President Joe Biden last week launched a national plan to combat antisemitism, calling it “the most comprehensive and ambitious U.S. government-led effort to fight antisemitism in American history.”
The plan, announced during a May 25 virtual press conference, will implement strategies across government agencies and departments to combat antisemitism, which has risen to record levels in recent years. Notably, the strategy called the definition of antisemitism by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) “the most prominent,” but also embraced an alternate definition offered by the “Nexus Document,” which was promoted by progressive organizations. Major Jewish organizations have found this definition problematic and “distracting.”
The plan includes 100 actions and focuses on four pillars: improving safety and security of the Jewish community; increasing awareness and understanding of antisemitism, including its threat to America and broadening appreciation of Jewish-American heritage; reversing the normalization of antisemitism and countering antisemitic discrimination; and building cross-community solidarity and collective action to counter hate.
“The past several years hate has been given too much oxygen, fueling a record rise in antisemitism,” said Biden, adding the rise of neo-Nazism is a reminder that “hate never goes away, it only hides.”
“It is simply wrong, it’s immoral, it’s unacceptable, it’s on all of us to stop it,” said Biden. “We must say clearly and forcefully that antisemitism and all forms of hate and violence have no place in America. Silence is complicity. I will not remain silent. You should not either.”
The plan includes calls for Congress, state and local governments, companies, technology platforms, civil society and faith leaders to act and includes working with professional sports leagues.
“All of us must stand united to affirm that an attack on any one group of us is an attack on all of us,” said Biden in terming the action plan “a historic step forward,” and also said it “sends a clear and forceful message that in America evil will not win. Hate will not prevail. The venom and violence of antisemitism will not be the story of our times.”
Deborah Lipstadt, the state department special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism, noted during the press conference the day “was an historic moment in the fight against the world’s oldest hatred.” She said the number of agencies and initiatives involved in what the strategy called “the whole of government” effort, was “simply breathtaking.”
She added: “For the first time the United States government is not only acknowledging that antisemitism is a serious problem in this country, but laying out a clear plan to counter it.” She noted the significance of holding the announcement in a building that housed the state and war department during the Holocaust, “a building where Jew-hatred officially took place,” and where State Department leaders erected “paper walls” to keep Jewish immigrants fleeing for their lives out of the country.
However, Lipstadt said the current policy reflects an “unprecedented determination” to fight antisemitism that “will shape and drive” our determination at home and serve as a role model for other countries on how to bring together so many agencies, organizations and people to find solutions and added: “Where antisemitism persists, democracy suffers. Where Jews are at risk so too are the rights of everyone.”
The overall plan was applauded by several Jewish organizations, including the World Jewish Congress, who said it is “appreciative that the White House has incorporated specific points for which we advocated, and we commend the administration for elevating the voices of Jewish students.”
However, the statement also said, “The inclusion of a secondary definition in addition to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism is an unnecessary distraction from the work that needs to be done.”
In the report it states that while the IHRA definition is the most prominent definition the administration also “welcomes and appreciates” the alternate progressive Nexus Document, which includes language about Zionism and Israel.
Combat Antisemitism’s statement said it also appreciated the “comprehensive, whole-of-government approach,” particularly its focus on holding social media and tech companies accountable, improving the safety and security of Jewish institutions and countering antisemitism at schools and universities. While it welcomed the “embrace” of the IHRA definition by the American government, it stated the definition “must be the sole and exclusive global standard for defining antisemitism.”
The Anti-Defamation League (ADL), which collaborated in drafting the strategy, called it “an historic contribution to fighting hate,” and it was especially pleased the action came during Jewish American Heritage Month. The ADL implored the community to contact congressional representatives to urge them to approve funding for its initiatives.
Agudath Israel of America congratulated the administration and noted its pleasure that many of its concerns have been addressed. “Equally important, it sends a clear message that the United States — in its fundamental laws, values and policies — finds antisemitism an unmitigated evil that is repugnant and intolerable … and must be rooted out of the American mindset and actions.”
