Opinion

The White House’s antisemitism strategy is flawed but welcome

There is at least a tacit acknowledgment that Jew-hatred is not just a problem on the far-right.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, March 9, 2010. Photo by Miriam Alster/Flash90.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, March 9, 2010. Photo by Miriam Alster/Flash90.
Benjamin Kerstein
Benjamin Kerstein is a writer and editor living in Tel Aviv. Read more of his work on Substack at No Delusions, No Despair. Purchase his books here.

When the White House released its National Strategy to Counter Antisemitism last week, a great many of us expected the worst: A vacuous, politically correct piece of progressive pablum that does everything possible to avoid pointing to the more uncomfortable sources of antisemitism in American society.

Having waded through the 60 pages of the document in question, I found it impossible not to conclude that our concerns were at least partially justified. It does include a great deal of pablum, and it is studiously vague on certain subjects of considerable import such as antisemitism in the BIPOC (black, indigenous and people of color) and Muslim communities. It avoids many of the hardest questions and shows unseemly obeisance towards certain progressive shibboleths.

It would be unfair, however, to dismiss the entire document as a dodge at best and counterproductive at worst. It includes several very positive elements, and if properly enacted will probably do at least some good.

First, while the language is frustratingly vague, the Strategy at least attempts to address some of the forms of antisemitism that progressives are loath to acknowledge.

While the document makes explicit reference only to “white supremacy” and other far-right sources of antisemitism, it does note: “Some traditionally observant Jews, especially traditional Orthodox Jews, are victimized while walking down the street.” It does not mention that the victimizers are generally people of color, but nonetheless, between the lines, the problem is not ignored.

The Strategy also states, “In recent months, celebrities, athletes, and politicians have used their influential platforms to deny the Holocaust, elevate bigots, and spread antisemitic conspiracy theories.”

Some of these culprits have been white supremacists, but they have also included people of color such as Kanye West. While we must remember that members of the BIPOC community like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar have been outspoken in condemning antisemitism, the problem cannot be dismissed, and the Strategy at least obliquely addresses it.

Much more importantly, however, the Strategy states explicitly, “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. 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.”

It adds, “On college campuses, Jewish students, educators, and administrators have been derided, ostracized, and sometimes discriminated against because of their actual or perceived views on Israel. All students, educators, and administrators should feel safe and free from violence, harassment and intimidation on their campuses. Far too many do not have this sense of security because of their actual or perceived views on Israel.”

This is an extremely welcome and forthright condemnation, all the more so because it targets academe and the highly educated upper-class left, both of which are bulwarks of the Democratic Party. For this White House to call out progressive antisemitism in the form of racist anti-Zionism required not inconsiderable courage, and the Biden administration deserves to be commended for it.

The connection between Israel-hatred and Jew-hatred is also acknowledged to be a global problem, with the Strategy stating, “The U.S. Government, led by the Department of State, will continue to combat antisemitism abroad and in international fora—including efforts to delegitimize the State of Israel” and “intensify efforts to reduce foreign support and the transnational links that help fuel antisemitism in the United States.”

Perhaps most remarkably, the Strategy acknowledges, at long last, one of the most overlooked and deliberately silenced tragedies of the 20th century—namely, the persecution and ethnic cleansing of Mizrachi Jews.

“In addition to learning about the horrors of the Holocaust, students should learn about global histories of antisemitism,” the Strategy states. “This should include histories of antisemitism experienced by Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews—who trace their ancestry to Spain, the Middle East, and North Africa—and their stories of exclusion, persecution, and expulsion.”

To see, at long last, the U.S. issue an explicit acknowledgment of the long-concealed trauma of half the Jewish world must be regarded as a major step forward.

The document also addresses online and social media antisemitism and the enforcement of Jewish rights under the U.S. Civil Rights Act. It does so, moreover, in language that promises action rather than mere rhetoric.

Of course, the Strategy is also deeply flawed on several levels. It includes the usual babbling on behalf of “tikkun olam” and interfaith efforts, as well as a near-constant risible and extremely irritating equation of antisemitism with Islamophobia at a time when antisemitism is fast metastasizing in the Muslim-American community.

Certainly, those of us who at least attempt to see what is under our noses would have wished for a better Strategy, one that acknowledges that antisemitism in America is now coming from three equally dangerous sources: The far-right, the Muslim community and the BIPOC community. The Strategy only explicitly calls out the first of these sources, which is counterproductive and indeed somewhat disheartening.

Unfortunately, and conveniently, this feeds into the American Jewish community’s and the non-antisemitic left’s delusions. They think the problem is all about neo-Nazis and white supremacists. It is about that, and they are right to be worried about it. But it is also about what is being preached in the mosque down the street. It is about what their Muslim friends and neighbors think and say when they are not around. It is about what Louis Farrakhan is spewing out and who is listening to him. It is about Ilhan Omar holding a position of not inconsiderable political power and AOC and Co. running interference for her. It is about Bernie Sanders’s embrace of collaborationism. It is about all this, and if it is not admitted to, it cannot be kept at bay.

Nonetheless, I felt that the Strategy was, in the end, a positive document. It at least obliquely acknowledges that the problem is larger than the far-right. It calls out several staunchly Democratic communities and acknowledges that antisemitism and genocidal Israel-hatred are one and the same. It pledges to enforce Jewish civil rights. It at long last acknowledges the Mizrachi experience.

All of this should be welcomed and, for those of us deeply concerned about the rise of American antisemitism, somewhat comforting. It comes from the heights of power and thus underlines the fact that the U.S., alone among the nations of the world, is still a largely philosemitic country and takes pride in that fact. At the very least, the Strategy shows that there remain powerful philosemitic forces in American politics and society.

For this, at least, it is worth being cautiously grateful.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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