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Strategy Session

In sweeping antisemitism strategy, White House calls mainstream IHRA definition ‘most prominent’ but ‘welcomes’ progressive alternative 

The strategy, which includes more than 100 policy actions set to be implemented within the next year, comes after a six-month process that featured input from more than 1,000 Jewish community members

Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff at event today announcing the national antisemitism strategy.

The White House on Thursday released the first-ever U.S. national strategy to counter antisemitism, presenting a whole-of-society approach that includes more than 100 policy commitments across the executive branch and a call to action for ordinary Americans to stand together with the Jewish community in fighting antisemitism. 

But the White House sidestepped an increasingly heated debate over how precisely to define antisemitism — avoiding a unilateral endorsement of the mainstream International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition while also welcoming an alternative preferred by progressives who argue that the IHRA definition does not allow sufficient space for critiques of Israel. 

The 60-page document rests on four pillars: increasing awareness and understanding of antisemitism, and broadening appreciation of Jewish American heritage; improving safety and security for Jewish communities; reversing the normalization of antisemitism and countering antisemitic discrimination; and building cross-community solidarity to counter hate.

“Silence is complicity,” President Joe Biden said in a video message at a Thursday event about the document. “I will not remain silent. You should not either.” He called the strategy “a historic step forward,” and the “most ambitious and comprehensive U.S. government-led effort to fight antisemitism in American history.” 

The strategy, which comes as levels of antisemitism are at historic highs in the country, argues that antisemitism must be defined in order to combat it: “If we cannot name, identify, and admit a problem, we cannot begin to solve it,” the strategy reads.

It refers to several competing definitions of antisemitism as educational tools for elected officials and members of the public who wish to learn more about antisemitism. 

“There are several definitions of antisemitism, which serve as valuable tools to raise awareness and increase understanding of antisemitism,” the strategy reads. “The most prominent is the non-legally binding ‘working definition’ of antisemitism adopted in 2016 by the 31-member states of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), which the United States has embraced. In addition, the Administration welcomes and appreciates the Nexus Document and notes other such efforts.”

Mainstream Jewish advocacy organizations including the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and Jewish Federations of North America had lobbied the Biden administration to endorse only the widely accepted IHRA definition, which is already in use elsewhere in the government. Progressive groups urged the Biden administration to leave out a definition of antisemitism entirely or consider alternative definitions.

The strategy identifies some forms of anti-Israel rhetoric as antisemitism, a move that mainstream Jewish groups had been urging the White House to make.

The White House’s definition of antisemitism does not refer to Israel, but the document later delves into the ways anti-Zionism may cross the line into antisemitism. 

“Jewish students and educators are targeted for derision and exclusion on college campuses, often because of their real or perceived views about the State of Israel,” the strategy says. “When Jews are targeted because of their beliefs or their identity, when Israel is singled out because of anti-Jewish hatred, that is antisemitism. And that is unacceptable.” The strategy pledged to “combat antisemitism abroad and in international fora — including efforts to delegitimize the State of Israel.”

Elsewhere in the strategy, the administration reaffirmed its “unshakeable commitment to the State of Israel’s right to exist, its legitimacy and its security” and the “deep historical, religious, cultural, and other ties many American Jews and other Americans have to Israel.”

Proponents of the IHRA definition said they were satisfied with the strategy’s approach to IHRA and defining antisemitism. In a statement, Dianne Lob and William Daroff, the chair and CEO of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said they “wholeheartedly applaud the Biden Administration’s continuing embrace of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism.” Jewish Federations of North America Chair Julie Platt said JFNA is “pleased that the White House reaffirms” the IHRA definition and “maintain our commitment to its uncontested use.”

But the praise for the Nexus Document and references to other definitions provided progressive groups, which had lobbied against the sole inclusion of IHRA, the opportunity to claim victory as well.

“Importantly, the strategy avoids exclusively codifying any one specific, sweeping definition of antisemitism as the sole standard for use in enforcing domestic law and policy, recognizing that such an approach could do more harm than good,” J Street said in a statement, adding that the administration “rightly cites [the IHRA] definition as just one of a range of illustrative and useful tools.”

Bend The Arc said in a statement that the the progressive group “would have liked definitions to be left out of the strategy entirely” but said it was “pleased that the Biden Administration has rejected the idea that government agencies should adopt the IHRA definition as authoritative policy or that it is the sole guide to antisemitism.”

Republican Jewish Coalition CEO Matt Brooks, meanwhile, said in a statement that Biden “blew it” by promoting other definitions of antisemitism alongside IHRA. “This decision seriously weakens the White House strategy. It is yet another instance of Biden caving to the anti-Israel radicals.” Brooks also noted the timing of the rollout — hours before the start of Shavuot and near the end of Jewish American Heritage Month.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) told Jewish Insider that, ahead of the release, he had fielded calls from Jewish leaders who were alarmed that the administration might not include the IHRA definition in the strategy.

“I called just about everyone under the sun in the administration and said it would be a disgrace, or shanda… to dilute this language, especially at a time when antisemitism is on the increase,” Schumer said. “Today, we learned we succeeded. The strong language is maintained.”

Schumer said he’d received a call from State Department antisemitism envoy Ambassador Deborah Lipstadt telling him that his efforts were essential to securing the IHRA definition’s inclusion.

