 white paper, “Wrong Answer: How Good Faith Attempts to Address Free Speech and Anti-Semitism on Campus Could Backfire.” Nossel’s writings have also addressed problems with making hate speech illegal, and advice to campus leaders on how to respond to hateful expression in ways that condemn it, while reinforcing the value of free speech. See our PEN America Campus Free Speech Guide for additional resources.

###

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible.

CONTACT: Stephen Fee, Director of Communications, sfee@pen.org, +1 202 309 8892