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White House Unveils Antisemitism Strategy

The Biden Administration’s new national antisemitism strategy was released in May to much fanfare from the Jewish community. This momentous report was influenced by American University students and faculty.

 

On the morning of May 25th, a relatively low-profile White House press briefing created a momentous day for America’s Jewish community. Following recorded remarks by President Biden announcing the release of the Administration’s U.S. National Strategy to Counter Antisemitism, a small group of officials delivered speeches summarizing the 57-page document.


Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff began the live remarks with a heartfelt speech about his personal connections to the new plan, declaring that “as the first Jewish spouse of a United States President or Vice President, let me say this: we cannot stay silent. I will not remain silent.”


The briefing’s powerful closing statement was issued by Ambassador Deborah Lipstadt, the State Department’s Special Envoy to Monitor & Combat Antisemitism, on the anniversary of her tumultuous confirmation to the role. Invoking her decades as a historian, Lipstadt declared “a historic moment in the fight against what’s known as the world’s oldest hatred.” She further reflected upon the fact that the press conference took place in the same building where State Department officials once met to block Jewish immigration to America on the eve of the Holocaust.


The National Antisemitism Strategy is not simply an acknowledgement of our country’s past shortcomings, but a concrete plan to fight its rise today and in the future. The plan encompasses four overarching pillars, each containing multiple strategic goals. Pillars include increasing public understanding of antisemitism and Jewish American Heritage Month, improving community security, countering the normalization of antisemitism, and building solidarity between Jews and America’s other vulnerable communities.


Ultimately, this report fully embraces concerns that Jewish communal institutions have been raising for years and utilizes their research and expertise. The strategy repeatedly cites research conducted by the Anti-Defamation League and American Jewish Committee (AJC), along with materials produced by other Jewish scholars and media organizations. President Biden notes in his forward that “over 1,000 Jewish community stakeholders, faith and civil rights leaders, State and local officials, and more” were consulted on this project. In addition, the strategy makes clear that antisemitism is not simply a Jewish problem, but a threat to the democracy that serves all of us.


Among the hundreds of people who helped make this historic report possible, American University was well represented.


Alongside the National Antisemitism Strategy, the White House released a list of commitments from outside organizations, who would be using their platforms to educate on anti-Jewish hatred. The variety of groups included was breathtaking. Sports leagues, including the NFL, NBA, WNBA, NHL, and NASCAR; religious groups like the Sikh Coalition, Interfaith Alliance, and Council on American-Islamic Relations; civil rights leaders like the National Urban League, UnidosUS, and Asian-American Foundation; and the Recording Academy, who hosts the Grammys. Each will be leading unique initiatives on education, security, or cross-communal bonding.


Listed among some of the most influential organizations in the country was American University’s Polarization & Extremism Research & Innovation Lab (PERIL). PERIL will be working in conjunction with the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) to create free and publicly accessible resources on antisemitism and political extremism.


While PERIL did not respond to my direct request for comment, a tweet from the SPLC elaborated that their work will be focused on “building community resilience against extremism, and working for a more just and inclusive society.” PERIL director Dr. Cynthia Miller-Idriss commented that “We stand together in the fight against antisemitism & hate.”


Beyond PERIL’s direct role in the implementation of this strategy’s goals, AU students helped shape the report’s focus as stakeholders who were consulted by the Biden Administration and the organizations it worked alongside. I spoke with multiple students about their experiences contributing to this groundbreaking document.


In March 2023, Josie Zucker, a junior in SIS, was invited to represent AU Hillel and Hillel International at the White House’s inaugural Jewish Women’s Forum. Zucker and the other attendees, including CEOs, Rabbis, and influencers, met with a number of Biden Administration officials. Many played key roles in the strategy’s development, including Emhoff and Lipstadt, as well as White House Jewish Liaison Shelley Greenspan.


Zucker found the most impactful speaker to be Ambassador Lipstadt, who she recounted advised the gathered leaders that “the fight against antisemitism is not determined by whether or not someone stands up to it, but how they do so… be smart about the way we fight back.” Zucker further noted the greater symbolism of the event. It took place soon after the Jewish holiday of Purim, which she summarized “celebrates a Jewish woman’s courage to stand up to antisemitism.”


Other students were able to use their platform to connect fellow students directly with key strategy leaders. Ryan Kassanoff and Brandon Leach, both juniors in SIS, serve on the American Jewish Committee’s Campus Global Board. In April 2023, they organized a roundtable between DC-area college students and Holly Huffnagle, the AJC’s U.S. Director for Combating Antisemitism. Huffnagle’s research was repeatedly cited in the Administration’s antisemitism report, and after the meeting, she took the students’ shared concerns with her to a conference with White House staff.


Kassanoff was pleasantly surprised while watching the press conference when Homeland Security Advisor Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall declared that “Jewish-Americans must feel safe… gathering for Shabbat on college campuses.” This sentiment echoed thoughts shared by students at the roundtable. According to Kassanoff, “We talked about the necessity for Jews to feel comfortable wearing Jewish garments on campus, while walking to religious services, and all the time.”


Josie, Ryan, and Brandon belong to a new wave of Jewish college students speaking out against injustice. The last few years have seen a renewed focus on the experiences of Jews on college campuses. While many legacy Jewish nonprofits have departments dedicated to supporting and protecting these students, Jewish on Campus (JOC), founded in 2020, has quickly become one of the most influential organizations in this advocacy space. JOC has been routinely invited to consult with the White House on the strategy and other issues, including at the Jewish Women’s Forum Josie Zucker attended.


I spoke with their former Chief Marketing Officer, Michal Cohen, who joined the fledgling organization while still a student at American. She celebrated that “Jewish students are in the room where important discussions are happening… on issues that affect the community.” Reflecting upon the dynamics between Jewish students and established communal organizations, Cohen commented that “For so long, Jewish students were spoken over by those who are years off campus. Now… Jewish students have a seat at the table.”


There was an undeniable sense of optimism shared between the students I spoke with. Ryan Kassanoff remarked that “Just the fact that [as] college students we can have an impact on a strategy from the White House is incredible.” Brandon Leach repeatedly referenced hope, saying he felt “great hope that there is now an actual, national, coordinated strategy”while describing the new strategy as “incredible.” Josie Zucker expressed similar sentiments, saying that she was “filled with gratitude that it finally exists, and hope that it will be [an] inspiration for actual change.”


Actual change will need to be achieved in the coming months and years. Leach called this stage the “harder task.” The Biden Administration intends to follow through on the goals it set forth. Domestic Policy Council Director Susan Rice, who spearheaded the strategy’s creation, stepped down at the end of May. A spokesperson has already declared that Neera Tanden, her successor, “looks forward to vigorously and expeditiously implementing the strategy.” Thus far, optimism appears well-founded.


While the report primarily focuses on executive actions, each section is punctuated by suggestions for the general public. Strategic Goal 3.4 addresses antisemitism in schools and on college campuses. Most of the White House’s recommendations are for school administrators: report mechanisms for hate incidents, integrate antisemitism into DEI programs, and accommodate religious needs. However, this goal also makes a crucial request of students: “We call on a diverse range of student groups… to play a role in preventing and addressing antisemitism.” This can be done by condemning hate incidents, hosting events alongside Jewish organizations, and building solidarity between communities. Hatred can only be defeated through allyship.


Alex Moskovitz is a rising third-year Data Sciences for Political Science major in the School of Public Affairs. He is a Managing Editor for the Agora.


Image courtesy: White House

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