WASHINGTON - US President Donald Trump celebrated the Jewish festival of Hanukkah on Wednesday with a controversial change to the definition of Judaism -- a move that will allow clamping down on boycotts of Israel.
"I will always stand with our treasured friend and ally the state of Israel," Trump told a gathering in the White House's ceremonial East Room.
Trump, who calls himself the most pro-Israeli US president in history, used the annual event to reinforce his determined effort to win over traditionally pro-Democratic American Jewish voters ahead of next year's presidential election.
Trump signed an executive order, which bypasses Congress, that essentially redefines Judaism as both a nationality as well as a religion.
The seemingly academic change will have the important legal effect of allowing the government to clamp down on a boycott movement spreading on university campuses against Israel over its treatment of Palestinians.
Trump said the order was to "combat anti-Semitism" and "applies to institutions that traffic in anti-Semitic hate."
Specifically the order is aimed at quashing the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which has growing support on campuses, by forcing universities to block the movement or face a cut in government funds.
"Our message to universities," Trump said, is "if you want to accept the tremendous amount of federal dollars you get every year, you must reject anti-Semitism."
Activists say the BDS movement is a grassroots effort to punish Israel for its occupation of Palestinian lands. The Israeli government says it is based on anti-Semitism.
Trump's executive order tweaks existing civil rights legislation so that the government can intervene in BDS cases, because Judaism will now be classified not only as a national entity.
"President Trump’s order makes it clear that Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 applies to anti-Semitic discrimination based on race, color, or national origin," the White House said in a statement.
"This action further demonstrates the unwavering commitment of President Trump and his Administration to combating all forms of anti-Semitism."
Critics say that Trump is pandering to the Israeli government while ignoring the right to protest.
"This executive order... appears designed less to combat anti-Semitism than to have a chilling effect on free speech and to crack down on campus critics of Israel," Jeremy Ben-Ami, the president of the left-leaning pro-Israel lobbying group J Street, said.
"We feel it is misguided and harmful for the White House to unilaterally declare a broad range of nonviolent campus criticism of Israel to be anti-Semitic," he said.