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1. Biden Rolls Out Long-Awaited Antisemitism Policy
The timing was awkward.
In the organized Jewish world, last Thursday was a really short day, with everyone scrambling to finish up their work and make it home before sundown, when the holiday of Shavuot began. Many were also heading out of town for the rare occurrence of a very long weekend combining Shavuot and Memorial Day.
And still, the Biden administration’s plan to counter antisemitism, which was unveiled last Thursday, made Jewish activists stop and take note, even if it meant rushing through briefings and pushing out press releases welcoming the plan on a tight timetable.
The U.S. National Strategy to Counter Antisemitism, a hefty 60-page document rich with policy announcements and recommendations spanning the entire government as well as businesses and civil society organizations, was launched at a White House event hosted by Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff and attended by Domestic Policy Council Director Susan Rice, Homeland Security Advisor Dr. Liz Sherwood-Randall and Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism Deborah Lipstadt.
President Biden, in a pre-recorded video message, repeated his commitment to fight hate and called on all Americans to denounce antisemitism. “Silence is complicity,” Biden said.
The plan is a result of months-long discussions and consultations with more than 1,000 experts and stakeholders and the first-ever attempt by the U.S. government to tackle what Lipstadt described in her remarks as the “world’s oldest hatred.”
But the document itself reads more like a user’s manual than a lofty set of goals and mission statements. It goes into details, directing specific tasks and recommendations at nearly every government agency. No goal is too small—for instance, making sure government emergency agencies supply kosher food for those in need. Nor does the program shy away from goals that may be impossible to achieve, including doubling the budget of security grants for Jewish institutions and stripping technology giants of their legal immunity so that they can be sued for platforming antisemitism.
The United States now has a roadmap for countering antisemitism. Not all of it will get implemented, not all will prove effective, but there is a plan in place. And that is—well—historic.
2. Defining Antisemitism
Still, this is the Jewish world we’re talking about, so it will surprise no one to learn that behind the scenes were hours of fierce internal debate, opinionated emails and strongly worded comments in closed-door meetings, all focused on the most basic of questions: What is antisemitism?
Echoing the classic Jewish cliché of “two Jews, three opinions,” there are at least three official ways of defining antisemitism, and each had its advocates working hard to make the Biden White House adopt their own.
Many high-profile Jewish groups worked hard to make sure Biden’s plan embraced the IHRA working definition of antisemitism. This definition, formed by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, includes certain kinds of anti-Israel sentiment as a form of antisemitism. In 2021 the State Department “enthusiastically” embraced the IHRA definition.
Activists from the center-left of the community urged the White House to go for the Nexus definition, which allows more room to criticize Israel, while groups further to the left pushed for the Jerusalem Declaration definition, which notably also specifies what, in the context of Israel and Palestine, is not antisemitic.
The White House team took its time deciding, but eventually managed to dismantle this political landmine by giving primacy to the IHRA definition, while recognizing the Nexus definition and acknowledging “other such efforts.”
Major centrist groups, as well as Israeli officials, praised the plan for declaring the IHRA definition as the “most prominent” and noting that it had been embraced by the U.S. government. Liberals and left-leaning activists felt validated, thanks to the specific recognition of the Nexus definition and the implicit mention of the Jerusalem Declaration. The White House marked its success in a press release listing all the positive responses the plan had received.
Of course, not all were happy. The Republican Jewish Coalition’s Matt Brooks said Biden “blew it” by not making IHRA the exclusive definition. Conservative columnist Caroline Glick tweeted that Biden’s plan “isn’t a strategy for fighting Jew hatred. It’s a strategy for enabling it from the left.”
3. Does the Battle of Definitions Even Matter?
One of the unintended consequences of the debate over which definition to include in the plan was the de facto formulation of a new definition, which one may call the White House definition of antisemitism:
“Antisemitism is a stereotypical and negative perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred of Jews. It is prejudice, bias, hostility, discrimination, or violence against Jews for being Jews or Jewish institutions or property for being Jewish or perceived as Jewish. Antisemitism can manifest as a form of racial, religious, national origin, and/or ethnic discrimination, bias, or hatred; or, a combination thereof. However, antisemitism is not simply a form of prejudice or hate. It is also a pernicious conspiracy theory that often features myths about Jewish power and control.”
The document concludes the discussion regarding definitions of antisemitism by stating that “The focus of this national strategy is on actions to counter antisemitism.” In other words, definitions are important, but the real goal is taking action.
Between the lines hides a bigger take on the issue.
The definition debate focused on the issue of Israel and on the question: At what point does criticizing Israel or its supporters cross the line into Jew hatred? The White House’s document, without doing so explicitly, marginalizes the Israel question in the bigger picture of American antisemitism. After stating that “when Israel is singled out because of anti-Jewish hatred, that is antisemitism. And that is unacceptable,” the document makes clear that its focus is domestic, not international. Israel is hardly mentioned in the report, except for in reference to antisemitism on college campuses.
That is the bigger picture: Anti-Israel expressions can sometimes be seen as antisemitic, but they are not the main concern of American Jews. (Don’t tell that to the Israeli government, which has spent billions on fighting BDS and campus anti-Zionism, believing that by doing so it is saving American Jewry.)
4. Turning the Big Tent into Reality
Every White House finds itself struggling with the broad array of Jewish groups and opinions. Some, like the Trump administration, chose to limit their engagement to the few in the community who supported their views. Others, such as Obama’s, tried a broader approach but still left some groups out—the right-wing Zionist Organization of America, for example, never got invited to his White House Hanukkah parties.
Biden’s antisemitism policy team goes as far as possible in terms of inclusivity.
Progressive Jewish groups, usually marginalized even in Democratic administrations, have been listened to, even on the thorny issue of which antisemitism definition should be adopted.
One progressive activist, Rafael Shimunov, tweeted: “We’re celebrating because for the very first time, left and progressive Jews (whose broad values align much more closely with your average American Jew) have equal footing in the White House, no less, in the crafting of its historic first ever approach to antisemitism.”
Sure, the White House’s primary partner in the Jewish community on antisemitism is still the Anti-Defamation League, with other major mainstream groups playing an important role as well, but the field has expanded and now includes progressives, students, issue-specific groups and many more.
5. Will the Plan Make a Difference?
Antisemites don’t usually wait for the government to tell them what to do. Neo-Nazis aren’t going to abandon their racist beliefs after reading the 60-page White House document, and high school kids will probably not think twice before drawing a swastika on a locker door just because President Biden said they shouldn’t. No strategy, plan or program will uproot hate from society.
But the White House’s strategy can go a long way in making Jews feel safer and more welcome, and in countering the trend of increased antisemitism.
Some steps are obvious: The more money you spend on security for Jewish institutions, the better the chances are of ensuring Jews’ safety; the more tech companies have to pay for allowing antisemitic content on their platforms, the likelier they are to make sure this content is disallowed; the more time spent by NBA team execs on educating players about antisemitism, the less likely you are to see another Kyrie Irving incident.
But it’s worth looking also at the less obvious recommendations. Compelling libraries and museums in rural areas to increase opportunities to learn about the Jewish community or including Jewish history content on the National Park Service app might come across as removed from the pressing problem of antisemitism. But in the long run, these hyper-detailed recommendations could overhaul the entire way in which America deals with hatred of Jews. Antisemitism is no longer just a bad act that society should condemn and uproot; it is now an action item for the government. And bureaucracies, especially those of the government, are based on action items and on the idea that failing to fulfill them will carry consequences.
Image credit: Instagram / The Whitehouse