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Jeffrey Rosen on Virginia’s Commission to Combat Antisemitism

The former deputy attorney general hopes the commission and its recommendations ‘can be acted upon to make a difference in Virginia’

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WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 23: Jeffrey Rosen, former Acting Attorney General, testifies before the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol in the Cannon House Office Building.

When Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin took office on Jan. 15, 2022, his state was witnessing a significant spike in antisemitism — 2021 saw a 64% increase in antisemitic incidents over 2019, according to the Anti-Defamation League. In one of his first moves as governor, he established the commonwealth’s Commission to Combat Antisemitism. To chair the new panel, Youngkin, a Republican, tapped former U.S. Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen.

Rosen, who in addition to having worked under both Presidents Donald Trump and George W. Bush, briefly held the position of acting attorney general in the Trump administration after William Barr’s resignation, a role he held on Jan. 6, 2021.

During this week’s episode of Jewish Insider’s podcast, Rosen sat down with co-hosts Rich Goldberg and Jarrod Bernstein to discuss the commission and his time in the Justice Department.

Below are condensed excerpts from the conversation

Jarrod Bernstein: It’s my favorite holiday of the year — Passover — so I’m going to go ahead and ask you the Passover question about this commission: Mah nishtanah halailah hazeh? Why is this commission different than all other commissions, and what do you hope the impact that its report and its conclusions will have on antisemitism and combating antisemitism going forward?

Jeff Rosen: Great question, because by definition all commissions have certain commonalities, that they’re focused on the same problem. I think what was different on this one was [that] its mandate was both broader than at least most — I haven’t done a comprehensive survey of all the commissions and study groups that have ever been, but it had a very broad mandate to cover education, law enforcement, legislative options, data reporting, so it was it was very broad. The membership was intentionally gathered to be able to cover a wide spectrum.

But so it’s a very public process, the later phases focused on what’s to be done about [antisemitism], what are the recommendations, many, if not most, which came from the subcommittees and then discussed among the full commission. And so we came up with both an overview of the problem, heavily drawing on work that others have done…So we drew on a lot of that, and on December 5, released the commission’s report, which is 25 pages plus some appendices, and roughly half of it is the overview of the problem, but half of it is recommendations that fell in at 21 categories. 

So again, to answer your question more succinctly, we hope that these recommendations, being both more comprehensive and growing out of the process that they did, can be acted upon to make a difference in Virginia, that it’s not just talk about, “here’s the problem.”

Rich Goldberg: What is succinctly the problem you have identified, the gaps you’ve identified, that states can actually fill through policy, and what should those policies be?

JR: Let’s start with the scope of the problem, because there’s lots of talk that antisemitism is a problem. Yes, true, and lots of effort to call attention to it and occasionally the incidents… But at least from the commission report, I would identify five aspects of the antisemitism problem that need to be well understood. One, of course, is the sheer volume, the fact that the number of reported incidents has been increasing for about a decade now and was an all-time high last year. That one I think has got some attention, but then there’s four other aspects that I think are not sufficiently appreciated. 

One is that many of the incidents are occurring at schools and colleges, especially colleges. And I think that that ought to appall people, but also it surprises them sometimes that this would be going on in higher education, where we think of people being educated and enlightened, and yet, big increases.

A third is public visibility. Sometimes, antisemitism has been thought of as a problem at the fringes, and it is with fringe and marginal extremists, but we increasingly see it [with] prominent athletes, prominent celebrities, musicians and others, politicians, even in some cases civil rights activists or campus administrators. And so the way in which antisemitism has seeped into what I call, “ordinary public domain,” is very troubling. 

A fourth dimension is what I would call some “public ignorance” about the problem [of] antisemitism or just some basic history. In one survey, this is especially a problem I think among younger people, but one survey that said: two-thirds of Generation Z had not heard of the Holocaust and a quarter who had heard of it, thought it was either a myth or exaggerated… That is going to contribute to some receptivity to this, this public poison that’s increasingly seeped into the public domain.

Then the fifth thing that the commission report highlights, I think, is the scope of violence. Most antisemitic incidents, they’re bad, but at least when they’re on the smaller end of the scale, they’re verbal abuse, they’re intimidation, harassment; those are all bad, but when they turn to violence, it’s really a problem. And I think the numbers last year were 88 assaults. That’s a problem. And we know some of the violence in recent years have been shootings in synagogues — the Tree of Life in Pittsburgh, the Poway synagogue in California. That there have been intercepted and broken up efforts to bomb synagogues in Indiana and Colorado. That’s a level of concern that’s on a whole different scale.

RG: I am curious how you as a former top DOJ official, look at how we can use law enforcement tools to monitor the extent, legal, constitutional, push back, hold accountable, how do you go after a group like the “Goyim Defense League” that’s pamphletting in different communities? How do we use our tools, whether it’s a state or federal level, without infringing on free speech there?

JR: The saying that is regularly and correctly pointed out, is, “the Justice Department investigates crimes, not people.” We don’t have, nor do we want a society where the prosecutors and the law enforcement tools of the state are used to target people and then find some crime with which to pursue them. It’s the other way. There has to be some indication of wrongdoing that is potentially a violation of laws. And so that means that the tools of law enforcement have to have some rules of the road that take that balance into account, on the one hand trying to prevent actual crimes, or redress crimes if they’ve occurred, but on the other hand, not just targeting people.

Because history tells us, not just in the United States, but all around the globe, that using the powers of the state in a targeted way at groups can have some unwelcome consequences. But, that doesn’t mean that these groups, particularly the extremist groups that have violent intentions, can’t be policed, it just means there’s some rules for the road for that.

JB: Jeff, you’ve had a storied and long and distinguished career in Washington — general counsel at [the Department of Transportation], deputy secretary of DOT, deputy attorney general, and at the end of the Trump administration you found yourself as the acting attorney general. You found yourself in a situation where, regardless of party, regardless of politics, you were put in a position where you were the person standing up for the rule of law when others, the former president and others around him, wanted you to really take the Justice Department, which is supposed to be apolitical, and turn it into an instrument of partisan politics, which would have been corrosive, I think, to our democracy. Can you tell us a little bit about that? What that felt like being in that room and staring down a really, really bad moment in American history?

JR: I appreciate the way you put that. I think what I would say is, my time when I was the acting attorney general, wasn’t what I had expected, but I knew and felt fortunate to have the support of a great leadership team and the support of the White House counsel. And so I was just very glad that the Department of Justice managed to do the things it was supposed to do and also that it did not do the things it was not supposed to do, and I think both are important parts of the equation. And so, I’m glad it worked out the way it did; it wasn’t the way I expected or would have preferred, but the department did what it was supposed to do and didn’t do what it wasn’t.

Bonus lightning round: Favorite Jewish food? “Oh, blintzes. And I’m partial to cheese blintzes as opposed to potato blintzes.” Favorite Israeli president or prime minister? “I’m always just partial to founders…So Ben-Gurion, you know, the first prime minister. I have a great admiration for a number of them, but I think you start at the beginning.”

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