Biden’s antisemitism plan

Michael Arria

Mondoweiss  /  May 18, 2023

This week President Biden previewed his administration’s national strategy to combat antisemitism.

“This strategy reflects input from over 1,000 Jewish community members and other stakeholders, including Jews from diverse backgrounds and all denominations. It also includes members of Congress, businesses and civil society at the state and local officials and so many more,” Biden told a crowd of Jewish leaders at a White House event.

As Gabby Deutch and Marc Rod report in Jewish Insider, Biden is facing pressure from both sides when it comes to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) controversial working definition of antisemitism:

An individual with knowledge of the process said that major mainstream Jewish groups have been advocating for the IHRA definition’s inclusion in the White House strategy. Progressive groups have been urging that it be left out of the strategy — but said they would accept its inclusion if other alternative definitions of antisemitism that have been proposed by academics and activists on the left were mentioned. The source said it remains unclear what the final draft might entail, but that the White House has considered excluding IHRA entirely.  

The individual said that the White House has been consulting with a range of both mainstream and progressive Jewish groups on how they would react to the inclusion or exclusion of the IHRA definition. They also said that Jewish groups have emphasized to the White House that they would accept a delay in the strategy’s release, if needed, to work through such issues. 

We’ve covered the IHRA definition a lot in this newsletter. It’s vague enough to be wielded against Palestine activists and even contains “contemporary examples” of antisemitism that include criticisms of Israel. Many of its most ardent supporters admit that it’s simply a tool to stifle anti-Zionist speech of any kind.

“In the US you can attack Israel and not be called an antisemite, which we know is not the case,” Israeli-American Council for Action Chairman Shawn Evenhaim told The Jerusalem Post last year. “If we want to define if this person is an antisemite or not, it is now very simple: we can go to the IHRA definition for antisemitism. It’s been used by many governments across the world and in the US, and now we need to make sure that it becomes part of the law in many states, as many states as possible, so they can use it to enforce the law and to prosecute people that violate it.”

You’ll recall that some pro-Israel voices are losing patience with the Biden administration on this issue. The White House has signaled that it would embrace the same protocol, but so far they haven’t. In fact, they have since announced that they won’t be revisiting the issue until the end of 2023.

Earlier this year the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (OCR) released a a fact sheet detailing protections for students who are Jewish, Christian, Muslim, or of any other religious group. The document did not cite or incorporate the IHRA working definition.

Kenneth Marcus, chairman of the pro-Israel Louis Brandeis Center Chairman and head of the OCR, expressed his disappointment in a Newsweek op-ed at the time. “Imagine you have waited all year for a holiday present that was promised to you. But Christmas and Hannukah come and go, a new year is celebrated, and you get nothing,” he wrote. “Not even an explanation or apology. Another week passes, and you get a card. You tear open the envelope and pull it out. You read the card, and the blood drains from your face. The message is trite. Then it hits you. You look again at the envelope, and you get it. The envelope is the present you have expected. It’s a much more modest version of what you were promised. And then you read that the real present will arrive in a year.”

As Jewish Currents’ Alex Kane points out, Biden probably doesn’t want his antisemitism strategy engulfed by a debate about its definition. If true, this would be something of a win for the activists who have rallied against this definition in recent years. Just a couple years ago Secretary of State Blinken was telling the American Zionist Movement that The White House “enthusiastically embraces” the definition. Maybe they do, but they haven’t committed to it beyond rhetoric.

Michael Arria is the U.S. correspondent for Mondoweiss