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Concerns rise over WH linkage of antisemitism, Islamophobia
The imprecise language has worried some Jewish community leaders who question whether the lack of specificity in diagnosing the problem of rising antisemitism dilutes the White House’s efforts to address it
When Seann Pietila was arrested in June for threatening to commit a mass shooting targeting Jewish people, Mark Totten, the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Michigan, described the indictment in the context of a “rise in antisemitism across the nation and here in Michigan.”
This week, the 19-year-old Michigan man pleaded guilty to a federal charge for the violent threats he made online. But even though his violent threats specifically targeted only Jews, Totten’s new comments were different: “At this moment of increased threats across the nation, we renew our commitment to prevent, disrupt, and prosecute illegal acts of hate fueled by antisemitism, Islamophobia or anti-Arab bias,” he said. Nothing in the indictment against Pietila referred to anything he had said or done that targeted Muslims.
The change in language from the Department of Justice may seem like a matter of semantics. But it reflects a larger shift across the federal government, which in recent weeks has increasingly grouped antisemitism and Islamophobia together in its public language following the Oct. 7 Hamas attack in Israel and the resulting Israel-Hamas war — even as federal data indicates a much larger rise in antisemitism than in anti-Muslim hate crimes.
On Tuesday, the White House released a fact sheet about actions taken to address the “alarming rise of reported antisemitic and Islamophobic events at schools and on college campuses.” An Oct. 27 statement from President Joe Biden on the five-year anniversary of the 2018 antisemitic shooting at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue also called on Americans to speak “out against bigotry and hate in all its forms, whether it is racism, antisemitism or Islamophobia.” Similar statements from Biden in 2021 and 2022 about the Tree of Life shooting did not mention Islamophobia.
The imprecise language has worried some Jewish community advocates who question whether the lack of specificity in diagnosing the problem of rising antisemitism dilutes the White House’s efforts to address it.
“I think that tying antisemitism and Islamophobia together is a way of avoiding actually addressing the way that either form of hate is manifesting, because they’re not the same,” Amanda Berman, executive director of Zioness, a progressive pro-Israel organization, told Jewish Insider on Thursday.
Both Jews and Muslims have experienced an increase in hateful rhetoric, particularly online. But the majority of threats reported to the FBI since Oct. 7 have been antisemitic in nature, FBI Director Chris Wray said Wednesday at a congressional hearing. A source familiar with the data told JI that the number of antisemitic incidents reported to the FBI has surpassed reported Islamophobic incidents by a four-to-one margin, even including the October stabbing of a Palestinian-American boy in Illinois. (An FBI spokesperson declined to comment.)
“I think hate is bad and all forms of hate are bad, but it’s also okay to note a specific crisis in the moment of crisis,” said a lobbyist at a Jewish organization who has been in several meetings with Biden administration officials since Oct. 7. “While there is rising Islamophobia in the U.S., there’s a dramatic, historic rise of antisemitism, and it’s okay to just call it out directly.”
Ambassador Deborah Lipstadt, the U.S. special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism, has called out those who reflexively mention multiple forms of hate instead of zooming in on whatever is currently at issue.
“When George Floyd was murdered it would’ve been so inappropriate to say, ‘We condemn the racism that was behind this and the homophobia and the antisemitism,’” Lipstadt said on CNN last week. “But somehow when it comes to antisemitism, it couldn’t be called out on its own. It couldn’t stand on its own.”
Pressed by CNN anchor Dana Bash on what this “whataboutism” does, Lipstadt said that it “dilutes and to a certain degree rationalizes and or justifies” instances of antisemitism. (Speaking on Tuesday at the March for Israel in Washington, Lipstadt offered the Jewish community support from the Biden administration: “This government stands shoulder to shoulder against Jew-hatred,” she said.)
Biden and spokespeople for the White House have strongly condemned antisemitism since Oct. 7.
“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,” deputy press secretary Andrew Bates said last month. “President Biden is proud to have been an enemy of antisemitism and hate his entire life, and he always will be.”
White House deputy communications director Herbie Ziskend defended Biden’s record on antisemitism in comments to JI on Thursday, but he did not address the use of language linking antisemitism and Islamophobia. He pointed to the 2017 far-right, antisemitic “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville motivating Biden’s presidential run, and to the White House’s release earlier this year of a national strategy to counter antisemitism.
