WASHINGTON — 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.
Joe Biden: New antisemitism plan is the most ambitious, comprehensive
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.
How did Jewish leaders react to the White House Antisemitism Plan?
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."
Other Jewish groups applauded Thursday's release, saying it does embrace the IHRA definition of antisemitism.
The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America (“Orthodox Union”) – the nation’s largest Orthodox Jewish umbrella organization, which provided significant input to the task force as it developed the National Strategy, praised the Biden administration.
OU Executive Director for Public Policy Nathan Diament said: "We are very grateful to President Biden for initiating this important effort and for the dedication and seriousness that Second Gentleman Emhoff, Amb. Rice, Dr. Sherwood-Randal, and Administration staffers across the Executive Branch brought to bear. The resulting 'whole of government' approach is, unfortunately, what we need right now, given the reality of rising antisemitism in the United States. We look forward to reviewing the plan even more closely in the coming days and working with the Administration to aggressively implement its action items."
Jewish Federations of North America Chair Julie Platt expressed commended Biden's efforts to combat antisemitism.
"We are pleased that the White House reaffirms the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism, and maintain our commitment to its uncontested use. As the State Department’s special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism Amb. Deborah Lipstadt has said many times, the IHRA definition is broadly accepted and effective in combating the oldest hatred," Platt said.
"The unprecedented spike in antisemitism has caused significant pain and alarm in our communities, and we look forward to working with Congress, the Administration, and civil society groups to enhance security and fight back against all forms of hate and make our country a safer place."
Dianne Lob, chair, and William Daroff, CEO, of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, also applauded the Biden administration plan.
"We welcome the release of the White House National Strategy to Counter Antisemitism, the first 'all-of-government' approach to combating antisemitism. From education in rural communities, to ensuring kosher food in food assistance programs and hospitals, creating educational tools for labor unions and small businesses, and encouraging partnerships with other faith communities to combat antisemitism, the approach engages over two dozen federal agencies in this comprehensive strategy. We wholeheartedly applaud the Biden Administration’s continuing embrace of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, which is the most universally accepted definition of antisemitism.
"The Conference of Presidents actively engaged with the White House to shape the comprehensive federal plan to combat antisemitism. The overwhelming support for the IHRA definition is evident through the endorsement of over 175 Jewish community organizations worldwide, more than 600 Rabbis representing the four Jewish religious streams and dozens of our member organizations. Elected officials, including members of Congress and mayors, also voiced their strong support.
Arsen Ostrovsky, CEO of The International Legal Forum, echoed praise for the plan.
“The International Legal Forum (ILF) applauds the White House on the release of its comprehensive national strategy on combating antisemitism and reaffirming once and for all, that the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) Working Definition, as the sole indispensable definition.
Simply put, you cannot fight what you cannot define and there is only one ‘gold standard’ definition, IHRA, which is the most widely endorsed, comprehensive and respected definition in the world, targeting the full cross-spectrum of antisemitism from the left and right, which has also received consistently bi-partisan support in the United States," Ostrovsky continued.
"We also commend the White House for resisting relentless pressure by extremist and fringe anti-Israel forces, who sought to extricate or minimize any reference to Israel in the action plan, so as to create a veneer of legitimacy to masquerade their own Jew hatred behind a façade of anti-Zionism and avoid culpability for their own discriminatory and hateful actions.
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."
World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder said the United States now joins a growing number of European governments in releasing strategies to support Jewish communities.
"The next step will be to thoroughly execute those plans, and the World Jewish Congress will work to support the US strategy in its next phase. We must have concrete action, not just words," he said.
“However, the inclusion of a secondary definition in addition to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance working definition of antisemitism is an unnecessary distraction from the real work that needs to be done."
“The IHRA definition, considered the ‘gold standard,’ allows policymakers worldwide to identify and respond to all forms of Jew-hatred, including those that may be more subtle, but no less insidious. The Jewish world has agreed on the centrality of the IHRA definition and understands that it is the best weapon in the battle against antisemitism," Lauder continued.
“I know that the Jewish community is personally important to President Biden – and that it has been throughout his life of public service. I want to thank him for bringing ‘the Delaware Way’ to Washington and for renewing his commitment to the Jewish people at home and abroad. Now, the real work begins.”
Jewish American Heritage Month at the White House
Recent events marking Jewish American Heritage Month, which is observed in May, have made antisemitism and Biden’s plans to combat it a focus both at the White House and in agencies as diverse as the FBI and the US Department of Agriculture.
Emhoff spoke Tuesday night to a gathering of the Jewish Democratic Council of America. US Vice President Kamala Harris delivered remarks to the group on Wednesday morning. “Let us not be overwhelmed,” she said, urging those present to work with the strategy once it is published. “Let us not be living in a state of fear. Let us not throw up our hands when it’s time to call up our sleeves.”
Zvika Klein and Ron Kampeas/JTA contributed to this report.