Rep. Kathy Manning (D-NC), who co-chairs the House antisemitism task force, described the inclusion of the IHRA language as “great” and “gives a lot of weight and heft to the IHRA definition.

“I will point out that it is in, in Jewish tradition, the tradition of our rabbis and our sages to embrace the majority opinion, but also make note of the minority opinion,” she added. “We shouldn’t miss the forest for the trees here. We have a remarkable, comprehensive, all-of-government strategy to combating antisemitism, and I think that is really commendable.”

Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt, who had encouraged the inclusion of the IHRA definition alone, said the plan “elevates and embraces IHRA as the preeminent definition.” He said that ADL plans to now push for guidance from federal agencies to confirm that they will utilize the IHRA definition.

As for the mention of Nexus and other definitions, Greenblatt said that “I’m sure folks on the far left will try to claim that as a win. I’m sure folks on the far right will cry defeat. But the truth is that this document clearly and cogently centers IHRA as the definition that the U.S. government is using to understand antisemitism.”

The strategy pledges to implement a range of policies, including increased monitoring of antisemitic incidents and improved data to measure antisemitism; a new Holocaust education research center at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.; educational campaigns to teach students about antisemitism and to include it in diversity, equity and inclusion programs; and partnerships with other religious communities, cultural organizations and educational institutions. 

The document also urges Congress to pass additional legislation targeting antisemitism, including a request for $360 million for the Nonprofit Security Grant Program, which Jewish groups have been advocating, and it lays out actions that local and state governments can take to prevent anti-Jewish hate in their jurisdictions. Executive branch agencies have committed to implementing the 100 policy actions within the year. 

Other policy actions in the report include a commitment to having kosher food in food assistance programs and hospitals, religious accommodations in the workplace for observant Jewish employees and the creation of a toolkit for other faith communities to fight antisemitism. 

In elementary and secondary schools, as well as on university campuses, the Department of Education is launching an awareness campaign at all levels of education, issuing a Dear Colleague letter highlighting schools’ obligations to address complaints of harassment based on Jewish ancestry and will be sending federal officials, partners and influencers to campuses to highlight successes and address upticks in antisemitism. The federal government also plans to expand K-12 education efforts on the Holocaust and antisemitism.

The Equal Opportunity Employment Commission is also set to distribute materials on nondiscrimination and religious accommodations to both federal and non-government workplaces and employee groups.

“The bottom line is antisemitism is on the increase,” Schumer said. “The United States government has always stood strongly against antisemitism, and right now we need to be stronger than ever. There should be no backing off.”

Manning emphasized the importance of the all-of-government approach included in the strategy, as well as the “timeline” and the specific “deliverables” included. She also described the numerous proposals the strategy puts forward to Congress — from increasing funding for security grants and civics education to new hate crimes legislation and social media regulation — as both “comprehensive” and “realistic.”

Greenblatt, who worked in the White House under the Obama administration, made a similar point about the implementation of the strategy.

“I’ve seen lots of plans, but rarely have I seen a plan that’s just so concrete with deadlines about when things will get done,” he said. “The White House is putting its money where its mouth is by saying, ‘This is what we will do and when we’ll get it done.’”

He also said that it’s “crucial” that the strategy includes calls to action from across society, not only the executive branch.

The White House also listed a broad spectrum of partners that have committed to actions related to combating antisemitism. The list included several organizations serving other diverse communities — the National Action Network, National Urban League, the Asian American Foundation, UnidosUS and the Anti-Defamation League — that will convene dialogues together “with the goal of building mutual understanding, countering extremism, and addressing manifestations of bigotry within, across, and impacting ethnic, racial, and religious communities.”

“Together we are greater than the sum of our parts, and that’s America’s unique comparative advantage,” Susan Rice, the director of the White House Domestic Policy Council and an author of the report, said on Thursday. She delivered remarks alongside Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff, U.S. Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism Ambassador Deborah Lipstadt and U.S. Homeland Security Advisor Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall.

Other Jewish organizations, such as the American Jewish Committee, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and the Foundation to Combat Antisemitism, also signed on to implement specific goals. The major professional sports leagues in the U.S. pledged to meet to discuss how to combat antisemitism and other forms of hate. 

The Council on American-Islamic Relations also committed to launching a “tour to educate religious communities about steps they can take to protect their houses of worship,” and the Sikh Coalition will create a guide for law enforcement to better address hate crimes. Those commitments do not appear to include any links to antisemitism specifically.

The release of the strategy comes after years of advocacy from the American Jewish community and federal lawmakers, who have argued that a national strategy is needed to actively respond to the alarming rise in antisemitism in America. 

The decision to create the strategy was announced in December, after Emhoff convened a roundtable discussion on antisemitism with Jewish leaders. Emhoff, the first Jewish spouse of a president or vice president, has made combating antisemitism a key objective. He traveled to Poland and Germany in January for a trip focused on antisemitism and Holocaust remembrance.

Rice, who led the task force that worked on the strategy, worked in close consultation with the White House’s liaison to the American Jewish community, Shelley Greenspan, to convene listening sessions about antisemitism with more than 1,000 members of the Jewish community. 

Rice announced Thursday morning that she would be leaving the administration on Friday, leaving implementation of the plan in the hands of other officials at the White House. Rice is set to be replaced by Neera Tanden.

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