SAR’s Response to the US Executive Order Titled “Combating Anti-Semitism”

Posted December 13, 2019

Scholars at Risk (SAR) is greatly concerned by the recent US Executive Order titled “Combating Anti-Semitism”, which appears to be a dangerous intrusion of executive authority into the substance of research, teaching, and discourse on US higher education campuses, and a likely counterproductive response to reported incidents of anti-Semitism.

Anti-Semitism, like Islamophobia, xenophobia, racism, misogyny, and other forms of hatred and prejudice, is real and must be exposed, acknowledged, and addressed. Anti-Semitic discrimination is wrong, and victims of such discrimination should be afforded a proper remedy, as should victims of other invidious forms of discrimination.

Healthy higher education communities, as centers of inclusive, fact-based truth-seeking and dialogue, are uniquely well-suited, and have a responsibility, to combat the lies and misrepresentations that underpin anti-Semitism. But to be healthy, higher education communities must be grounded in core values, including principally equitable access to qualified persons from all constituencies; academic freedom of faculty and students; institutional autonomy from outside interference, especially from government; financial and administrative accountability; and social responsibility.

The recent executive order risks eroding these values, thereby undermining rather than supporting the role of US campuses in confronting hate. Specifically, the order attaches potential financial and legal sanctions to an expressly “non-legally binding working definition” of anti-Semitism and related examples. While the definition and examples may be valuable for their intended nonlegal purposes of fostering discussion and guiding nonstate efforts to expose anti-Semitism, when attached to an official government directive, the language lacks in many places the necessary precision to safeguard academic inquiry and discourse. This creates an unacceptable and unnecessary risk of suppressing research, teaching, and discourse by students, scholars, and institutions, diminishing academic freedom. More directly, this will likely and counterproductively reduce the production and flow of scholarship on many important and sensitive issues, including anti-Semitism.

SAR therefore respectfully urges the US administration to reconsider the order, including considering its withdrawal pending wide consultation with the higher education sector aimed at identifying measures that are more consistent with higher education values. In the meantime, SAR urges all US higher education institutions, scholars, and students considering the impact of the order to take measures to safeguard inquiry and discourse on campus and to encourage serious, inclusive, fact-based examination of anti-Semitism and other forms of hatred and discrimination.