US President Joe Biden unveiled an unprecedented broad strategy to combat antisemitism on Thursday morning local time, launching a plan that has been in the works for months and that has sparked debate among Jewish organizations.
The 60-page National Strategy to Combat Antisemitism was announced in a video presentation and live-streamed conversation between its two architects — Susan Rice, Biden’s chief domestic policy adviser, and Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff, who is the first Jewish spouse of a US vice president. Also on the livestream were Homeland Security Advisor Dr. Liz Sherwood-Randall and Ambassador Deborah Lipstadt, the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism.
Biden, who did not attend the launch but was featured in a recorded message, called the plan “the most ambitious and comprehensive” government initiative in combatting antisemitism, which includes 100 new actions the Administration will take to raise awareness of antisemitism and its threat to American democracy, protect Jewish communities, reverse the normalization of antisemitism, and build cross-community solidarity.
Emhoff called the plan personally meaningful. “This plan will save lives,” the second gentleman said. “Antisemitism can only be combatted with united efforts. We are committed to making sure everyone can live openly and safely in their communities. We cannot normalize hate seen across our nation.”
Rice reflected on growing up in a mixed Jewish-Black community. She spoke of her first trip to Israel at age 14 with her father and brother. “At the UN I was proud to defend Israel against unfair attacks. I loathe injustice, antisemitism and racism. Jewish commitments to tikkun olam, repairing the world, have long been inspirations for me.
A firm and unrelenting response from government is urgent and essential.”
Rice said next year the US Holocaust Memorial Museum will launch the first-ever US-based Holocaust education research center.
Eighty-five percent of Americans believe at least one antisemitic trope, Rice said, calling the statistic “unacceptable.”
Rice, who is set to step down as the president’s domestic policy adviser Friday, said her parting request is for everyone to do whatever you can, in your communities, your schools, your dorms, your houses of worship and your workplaces to counter antisemitism.”
Sherwood-Randall said she approaches the plan “apolitically and agnostically,” reflecting that her father faced antisemitism throughout his life. “The hard reality is antisemitism is becoming mainstream,” she said. “This is evident on social media.”
She said the plan calls on tech companies to establish a zero tolerance policy for hate speech.
Sherwood Randall pledged increased funds to physical security of synagogues, adding that the Departments of Homeland security and Justice will meet with Jewish communities and provide technology to steer individuals away from radicalization.
Lipstadt called the launch a “historic moment in the modern fight against what’s known as the fight against the world’s oldest hatred.”
“Where antisemitism persists, democracy suffers,” she said.
Lipstadt referenced a rabbinic teaching, saying that “you are not obligated to finish the task, but neither are you free to turn away from it.”
A source who was consulted on the antisemitism strategy said that the administration originally hoped to launch the strategy, which in the works since December, at the Jewish American Heritage Month event last week at the White House. But it was delayed because of concerns among Jewish community leaders over how the term “antisemitism” would be defined.
The plan was expected to embrace a “working definition” of antisemitism advanced in recent years by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, whose examples of antisemitism include using “double standards” when criticizing Israel and calling it a “racist endeavor.”
But there have been tussles on social media over efforts, first reported by Jewish Insider, for the plan to also mention an alternative definition of antisemitism. That definition, written by a group of academics and called the “Nexus Document,” has tighter standards around when anti-Israel speech is antisemitic. It says that applying double standards to Israel may not necessarily be antisemitic, but “to treat Israel differently solely because it is a Jewish state” would be.
In days leading up to the plan’s launch, a number of Jewish organizational leaders have been reassured by White House officials that the reference to the Nexus definition will not detract from the plan’s embrace of the IHRA definition.
Watchdog group StopAntisemitism said the Biden Administration’s plan “falls short on all counts.”
“Against the advice of major antisemitism advocacy organizations, the plan does not use the IHRA definition to delineate what counts as antisemitism, instead relegating it to a brief paragraph that also includes the inferior, competing Nexus definition,” the group said. “This flies in the face of the plan’s assertion that ‘If we cannot name, identify, and admit a problem, we cannot begin to solve it.'”
“Not using IHRA as a foundational guide creates a gaping hole; while the plan acknowledges that Jews have been targeted because of their connection to Israel, it fails to name anti-Zionism as a primary form of antisemitism,” StopAntisemitism continued. “The plan also does not allow antisemitism to stand alone, as it repeatedly mentions planned executive actions to fight ‘antisemitism, Islamophobia, and related forms of bias and discrimination.’ Fighting Islamophobia and other bigotries is an excellent goal, but it does not belong in this particular antisemitism strategy.”
StopAntisemitism said that “IHRA was mentioned in a brief paragraph that also includes the inferior, competing Nexus definition.”
The Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) said on Thursday that the Biden administration “blew it” on antisemitism policy.
“Joe Biden had a chance to take a strong stand against antisemitism and he blew it,” said RJC CEO Matt Brooks.
“The IHRA definition of antisemitism is the definition endorsed by every mainstream Jewish organization. Biden’s own Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism has urged other countries to ’embrace’ it as an “integral” tool against the rising tide of Jew-hatred. The IHRA definition is indispensable because it recognizes that criticism of Israel is antisemitic when it delegitimizes, demonizes, or applies double standards to Israel,” Brooks continued.
“After initial reports that its new strategy would enshrine the IHRA definition, the Biden administration came under heavy pressure from the anti-Israel left, forcing a delay in the roll-out. Now, in the waning days of Jewish American Heritage Month, the White House is attempting a last-minute straddle – undermining the IHRA definition by promoting alongside it an alternative definition that says applying double standards and singling out the Jewish state for criticism is not antisemitic.”
The White House plan also contains many other positive elements, including access to kosher food, security grants, inter-agency involvement and promotion of education material.
Ultimately, adopting the IHRA working definition is only the first, but necessary step, in the legal fight against the scourge of Jew-hatred in all its manifestations. The definition also needs to be unwaveringly implemented and applied, and we look forward to working with our global partners in doing so.”