White House unveils first-ever national strategy to combat antisemitism, ‘the world’s oldest hatred’

The White House on Thursday released a broad national strategy to fight antisemitism, describing the initiative as unprecedented in scope amid a surge in anti-Jewish crime.

However, the White House evaded an increasingly contentious debate over how to define antisemitism, avoiding a clear endorsement of a mainstream, widely accepted definition while simultaneously welcoming an alternative pushed by progressives who argue the former doesn’t allow sufficient space to criticize Israel, the world’s only Jewish state.

The 60-page document details four pillars that undergird the strategy: increasing awareness and understanding of antisemitism and appreciation of Jewish American heritage, improving safety and security for Jewish communities, reversing the normalization of antisemitism and countering antisemitic discrimination and building solidarity across communities to counter hate.

President Biden called the strategy ‘a historic step forward’ and the ‘most ambitious and comprehensive U.S. government-led effort to fight antisemitism in American history’ in a pre-recorded video message to kick off Thursday’s announcement.

‘It sends a clear and forceful message,’ Biden said of the strategy, arguing silence in the face of antisemitism is the same as complicity. ‘In America, evil will not win. Hate will not prevail. The venom of antisemitism will not be the story of our time.’

Biden’s message also included one explicitly political moment, when he called out former President Trump’s remarks from 2017 that some protesters opposing the removal of Confederate statues in Charlottesville, Va., were ‘very fine people,’ without naming his predecessor.

After Biden spoke, his outgoing domestic policy adviser, Susan Rice, and his homeland security adviser, Liz Sherwood-Randall, along with second gentleman Doug Emhoff, outlined key elements of the strategy, which includes more than 100 policy commitments across the executive branch.

The document also contains more than 100 calls to action for lawmakers and others across society to take in order to combat antisemitism. These include calls for tech companies to establish a zero-tolerance policy for hate speech on their platforms to ensure their algorithms don’t pass hate speech and extreme content to users, among many others.

The strategy also argues that antisemitism must be defined to combat it: ‘If we cannot name, identify, and admit a problem, we cannot begin to solve it.’

However, rather than endorse a definition, the White House refers to several competing definitions of antisemitism as educational tools for both elected officials and the public.

‘There are several definitions of antisemitism, which serve as valuable tools to raise awareness and increase understanding of antisemitism,’ the strategy states. ‘The most prominent is the non-legally binding ‘working definition’ of antisemitism adopted in 2016 by the 31-member states of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), which the United States has embraced. In addition, the administration welcomes and appreciates the Nexus Document and notes other such efforts.’

As of the end of last year, a total of 1,116 global entities — from countries to companies — have adopted and endorsed IHRA’s non-legally binding working definition of antisemitism, according to the Combat Antisemitism Movement. In the U.S., this includes at least 30 states and 56 cities and counties. The State and Education departments did the same under the Trump administration.

According to the definition, antisemitism ‘is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.’

IHRA provides 11 specific, contemporary examples of antisemitism in public life, the media, schools, the workplace and in the religious sphere. Beyond classic antisemitic behavior associated with the likes of the medieval period and Nazi Germany, the examples include denial of the Holocaust and newer forms of antisemitism targeting Israel. such as demonizing the Jewish state, denying its right to exist and holding it to standards not expected of any other democratic state.

Experts have argued the definition is important for a range of practical uses such as adjudicating legal cases, monitoring bigotry on campuses and training law enforcement. Mainstream Jewish advocacy groups, such as the American Jewish Committee and Jewish Federations of North America, have pushed for the administration to adopt IHRA’s definition. 

However, critics have argued the newer examples of antisemitism cited in the definition don’t allow for what they describe as legitimate criticism of Israel and its policies. Progressive groups urged the Biden administration to leave out a definition of antisemitism entirely or consider alternative definitions. 

The Nexus Document, written by a group of academics, argues that applying double standards to Israel and opposing Israel’s continuation as the nation-state of the Jewish people may not necessarily be antisemitic, creating tighter standards around when anti-Israel speech and activity is antisemitic.

