The U.S. president and first lady, Joe and Jill Biden, are slated to host a May 16 celebration of Jewish citizens at the White House as part of Jewish American Heritage Month. Shelley Greenspan, White House liaison to the Jewish community, would not share an event agenda but told JNS that it will be a “true celebration” of “what we all know.”
“The history of the American Jewish community is so deeply woven into the fabric of American society,” she said. “That’s everyone from educators, civil-rights leaders, doctors, celebrities, cultural figures, educators, diplomats. We’re really leaning into all the contributions that Jewish Americans have made to this country.”
Susan Rice, the administration’s outgoing domestic policy adviser, said recently that the White House will release its antisemitism plan—in the works for months now—prior to her departure at the end of May.
Greenspan declined to talk specifically about the forthcoming plan. “This strategy will focus on actions we can all take, not just the government, to raise awareness and really build allyship,” she said. “It’s not just a whole-of-government effort. It really is a whole-of-society effort.”
The Biden administration has held “listening sessions” with thousands of stakeholders from across the country and folded their comments and concerns into the overall strategy, she said.
JNS asked Greenspan if the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism, which many countries and organizations have adopted, will be part of the plan.
Greenspan told JNS that the White House has been “speaking to our counterparts really across the world to get a sense of what they have folded into their own national strategies to combat antisemitism.”
“Of course, the definition has come up, and we’ve been listening to stakeholders and really putting a lot of attention to make sure that this plan is really reflective of where we are as a country and the direction we want to go in,” she added.
‘It’s not like you’re given a handbook on day one’
So far, 39 countries have adopted the IHRA definition, which much of the U.S. Jewish community endorses. Although it states that criticizing Israel—as long as it doesn’t involve Holocaust denial or distortion, dual-loyalty accusations, denial of Jewish self-determination, or comparing Israel or Israelis to Nazis—critics say that the definition stifles criticism of Israel.
In December 2019, President Donald Trump ordered executive departments and agencies to consider the definition, and the IHRA website lists the United States as one of the countries that has adopted it nationally. Upon assuming office, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the Biden administration would embrace the IHRA definition, though the White House has yet to issue an official endorsement.
Greenspan, who was appointed last July and serves as policy adviser for partnerships and global engagement at the National Security Council, told JNS that her tenure as liaison to the Jewish community, as it approaches the one-year mark, has been “the privilege of a lifetime.”
The role has existed for years but there is no playbook for it, she said. “It’s not like you’re given a handbook on day one.”
She cited the first-ever White House publicized Rosh Hashanah celebration and inaugural Sukkot celebration at the Blair House (“the president’s guest house”) with ambassadors from Muslim-majority countries as particular highlights.
The White House’s unveiling of its first official Chanukah menorah and the recent inaugural Jewish Women’s Forum also stand out to her.
Greenspan sees her role as primarily to serve as a bridge between the administration and American Jewry.
“I don’t speak on behalf of all American Jews. That’s not my job. I don’t want that job,” she told JNS. “But it really is to serve as that bridge and keep communications lines open.”
She cited a White House December roundtable on antisemitism with American Jewish leaders hosted by Doug Emhoff, husband of Vice President Kamala Harris.
“Jews don’t always agree, but it was really clear from each of them that they were pushing for a national strategy because the problem in the United States of America has gotten to that level where Jews are scared to wear a kippah,” she said. “They’re scared to wear a Jewish star. Jewish students are scared on campus.”
“Literally a week later, the president announced plans to develop a national strategy to combat antisemitism. So in terms of actually listening and giving American Jews a platform to share their perspective and listening to them that in essence, is a success, in my opinion,” she added.
‘Learning about each other’s contribution’
The White House has met opposition from some Jewish leaders, primarily on the right, for its approach to antisemitism and Israel, but Greenspan doesn’t see disagreements as challenges necessarily.
She grew up in Miami attending an Orthodox day school, a Reform synagogue and a Conservative camp. This varied upbringing gave her the tools to work across a wide spectrum of U.S. Jewry, she believes.
The best part of serving in the role, Greenspan told JNS, is also what she considers the best part of being an American Jew—that different members of the community are comfortable expressing different views and learning about each other’s contributions. “It’s really been such a positive experience,” she said.
That includes working with the growing base of Republican Jews as a member of a Democratic administration. Doing so is part of the president’s mandate for the job, she said.
“If you’re only speaking to one aspect of the community, you’re not doing your job well, and not representing the full spectrum of the Jewish community to the president,” Greenspan told JNS. “I want to make sure I’m delivering for the president.”
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