Thursday, March 4th | 20 Adar 5781

December 13, 2019 10:38 am

The Moral Obligation to Protect Civil Rights

avatar by Thane Rosenbaum /


A picture of the scene the day after an hours-long gun battle around a kosher market in Jersey City, New Jersey, Dec. 11, 2019. Photo: Reuters / Lloyd Mitchell.

JNS.orgThe Biblical Jews who were in bondage in Egypt would have been surprised to hear the commotion — by both non-Jews, and more astoundingly, by Jews themselves — in the immediate response to Donald Trump’s executive order that makes the anti-discrimination provisions of Title VI consistent with the State Department’s working definition of antisemitism, which itself was adopted by 31 countries. And that definition includes, among other things, “denying the Jewish people the right to self-determination” and claiming that the “State of Israel is a racist endeavor.”

The executive order does not reclassify Jews as a nationality or a race; it simply protects them as if they were, while denying federal funding to universities that attack Jewish students by disguising their antisemitism as anti-Zionism.

Critics of the executive order apparently believe that Jews are only a religion, which is excluded from Title VI protection. To them, Trump was performing an act of racial legerdemain, redefining Jews as either a race or a nationality, categories that are covered under Title VI.

But what if he had? The Exodus from Egypt was made by Jews who didn’t yet even have a religion. They were one Red Sea-parting away from even receiving the Ten Commandments! Golden Calf worshippers are obviously not religious ready.

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Jews are first and foremost a people. They have a religion called Judaism, but you don’t need to practice Judaism in order to be a Jew. Hitler clarified that for eternity; tangential Jews burned just as quickly as observant ones. And the reason he deemed Germans the Master Race was to distinguished them from inferior races, such as Jews. He regarded Jews primarily as a race.

Surely, we don’t take our cues from Hitler. But the morphing of racial and religious categories is a time-honored tradition, and Trump’s executive order has a similar consequence.

Yet, if Jews are also a nationality, and slanders made against Israel are now deemed under federal law as acts of antisemitism, doesn’t that revive the historical canard about Jewish duel loyalties?

Of course not.

The connection that Jews have to their ancestral homeland is not dual loyalty, but double loyalty. Jews have ardor to spare. They live and die as Americans, but they still have an umbilical tie to the Promised Land. There is no contradiction there, and Trump was correct when he accused some Jews of not loving Israel enough.

Agonizingly, there is a backdrop here that is more than just a civics lesson. It came with a real-world example — one that predictably received too little attention. Nearly coinciding with the executive order was the murder of two Chassidic Jews gunned down in a kosher market in Jersey City, New Jersey. The male and female attackers, apparently affiliated with the Black Hebrew Israelites, came prepared to kill many more Jews.

This is not a new story, just a buried one like so many others. Very little attention has been given to the official crime statistics for 2018 and 2019. There have been 200 incidents of antisemitism in New York City alone, many committed against Chassidic Jews by African Americans and Hispanics in Brooklyn enclaves like Crown Heights and Williamsburg. The FBI has reported that in 2018, 57 percent of hate crimes in the United States were committed against Jews, even though they represent only 2 percent of the population.

You do the math.

Two of the three victims in Jersey City were Orthodox (the third was a non-Jewish 49-year-old store employee). I am reminded of the casual way that former President Barack Obama referred to the four Orthodox Jews murdered in 2015 by Islamists in the Hyper Cacher kosher market in Paris as “a bunch of folks randomly shot in a deli.”

They weren’t just “folks”; they were Jews — and there was nothing “random” about it.

Apparently, attacks against Orthodox Jews don’t seem to count for very much. Remember the last time Crown Heights was in the news, back in August of 1991, when violence against Chassidic Jews was not quelled quickly? It’s not unlike the way the mainstream press fails to report on Palestinian violence. So, too, I am afraid, is the inexcusable inertia in these recent New York-area attacks — the combination of religious victims and assailants who are members of a perceived oppressed class.

Strangely, it invites an opportune moment to contemplate the purposes behind the Civil Rights Act of 1964, with its intent to redress the ongoing wrongs traceable to America’s Original Sin of slavery.

There is more than a coincidence that the carnage in Jersey City happened on the same day as Trump’s executive order. The moral obligation to protect civil rights should be allowed to make some room for the world’s oldest prejudice.

Thane Rosenbaum is a novelist, essayist, law professor and Distinguished University Professor at Touro College, where he directs the Forum on Life, Culture & Society. He can be reached via his website.

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