WASHINGTON — President Trump plans to sign an executive order on Wednesday targeting what he sees as anti-Semitism on college campuses by threatening to withhold federal money from educational institutions that fail to combat discrimination, three administration officials said on Tuesday.
The order will effectively interpret Judaism as a nationality, not just a religion, to trigger a federal law penalizing colleges and universities deemed to be shirking their responsibility to foster an open climate for minority students, according to the officials, who insisted on anonymity to discuss the matter before the announcement.
In signing the order, Mr. Trump will use his executive power to take action where Congress has not, essentially replicating bipartisan legislation that has stalled on Capitol Hill for years. Prominent Democrats have joined Republicans in promoting such a policy change at a time of rising tension on campuses over anti-Semitism as well as the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions or B.D.S. movement against Israel.
But critics have complained that such a policy could be used to stifle free speech and legitimate opposition to Israel’s policies toward Palestinians in the name of fighting anti-Semitism. The definition of anti-Semitism to be used in the order, which matches the one used by the State Department, has been criticized as too open-ended and sweeping.
For instance, it describes as anti-Semitic “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination,” and offers as an example of such behavior “claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.”
Opponents of the definition fear that it could be used to declare any defense of Palestinian autonomy to be anti-Semitic, with federal education funding as a cudgel.
Mr. Trump, who over the years has been accused of making anti-Semitic remarks or turning a blind eye to anti-Jewish tropes, has also positioned himself as a strong supporter of Israel and a champion of Jewish Americans. The executive order to be signed on Wednesday stemmed from an effort spearheaded by Jared Kushner, his son-in-law and senior adviser, who is the Jewish grandson of Holocaust survivors.
The president is expected to be joined at the signing by several prominent Republican lawmakers, including Senators Tim Scott of South Carolina and James Lankford of Oklahoma and Representative Doug Collins of Georgia. But Democrats who have advocated the legislation in the past are not expected, including Representative Jerrold Nadler of New York, who on Tuesday released articles of impeachment against Mr. Trump.
The president’s action comes soon after the Education Department ordered Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to remake their joint Middle East studies program on the grounds that it featured a biased curriculum. The move was part of a broader campaign by Betsy DeVos, the education secretary, and her civil rights chief, Kenneth L. Marcus, to go after perceived anti-Israel bias in higher education.
The order to be signed by Mr. Trump would empower the Education Department to go further. Under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the department can withhold funding from any college or educational program that discriminates “on the ground of race, color, or national origin.” Religion was not included among the protected categories, so Mr. Trump’s order will have the effect of embracing an argument that Jews are a people or a race with a collective national origin in the Middle East, like Italian Americans or Polish Americans.
The definition of anti-Semitism to be adopted from the State Department and originally formulated by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance includes “a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews.”
A group of 80 education, civil rights and religious organizations sent a letter to Ms. DeVos last week complaining that some Middle East studies centers on college campuses financed by the government under Title VI have sought to boycott Israel or shut down their universities’ study abroad programs in Israel.
“Recent incidents have demonstrated the willingness of faculty across the country to implement the academic boycott of Israel on their campuses,” the letter said.