The White House’s strategy identifies some forms of anti-Israel rhetoric and activity that can cross the line into antisemitism.

‘Jewish students and educators are targeted for derision and exclusion on college campuses, often because of their real or perceived views about the State of Israel,’ the strategy says. ‘When Jews are targeted because of their beliefs or their identity, when Israel is singled out because of anti-Jewish hatred, that is antisemitism. And that is unacceptable.’ 

The strategy also pledges to ‘combat antisemitism abroad and in international fora — including efforts to delegitimize the State of Israel.’ It also notes the administration’s ‘unshakeable commitment to the state of Israel’s right to exist, its legitimacy, and its security’ and the ‘deep historical, religious, cultural, and other ties many American Jews and other Americans have to Israel.’

Proponents of the IHRA definition expressed satisfaction with the president’s strategy. Jewish Federations of North America Chair Julie Platt, for example, said the organization is ‘pleased that the White House reaffirms’ the IHRA definition. Dianne Lob and William Daroff, the chair and CEO of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, similarly said they ‘wholeheartedly applaud the Biden administration’s continuing embrace of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism.’

Meanwhile, left-wing advocacy groups critical of IHRA’s definition praised the White House.

‘Importantly, the strategy avoids exclusively codifying any one specific, sweeping definition of antisemitism as the sole standard for use in enforcing domestic law and policy, recognizing that such an approach could do more harm than good,’ J Street said in a statement, adding that the administration ‘rightly cites [the IHRA] definition as just one of a range of illustrative and useful tools.’

The progressive group Bend the Arc said it was ‘pleased that the Biden administration has rejected the idea that government agencies should adopt the IHRA definition as authoritative policy or that it is the sole guide to antisemitism.’

Other Jewish groups were less supportive.

‘This decision seriously weakens the White House strategy. It is yet another instance of Biden caving to the anti-Israel radicals,’ said Republican Jewish Coalition CEO Matt Brook, who added that Biden ‘blew it’ by not exclusively using IHRA’s definition. He also noted the timing of the announcement — hours before the start of the Jewish holiday of Shavuot and near the end of Jewish American Heritage Month.

Dan Pollak, director of government relations for the Zionist Organization of America, also said he was ‘disappointed’ in the Biden administration, arguing the Nexus Document ‘gives a free pass to Jew-Haters who single out Israel.’

Critics of the strategy also noted the White House’s inclusion of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR, as a partner in building ‘cross-community solidarity’ to combat antisemitism. According to experts and advocacy groups such as the Anti-Defamation League, CAIR has numerous ties to Hamas, a U.S.-designated terrorist organization that frequently fires rockets at Israel from its neighboring stronghold in Gaza.

In December, more than 100 lawmakers sent a letter to Biden urging him to form a national strategy to combat antisemitism and address threats and violence against Jewish communities. That some month, Biden established a government task force to coordinate efforts to fight antisemitism and other forms of religious bigotry. The group’s first task was to create a national strategy to counter antisemitism.

The new White House strategy comes as levels of antisemitism are at historic highs in the country. Jews are the victims of 63% of reported religiously motivated hate crimes but account for just 2.4% of the U.S. population, according to FBI data. Meanwhile, the Anti-Defamation League found that antisemitic incidents reported in the U.S. surged to historic levels last year, increasing 36% compared to 2021.

Earlier this week, a man with a Nazi flag crashed a U-Haul truck into a security barrier at the White House, according to police. Court documents reportedly say the suspect praised Adolf Hitler after his arrest and said that he aimed to ‘kill the president’ if necessary to overthrow the government and install himself in power. 

In such an environment, launching the White House’s strategy is a ‘historic moment in the modern fight against what’s known as the fight against the world’s oldest hatred,’ said Ambassador Deborah Lipstadt, the special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism, who also spoke at Thursday’s announcement. ‘Where antisemitism persists, democracy suffers.’

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