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White House, Dept. of Education face pressure to take action on campus antisemitism

The Biden administration’s condemnation of rising antisemitism is a good first step, but needs to be followed up by action, Jewish leaders tell JI

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President Joe Biden addresses the nation from the Oval Office of the White House on October 19, 2023 in Washington, D.C.

Pressure is building for the White House and federal education officials to take action against rising antisemitism on American college campuses as scenes of pro-Hamas protests and university students ripping down posters of Israeli hostages continue to proliferate.

The Biden administration offered a first step in addressing this unprecedented wave of antisemitism with comments from a top White House official calling recent campus incidents “grotesque.” 

But many in the Jewish community urged the White House to do more. 

“Amidst the rise in poisonous, antisemitic rhetoric and hate crimes that President Biden has fought against for years, there is an extremely disturbing pattern of antisemitic messages being conveyed on college campuses,” White House deputy press secretary Andrew Bates told The Times of Israel. “Delegitimizing the State of Israel while praising the Hamas terrorist murderers who burned innocent people alive, or targeting Jewish students, is the definition of unacceptable — and the definition of antisemitism.” 

Jewish leaders praised the White House’s comments as a strong first step, particularly at a time when some progressive activists have echoed the extreme rhetoric seen on many college campuses that views Hamas’ murder of 1,400 Israeli civilians as a legitimate action. Earlier in the week, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre declined to weigh in on campus antisemitism and highlighted the importance of protecting free speech. 

“[Biden’s] response has been morally clear, heartfelt and backed up by action, even though, undoubtedly, there are people around him who do not want that, people in his party and in this coalition who do not want that,” said Ken Baer, a former Obama administration official who has worked on several Democratic presidential campaigns. 

The federal government has taken some steps to respond to a pervasive sense of fear among American Jews and a clear increase in antisemitism. Federal law enforcement agencies such as the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security have been monitoring for potential threats, and the White House requested $200 million in additional funding for the Nonprofit Security Grant Program in a supplemental funding request.

But several Jewish leaders also questioned whether the clear White House language speaking out against campus antisemitism would be accompanied by action, particularly when it comes to higher education. 

The Hamas terrorist attacks of Oct. 7, and the swell of anti-Israel sentiment that has followed in the U.S., came months after the White House published a national strategy to counter antisemitism that is set to be fully implemented by next summer. The Biden administration has not said whether it will speed up the strategy’s implementation or supplement it with new policy directives in light of recent developments. A White House spokesperson declined to discuss the matter with Jewish Insider

“Part of my fear is that this crisis will mean we lose sight of the strategy and its implementation, and it’s more urgent than ever,” said Amy Spitalnick, CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. 

The 60-page national strategy stated that Jewish students, educators and administrators have faced discrimination because “of their actual or perceived views on Israel.” The document pledged that the Education Department will launch an antisemitism awareness campaign to help Jewish students learn about their civil rights protections, and to teach administrators about their responsibilities. 

“When Jews are targeted because of their beliefs or their identities in schools, on college campuses or anywhere else, that is antisemitism. And that is unacceptable,” Education Secretary Miguel Cardona tweeted on Oct. 13. The Education Department has not weighed in on campus antisemitism since. A department spokesperson declined to comment on Thursday. 

“It would certainly help to hear from the secretary of education some understanding of the extraordinary problems that Jewish students are facing on college campuses right now,” said Kenneth Marcus, chairman of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law. 

Marcus is working with several students who are considering filing complaints with the department’s Office of Civil Rights alleging that they have faced antisemitic discrimination on campus amounting to a violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, the federal statute that protects students from religious discrimination based on shared ancestry or ethnic characteristics. 

In an email sent Thursday to members of the Jewish community, White House Jewish Liaison Shelley Greenspan included a link to “important resources” from the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR). “Anyone who believes that a school has discriminated against a student based on race, color, or national origin can file a complaint of discrimination with OCR within 180 days of the alleged discrimination,” Greenspan wrote, and included a link to the relevant form.

“Sending out links is nice, but it’s not enough. The fact is that OCR has that power to proactively investigate college campuses, and in cases like this is appropriate for them to do so,” said Marcus, who led OCR in the Trump administration. Dan Granot, the Anti-Defamation League’s director of government relations, urged OCR to “remind campus administrators of their responsibilities under Title VI to protect Jewish students.” 

Catherine Lhamon, who leads OCR, also has not publicly spoken about the attacks in Israel or the surge of antisemitism at American schools and universities. 

“Prior to Oct. 7, her office was doing quite good work,” said a lobbyist who works for a Jewish organization. “They need to really step it up, given what we’ve seen since Oct. 7. Too many Jewish students feel fundamentally unsafe at their school.” A group of Jewish leaders is working to set up a meeting with OCR officials but it has not been scheduled yet.

Several lawmakers weighed in this week to urge the federal government to do more to counter campus antisemitism. Sixteen Republican senators sent a letter on Thursday to Cardona asking him to explain how the department is enforcing Title VI. 

“We are significantly concerned that your Department is not ensuring American universities are fostering a safe learning environment for all students after the terrorist organization Hamas’ violent attack on civilians, including Americans and Israeli citizens,” the senators, led by Sens. Bill Cassidy (R-LA) and Joni Ernst (R-IA), wrote. Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-NY) was set to hold a press conference on Friday morning to demand action from federal education officials. 

Citing the rise of college campus antisemitism since the Hamas attack, Reps. Mike Lawler (R-NY), Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ), Max Miller (R-OH), and Jared Moskowitz (D-FL) and Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) re-introduced the Antisemitism Awareness Act on Thursday, which would codify the requirement for the Department of Education to use the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism when enforcing anti-discrimination laws on campus.

The bill, backed by a dozen Jewish and pro-Israel organizations, debuted in 2016 and has been reintroduced multiple times since then. It has been the subject of free speech-related opposition in the past. It passed the Senate by unanimous consent in 2016, when it was first introduced, but has otherwise failed to advance in subsequent re-introductions.

The White House antisemitism strategy said the U.S. “embraced” the IHRA definition, which counts some critiques of Israel as antisemitism. But Biden administration officials tasked with promoting the strategy shied away from ever speaking about Israel in the weeks after its release.

“[The Biden administration’s] antisemitism plan is extraordinary in its breadth and its whole-of-government approach,” said Amanda Berman, executive director of Zioness, a grassroots advocacy organization focused on promoting Israel in progressive spaces. “But we are now at an urgent moment requiring recognition of the incontrovertible fact that anti-Zionism is antisemitism … Without adopting and institutionalizing that understanding, any efforts to address this overwhelming threat to Jewish life in America will be insufficient to meet the moment.” 

Jewish Insider Capitol Hill reporter Marc Rod contributed reporting. 

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