The American Jewish Committee, which also had input into formulating the strategy, welcomed the “clear, unequivocal message that antisemitism is a problem that affects all of society, not just Jews,” said CEO Ted Deutch.
Orthodox Union (OU) Public Policy Executive Director Nathan Diament noted the OU also provided “significant input” as the strategy was being developed. “The promise of America is for people of all faiths to live safely and securely as full citizens of this nation,” said a statement from OU President Mitchel Aeder. “The scourge of antisemitism is an anathema to this basic American value. We thank President Biden for undertaking this effort and pray that the National Strategy will help curtail further manifestations of antisemitism.”
White House Domestic Policy Advisor Susan Rice said during the conference that she grew up in a mixed Jewish-Black neighborhood in Washington, where she lived in a house formerly owned by the Israeli Embassy and where her family kept up its mezuza. She learned prayers from Jewish classmates and was welcomed at Passover Seders. Rice said at the press conference she had long been inspired by the Jewish commitment to justice and tikkun olam.
“When I was National Security Advisor and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations I witnessed the ugly impact of antisemitism in the international arena,” said. “As U.N. ambassador I was proud to defend Israel against unfair attacks on its legitimacy and security.”
Rice cited the ADL survey that found 85% of Americans believe at least one antisemitic trope and a 2020 study that found more than three in five millennials and Generation Z didn’t know six million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. She called these survey results “unacceptable” and said school-based education on the Holocaust, Jewish-American heritage and contemporary antisemitism must be increased. As part of that drive she announced next year the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum would launch the country’s first Holocaust Research Center and the National Endowment for the Arts will expand its investments in K-12 Jewish education through partnership with federal agencies and independent organizations. Additionally, federal agencies have agreed to incorporate information about antisemitic bias and discrimination into their diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility training programs.
Homeland Security Advisor Dr. Liz Sherwood-Randall said her great-grandparents had fled religious persecution in Eastern Europe and her own mother was chased home from school in Omaha by antisemites. “Antisemitism in unamerican,” she said at the press conference. “Our democracy depends on every American of every religion being treated with dignity and respect and can worship freely without fear of persecution.”
She continued, “Jewish-Americans must feel safe walking to synagogue on a Saturday morning, wearing a kippah in public or gathering for Shabbat on a college campuses.” Sherwood-Randall also said the Biden-Harris administration has increased funding for physical security for synagogues and Jewish institutions as part of the Nonprofit Security Grant Program from $180 million two years ago to $305 million today and have asked Congress to increase it further to $360 million. The administration will also increase funding for training to recognize radicalization and for steering individuals away from hate and violence. Additionally, there are “10 separate calls to tech companies to establish a zero-tolerance policy for hate speech on their platforms to ensure that their algorithms do not pass along hate speech and extreme content to users, and to listen more closely to Jewish groups to better understand how antisemitism manifests itself on their platforms.”
Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff, whose own great-grandparents also fled antisemitic persecution in Poland about 120 years ago, said the plan mobilized two dozen federal agencies and conducted listening sessions with more than 1,000 Jewish, faith and civil rights leaders to strategize combating antisemitism at every level of society.
Emhoff noted Jews account for 63% of religiously-based hate crimes although “we make up just over 2% percent of the overall population” and “at its core antisemitism divides us. It erodes our trust in government institutions and one another. It threatens our democracy while undermining our American values of freedom, community and decency.” He noted the proliferation of antisemitism has led to “false and dangerous narratives” that have encouraged extremists into committing deadly violence against Jews.
Debra Rubin has had a long career in journalism writing for secular weekly and daily newspapers and Jewish publications. She most recently served as Middlesex/Monmouth bureau chief for the New Jersey Jewish News. She also worked with the media at several nonprofits, including serving as assistant public relations director of HIAS and assistant director of media relations at Yeshiva University.