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The Biden administration must step up to stop anti-Semitism

Agencies tasked with protecting civil rights and prosecuting discrimination and hate crimes need to understand the complexities of modern-day anti-Semitism; otherwise, we will not make progress.

U.S. President Joe Biden participates in a conference phone call in the Oval Office of the White House on Feb. 16, 2021. Credit: Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson.
U.S. President Joe Biden participates in a conference phone call in the Oval Office of the White House on Feb. 16, 2021. Credit: Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson.
Ida R. Eblinger Kelley

The Jewish community and its supporters will come to Washington, D.C., on July 11 to participate in the “No Fear” rally against anti-Semitism. At the footsteps of the U.S. Capitol, this is the time to demand our civil and human rights in the fight against anti-Semitism.

This will be a rare moment where Jews will have the national and global stage, and we must use this opportunity wisely. The rally must go beyond raising awareness; it is our opportunity to demand that the Biden administration address and arrest the fast-spreading mass-scale anti-Semitism that is infecting all sectors of our lives—in our workplaces, schools, colleges, places of worship, social media, in retail and entertainment establishments, on the streets and even at vacation destinations. As often said, anti-Semitism is the world’s oldest and most tolerated form of racism.

The Jewish community needs U.S. President Joe Biden to bring anti-Semitism out of the shadows and into public attention. This past May, Biden made an important first step by nationally renouncing anti-Semitism. But it didn’t go far enough. His statement did not acknowledge its widespread, insidious nature. Flagrant discrimination and intolerance against Jews have skyrocketed, and civil-rights violations have been an issue for years at North American colleges. His statement only acknowledged the rise of hate in May 2021, as a result of Israel’s conflict with Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

The federal government’s role is to protect our human and civil rights. I expect both the Republican and Democratic parties to adhere to these principles. I expect Biden to leverage his leadership and not just call out anti-Semitism from the right, but from the left and center as well. We need to hold the federal government accountable and demand action.

Our biggest challenge as a Jewish community is that anti-Semitism has evolved over the past several decades. It looks and feels different. The 21st century reflects a new era of Jew-hatred that the government needs to clearly and directly acknowledge and squash. Both classical and contemporary forms of anti-Semitism are not well understood, and as a result, not acknowledged.

Last month in The Hill, Kenneth Marcus, founder and chairman of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law and former Assistant Secretary of Education for Civil Rights, called for an executive order to combat anti-Semitism at home and abroad. Everything he lists is important, including assigning high-ranking administration leaders to this effort to ensure interagency coordination, and that it “should include proactive enforcement initiatives to address anti-Semitism on college campuses and in the public schools.” Of course, the Jewish community is still waiting on the president to fill the vacancy of the ambassador rank of the special envoy for anti-Semitism.

Beyond what Marcus outlines, I detail four action items the administration should do to ensure that the fight against anti-Semitism is effective.

First. A critical step is that the Biden publicly acknowledge and rely on the 2016 International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) working definition of anti-Semitism and the examples provided across its efforts related to anti-Semitism.

The United States as a member of IHRA adopted this definition during the last year of the Obama administration, along with 30 other nations, many which were directly involved in the Holocaust or were complicit through apathy or denying Jews refuge. Although not legally binding, this set the international standard for understanding what anti-Semitism is, and provides institutions and organizations, such as governmental and educational agencies, an much-needed official resource.

More importantly, however, the administration needs to pay close attention and explicitly identify IHRA’s 11 examples of contemporary anti-Semitism, coupled with explanations of anti-Semitic discrimination and criminal acts. (I urge you to review them here.) The IHRA list is powerful precisely because it directly acknowledges the vast majority of anti-Semitic activity Jews in the United States face, from both the right, left and mainstream.

Second. The administration cannot let foreign affairs dictate silence on anti-Semitism, particularly from the left. As the May spike illustrates, anti-Israel sentiment is closely tied to anti-Semitic rhetoric and hateful actions.

