News from December 9-December 15
Jersey City shooting, Israeli election update, and President Trump's executive order
Hey everyone! This was a crazy week in the Jewish world, so expect a longer newsletter. As always, if you have any comments, questions, or concerns, feel free to reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Also, before you read on, I was interviewed by the New York Times this week for a story on President Trump’s executive order targeting antisemitism. You can read the article here.
What happened? On Tuesday, Leah Minda Ferencz, Moshe Deutsch, and Miguel Douglas Rodriguez were killed when two assailants opened fire on a Kosher bodega in Jersey City, New Jersey. Ferencz was a mother of three who co-owned the store. Deutsch was a rabbinical student in the area. Rodriguez was a worker at the store who was killed while holding the door open for others to escape. The shooters also killed police officer Joe Seals before they attacked the bodega.
What else? As tragic as it was, the shooting was almost much worse. Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop believes the assailants were attempting to target a Yeshiva next-door to the market. 50 Jewish students were inside the Yeshiva at the time of the shooting. Police also found a pipe bomb and a note that said “I do this because my creator makes me do this and I hate who he hates” in a van belonging to the shooters. The assailants were reportedly inspired by the Black Hebrew Israelite movement.
Who are the Black Hebrew Israelites (BHI)? For one, a very complicated group. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) has designated 144 BHI groups as hate groups for their antisemitic and anti-white beliefs. They believe that they are the true chosen people of God and that Jews are imposters. BHI has no connection to mainstream Judaism. You may remember BHI from the incident earlier this year where a student wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat got into a verbal standoff with a Native American man. BHI members reportedly shouted “racially combative comments” at both the students and the Native Americans. Although the shooters were not members of a BHI group, at least one of them had ties to the movement.
What has been the fallout? Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib is in hot water after she made this tweet:
Congresswoman Tlaib’s tweet was denounced for being factually inaccurate and for jumping the gun before she knew what happened. Then, Congresswoman Tlaib deleted her tweet, but never posted a correction or a new tweet expressing her heartbreak. Since the deleted tweet, she has been criticized for failing to address the shooting once it was clear that it did not fit her political narrative.
A personal note: Congresswoman Tlaib’s inability to condemn the killing of Jews when it is done by people other than white supremacists is a good reminder that we should always call out antisemitism, no matter where it comes from. Yascha Mounk of The Atlantic wrote a great article after the Jersey City shooting, where he described the political inconvenience of the perpetrators. I would strongly encourage you to read it here.
The reality is that it does not matter that the shooters were African American. It wouldn’t matter if they were Asian, Latinx, or Neo-Nazis. We should be able to condemn the killing of Jews (and any other ethnic, religious, or racial group) regardless of who carries out the attacks. Bigotry is bigotry. Contrary to what people like Congresswoman Tlaib would prefer to be the case, it is not just a neo-nazi and right-wing phenomenon. It can come from anywhere. Stay vigilant and consistent in calling it out.
Does Israel have an update: Nope.
What happened? Israel will officially hold its third election in one year. On March 2, Israelis will head to the polls (again) to decide who will be the next Prime Minister. Though there were rumors of some last-minute coalition deals early in the week, neither Blue and White’s Benny Gantz nor Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could ultimately assemble a government. In fact, both parties had more or less “thrown in the towel” by Tuesday, even though the period where anyone could form a government didn’t expire until Wednesday evening.
How close were they to forming a unity coalition? According to the Jerusalem Post’s Gil Hoffman, the answer is very. Blue and White and Likud reportedly worked out an arrangement where Netanyahu would leave office on May 4, right after Israeli Independence Day. The two parties would pass a bill to make the entire arrangement legally binding. Still, the two sides could not agree.
What’s next? On December 26, Likud will hold a primary to decide its leadership in the next election. Though Netanyahu is still expected to win, Gideon Sa’ar, another Likud MK, is a serious challenger. Similar to the Blue and White party, Sa’ar’s platform is motivated more by anti-Netanyahu sentiment than ideological differences. Sa’ar’s central claim is that Likud is better off with him leading than with Netanyahu because all of Netanyahu’s baggage costs the right-wing parties votes. He’s not wrong; recent polls indicated that while Likud would fare worse with Sa’ar at the helm, the right-wing parties would earn significantly more seats as a whole. Intrigue!
Anything else? The day after Israel’s third elections became official, Blue and White’s Yair Lapid announced that he would not seek a rotation as Prime Minister during the upcoming election. Before joining Blue and White, Lapid had been the leader of the influential centrist Yesh Atid party. When he joined Blue and White, Gantz promised him a rotation as the prime minister. As you may recall, Lapid previously announced that he was willing to drop his share of the rotation for unity talks with Netanyahu. Now, Lapid has decided that he will not seek the premiership at all. Lapid has sparred with the religious parties in the past, so the hope is that more people on the right will feel comfortable voting for Gantz, knowing Lapid will not be the prime minister.
Background: Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act regulates federally-funded programs on university campuses. To get the funding, universities must comply with the rules laid out in Title VI. One of the clauses in Title VI is that “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 Federal financial assistance.”
What happened? On Tuesday, President Trump signed an executive order that will bolster the Department of Education’s (DOE) effort to crack down on antisemitism on college campuses. When the reports initially broke, there was tremendous outrage because many believed the order would redefine Judaism as a nationality so that Jews would be protected under Title VI (notice that the clause does not include religion). Whether or not Jews are a nation is a contentious point, with some arguing it is Nazi behavior and others claiming it would afford Jews the same privileges as other minorities.
What actually happened? The executive order does not change how the law interprets Judaism. Instead, the executive order expands the definition of antisemitism that applies under Title VI. Specifically, it directs the DOE to us the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, which some see as controversial. Among the examples of antisemitism cited by the IHRA are “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor” and “applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.” While many see those as straightforwardly antisemitic behaviors or beliefs, some see them as legitimate points of debate.
So why are people mad? When you see people arguing that President Trump’s executive order will stifle free speech, they are referring to the IHRA definition. Under the President’s executive order, the DOE can withhold funding from universities that do not take action to stop a broad (and some would argue, subjective) definition of antisemitism. For example, under the “double-standard” example, what if two people have different ideas of what behavior should be expected from democratic nations? Moreover, regardless of the veracity of the claim, many pro-Palestinian advocates don’t see Israel as a democracy. How the DOE will apply the IHRA definition remains to be seen and some fear that the DOE will use it to silence pro-Palestinian advocacy.
A personal note: As you may have seen in the New York Times article, I’m pretty conflicted about the executive order. I’m hopeful that it will meaningfully improve the conditions for Jewish students on college campuses. Yet, I am worried that it will backfire. When the government gets involved (or is perceived to get involved) with issues of antisemitism on college campuses, it reframes the issues from “is this antisemitic” to “is the government trying to suppress free speech. When that happens, we lose sight of the antisemitic nature of the incidents and focus entirely on a debate no Jewish student wants to have. That is not to say it isn’t good policy–perhaps the definition of antisemitism on campus was too lenient–it’s just that I don’t think the implementation will work.
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