In rollout of antisemitism strategy, White House steers clear of the Jewish state

During hour-long panel at Aspen Ideas focused on fighting antisemitism, Biden officials avoided any mention of Israel

On a windy, sunny summer morning in Colorado, two senior White House officials joined a panel conversation about combating the rise of antisemitism, where they promoted the Biden administration’s National Strategy to Counter Antisemitism. 

At the Tuesday Aspen Ideas Festival event, which was moderated by journalist Katie Couric and  included racial justice advocate Eric Ward, Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff and White House Homeland Security Advisor Liz Sherwood-Randall spoke about the recent trial of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter, condemned the neo-Nazis who flew swastika flags outside synagogues in Georgia last weekend and criticized former President Donald Trump for his comments after the violent 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va. 

The nearly hour-long conversation did not touch on one issue that, despite its appearance in the 60-page strategy, has been absent from White House public messaging on the document: Israel, and the ways that anti-Zionism can translate into antisemitism. 

In an interview last week with Jewish Insider, a senior White House official who worked on the strategy declined to share how matters related to anti-Zionism would be handled in the strategy’s implementation in the coming year. (In the month since the strategy was published, the White House has declined to make anyone available for an on-the-record interview about the plan.)

“How long is the report? There’s a lot in there on all of this,” said the official. “We refer you to the text.” They then read from the section of the document that refers to Israel: “When Jews are targeted because of their beliefs or identity, when Israel is singled out because of anti-Jewish hatred, that’s antisemitism. That’s unacceptable.”

“The vice president has said this,” the White House official added, pointing to Vice President Kamala Harris’ speech at an Israeli Independence Day event earlier this month. She read the same passage from the strategy about Israel being “singled out because of anti-Jewish hatred.”

In an interview with JI in January, Emhoff said, when asked whether he discussed debates around Israel with Jewish students he had recently met with, “My message to them was the same to everyone. Like, I just really want to hit the issue of antisemitism and talk about that. And, just, that’s the thing that unites, in my opinion, Jews.”

In late May, a student speaker at the City University of New York Law School graduation delivered a commencement speech attacking Israel and Zionism that was widely condemned as antisemitic by Jewish community officials, New York politicians and the CUNY board of trustees

The White House official declined to say whether it was concerned about, or aware of, the incident at CUNY. The official pointed to a letter that the U.S. Department of Education’s assistant secretary for civil rights sent to college administrators across the country last month, alerting them to “nationwide rise in reports of antisemitic harassment, including in schools.” 

“The Department of Education sent out letters to educational institutions to remind them of their obligations in this area and continue to enforce its authorities to prohibit antisemitic and other forms of discrimination,” said the official. “We’ve got to make sure that we’re offering concrete examples of ways that schools and campuses can engage in efforts to prevent and address antisemitism.” 

After the Aspen panel, Emhoff and Sherwood-Randall participated in a roundtable with faith leaders, philanthropists and activists about the White House strategy. One participant told JI that while Emhoff and Sherwood-Randall did not speak about Israel, multiple attendees mentioned anti-Zionism, particularly as it plays out among college and high school students. 

As the strategy was drafted, the White House faced pressure from major Jewish organizations to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism, which defines some critiques of Israel as antisemitic. The IHRA definition has been adopted elsewhere in the federal government, such as at the State Department. In 2021, Secretary of State Tony Blinken articulated the Biden administration’s support for IHRA.

The White House strategy said the U.S. “has embraced” the IHRA definition, and that it “welcomes and appreciates the Nexus Document,” an alternative definition of antisemitism preferred by some progressives. The debate over language and definitions reflects a larger debate about when and whether certain types of attacks on the Jewish state should be considered antisemitic.

The White House language led to a wide-ranging constellation of praise that served as something of a Rorschach test rather than any clear statement of policy: Mainstream Jewish organizations viewed the language as an endorsement of IHRA, while groups on the left who oppose the IHRA definition applauded the Biden administration for not fully backing IHRA. 

“They can say whatever they want,” Ambassador Deborah Lipstadt, the U.S. special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism, said of those who celebrated that the Biden administration did not formally adopt IHRA. “But the strategy says the United States government embraces the IHRA definition,” she told JI earlier this month.

On Friday, the White House official declined to offer any further explanation of the White House position. 

“It addresses this exactly the way that we want to do so,” said the administration official. “The report continues the approach of the United States government on the definition of antisemitism.” 

Further, they added, “we are sticking with the approach that we’ve had on this matter, and we’re moving forward with all the agency actions to try to make a real difference in people’s lives.” 

The White House’s hesitation to explain its approach to defining antisemitism stands in stark contrast to the way the matter has been discussed by the State Department’s Lipstadt. In several recent interviews, Lipstadt — a prominent historian of the Holocaust and a supporter of the IHRA definition — has continued to publicly embrace IHRA. But as a Senate-confirmed ambassador, Lipstadt has no involvement in matters of domestic policy, such as the recent CUNY commencement case. 

The biggest criticism of the strategy has come in response to an item on a fact sheet the White House released alongside the policy plan. In listing external partners that have made commitments to fight antisemitism, the White House highlighted the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which pledged to teach houses of worship about security measures to protect against violence. 

Several Jewish advocacy organizations, including the Anti-Defamation League, have expressed confusion — and concern — about CAIR’s inclusion, given the history of the organization’s leaders defending Hamas and condemning Zionist groups as an “enemy,” to cite a few prominent examples. 

Lipstadt has acknowledged the Muslim civil rights group’s checkered past: “I know CAIR is problematic,” she told The Jerusalem Post recently, but said they should be given a chance. “There are other groups and individuals that have problematic histories that are now talking about antisemitism.”

The White House has sought to sidestep commenting on CAIR’s inclusion, noting only that they are not part of the actual strategy. 

“Not in the report. One of the independent organizations that offered independent recommendations,” the White House official said of CAIR. 

The best prism through which to view the strategy’s success — and the hardest to measure — is to examine whether it resonates with everyday Americans, the official suggested. 

“It makes reference, again and again, to our commitment to use the bully pulpit to address antisemitism,” said the official. “We understand that this is critical, that we come together as a whole nation to address this problem. This is a problem for everyone. It is not simply a problem for the Jewish community.” 

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