WH Gaffe

White House fumbles antisemitism question in public briefing

Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre faced criticism for remarks denying that antisemitic threats have increased, as White House focuses on Islamophobia

Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre speaks during the daily press briefing at the White House on October 23, 2023 in Washington, DC.

The top White House spokesperson was forced on Monday to walk back a bungled response to a question about a rise in antisemitism after suggesting that threats against Jews have not increased and quickly pivoting to point out that Islamophobia has increased.

“We have not seen any credible threats. I know there’s been, always, questions about credible threats. And so just want to make sure that that’s out there,” White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said at a press briefing on Monday in response to a question about antisemitism. “But look: Muslims and those perceived to be Muslim have endured a disproportionate number of hate-fueled attacks.” 

Federal hate crime data released last week showed that antisemitic incidents accounted for more than half of all religion-based hate crimes in 2022.

President Joe Biden “understands that many of our Muslim, Arab-American and Palestinian-American loved ones and neighbors are worried about the hate being directed at their communities,” Jean-Pierre continued.

Three hours later, Jean-Pierre responded to a post on X from the journalist Yashar Ali, a prominent media figure with more than 700,000 followers, who had called the exchange “odd.”

“To be clear: the President and our team are very concerned about a rise in antisemitism, especially after the horrific Hamas terrorist attack in Israel,” Jean-Pierre wrote on X. Contacted by Jewish Insider, a White House spokesperson declined to comment and instead shared a link to the post on X.

Jonathan Greenblatt, the CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, also called out the exchange on X. Jean-Pierre’s statement was “odd at best,” Greenblatt told JI, questioning whether “perhaps she didn’t understand the question, because she didn’t answer it.”

“When asked about the rise of antisemitism, to say that there are no credible threats, that’s actually the opposite of what’s happening,” Greenblatt said. The ADL has tracked a major increase in antisemitic rhetoric and threats over the last two and a half weeks. 

Later, when asked whether Biden views anti-Israel and protests on U.S. college campuses as antisemitism, Jean-Pierre declined to say.

“I’m not going to get into what’s happening across the country at different universities,” she said. “Peaceful protest is really part of our democracy, being able for folks to be able to express their feelings. I’m not going to get into any specifics on that.” Reached by JI on Monday night, another White House spokesperson declined to comment.

Biden “has been very clear in wanting to make sure that Jewish Americans, wanting to make sure that Arab-Americans, Muslims are protected here,” said Jean-Pierre.

Earlier on Monday, Biden had posted on X condemning Islamophobia but did not mention antisemitism. He condemned antisemitism and Islamophobia in his Oval Office address last week. 

The Monday press briefing blunder comes as voices close to the Biden administration try to appease progressives, who have been calling for a cease-fire to the Israel-Hamas war. 

Former President Barack Obama warned in a Monday blog post that Israel’s military response against Hamas could “backfire,” and called for Israel to find “a strategy that can incapacitate Hamas while minimizing further civilian casualties.” In an “extraordinarily complex situation” like this one, Obama wrote, “all of us need to do our best to put our best values, rather than our worst fears, on display.”

Senior Biden administration officials continued to caution Israel to avoid civilian casualties and to follow the laws of war. Since the very early hours of the conflict, the President has communicated our concern over civilian casualties to our Israeli counterparts. He’s made clear publicly that that’s what separates us from Hamas,” National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications John Kirby said in the Monday briefing. “Hamas, on the other hand, doesn’t do that. They’re a terrorist organization. They are hiding behind innocent civilians.”

Reporters have begun to ask: Does the White House think Israel is — or is not — seeking to avoid civilian casualties? The State Department’s top spokesperson wouldn’t provide a straightforward answer to that question on Monday.

“We have not made any kind of formal determination, but it’s a matter we are in close communication with our Israeli counterparts,” department spokesperson Matthew Miller said.

When pressed further, Miller said he is “not in a position to sit here and assess every single strike from this podium.” But, he added, “Obviously, there is reason to be concerned. Every time there is a civilian death, we mourn the loss of every civilian death, whether it be a Palestinian civilian or whether it be an Israeli civilian.”

“But again, you have to look at these strikes and you have to look at their operations in the context that I just said, where you have legitimate military targets that are embedded in civilian infrastructure,” Miller added. “So it is in a very, extremely unfortunate byproduct of this campaign that there are civilians that are unfortunately harmed and civilians that are killed.”

A senior Defense Department official offered Israel more leeway: “Our partner Israel is a law-abiding country,” the unnamed official said at a Monday briefing, “who is obligated to adhere to the law of armed conflict.”

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