During his campaign, Biden acknowledged that the BDS movement “singles out Israel and too often veers into anti-Semitism,” and that he would “fight other efforts to delegitimize Israel on the global stage.” This is in line with one of the IHRA examples that states: “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor” is anti-Semitic.

The Biden administration must state that Israel’s existence as a sovereign nation is non-negotiable. It is a thriving democratic nation with a strong innovative economy, in which its citizens have civil and human-rights protections under law. It is the sole democracy in the Middle East. To allow the ongoing questioning of Israel’s right to exist undermines its very existence. And sadly, it feeds contemporary anti-Semitism.

Third. We need the State Department envoy on anti-Semitism in place immediately. We need an official and an empowered voice that represents the U.S. government to call out anti-Semitism from wherever it emerges and spearhead efforts to combat it.

Anti-Semitism demands distinct recognition, programming, policy and leadership at the domestic and international federal level. International and national data supports this. The rapid escalation of global anti-Semitism through physical violence, workplace and school-based discrimination, gross mischaracterizations in mainstream media coverage and via the volume of hateful social-media posts and comments warrants immediate action.

Fourth. Biden’s domestic efforts must not treat anti-Semitism and Holocaust remembrance as solely a Jewish issue. We cannot address all hate and discrimination without concurrently addressing anti-Semitism; they are inextricably linked.

All efforts related to hate, discrimination and civil rights must include and address anti-Semitism’s role in policy, accountability, and outreach and prevention efforts within the entire spectrum of stakeholders.

Biden announced at the start of his administration that the Domestic Policy Council (DPC) would laser in on racial justice and equity. DPC director Susan Rice acknowledged that her office would also focus on outreach and efforts to ethnic and religious minorities, of which Jews constitute both.

In the United States alone, the statistics are alarming. The ADL reports that 60 percent of American Jews have witnessed an anti-Semitic instance in May, and that rates of harassment and incidents towards Jews doubled from one year ago. And that’s after more than 30 years of FBI data that demonstrate Jews and Jewish institutions are the leading victims of religious hate. And the reality is every type of anti-Semitism is underreported.

And since 2015, there have been 3,500 anti-Semitic documented incidents at American colleges and universities, according to the Amcha Initiative, a nonprofit dedicated to tracking and combating anti-Semitism at American institutions of higher education. Under the guise of free speech and academic freedom, universities across the country allow its professors and students to create hostile learning environments for Jews.

Agencies on the domestic front, such as Education, Homeland Security, Labor, Justice (which includes the FBI), Health and Human Services, and more need to understand what anti-Semitism looks like. Agencies tasked with protecting civil rights and prosecuting discrimination and hate crimes need to understand the complexities of modern-day anti-Semitism; otherwise, we will not make progress.

The administration places a heavy emphasis on “public engagement,” which is what it sounds like—to interact with stakeholders and have ongoing meaningful conversations about policy issues. When it comes to anti-Semitism, the administration and executive branch need to communicate with local and state agencies, in addition to employers, schools and universities, and get then involved. The message must include that anti-Semitism will not be tolerated and refer to the IHRA definition.

The administration needs to educate and empower parents, students, schools, employees, and civic and business leaders to identify and report all forms of hate, which can even come in the form of harassment or bullying.

Concurrently, the administration needs to focus on prevention through outreach and tangible products, events and resources that families, employers, law enforcement, schools and universities can leverage such as guidance and fact sheets, informative social-media posts and even old-fashioned webinars with national experts. The federal government needs to help leaders across sectors understand how to create inclusive, welcoming environments for all.

Ida R. Eblinger Kelley is a retired federal communications and outreach executive in education and health care in Washington, D.C. Later, she served as deputy director of the Nixon Presidential Library in Orange County, Calif., where she currently resides. As a child of Cuban-Jewish immigrants, she dedicated her academic and professional career to empowering the disenfranchised. 

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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