“He has forcefully and repeatedly spoken out against antisemitism at the White House and during multiple trips to Israel, including a visit last month after the Hamas terror attacks,” Ziskend said.
“The President has taken and will continue to take aggressive action to protect the Jewish community amid the alarming rise of antisemitism,” Ziskend continued. “He will also continue to take action and speak out against Islamophobia and all forms of hate, to ensure all Americans can live their lives in safety and without fear for who they are.”
It’s in the language coming across in recent policy announcements and government press releases, and even in private conversations, where antisemitism and Islamophobia are increasingly discussed together.
“There has been this rush to talk about Islamophobia largely in the context of creating some kind of equivalency,” said a mid-level administration official who was not authorized to speak to the press. “There is this perceived need to offset extremely legitimate, urgent discussion of an indisputable spike in antisemitism in Europe and North America with commensurate urgent language about Islamophobia, that by many accounts isn’t warranted.”
Jewish activists told JI that they support efforts to address Islamophobia, including the recently announced White House national strategy to counter Islamophobia. The decision to create that strategy grew out of a cross-government working group created last December to address “antisemitism, Islamophobia and related forms of bias and discrimination.” The group’s first action was to create the national antisemitism strategy, which was released in May and has served as a guidepost for the White House as antisemitism skyrocketed in recent weeks.
After the murder of the six-year-old in Illinois, more than 150 Jewish organizations released a statement stating that they “unequivocally reject Islamophobia and anti-Arab hate.”
“I’m not threatened at all by acknowledging the seriousness of Islamophobia, which has been, I think, institutionalized in this country, definitely since 9/11, if not before that. I don’t feel threatened that the administration, for example, put out a plan about combating Islamophobia, which I believe to be on the rise,” said one liberal Jewish activist who is close to the White House.
“It’s not threatening to Jews to talk about Islamophobia,” the activist continued. “But it is minimizing the specific threat of antisemitism by watering down every criticism of antisemitism by saying, ‘And by the way, I also condemn Islamophobia.’” An Oct. 15 statement from Biden condemning the murder of the Palestinian-American boy in Illinois did not also mention antisemitism.
Since then, the growing need to frequently invoke both antisemitism and Islamophobia together has drawn the concern of some in the Jewish community. Last week, the Department of Education sent a letter to university presidents urging them to do more to combat rising antisemitism and Islamophobia. Ken Marcus, who led the Department’s Office of Civil Rights in the Trump administration, called it “something of a missed opportunity” due to its lack of specificity. (The Education Department announced on Thursday that it had opened five investigations into antisemitism since Oct. 7, and two investigations into Islamophobia — six at colleges and one at a K-12 school.)
“We reject Islamophobia, period,” said Nathan Diament, executive director of public policy at the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America. “We have an existential stake in religious freedom in the United States, and there not being religious-based bigotry in the United States.” But, he added, “sometimes putting antisemitism together with other forms of bigotry is done in a way that dilutes the necessary attention that antisemitism needs to receive.”
However, one longtime Democratic strategist cautioned that if the White House addressed antisemitism without mentioning Islamophobia, they would likely face pushback from Muslim voters and from progressive staffers.
“When we talk about how to be most effective now, the most positive way to begin is to be inclusive,” said the Democrat, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about a presidential administration they are close to. “Having said that, once you begin in an inclusive way, what you’re going to wind up developing are very different strategies, because in fact the kinds of discrimination we’re talking about come out differently, and I believe will need to be addressed differently. One technique is not automatically transferable to another.”
One White House source, speaking anonymously to discuss internal conversations, said there have been “so many internal battles on this.” Similarly, at the State Department, Secretary of State Tony Blinken has faced internal dissent over President Joe Biden’s support for Israel in its quest to defeat Hamas. Late last month, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre was forced to walk back an awkward answer she gave when asked about rising antisemitism — and she responded by saying that Muslims “have endured a disproportionate number of hate-fueled attacks.”
Despite any generational or intra-party tensions, sources close to the White House point out that Biden has the strong backing of the Jewish community. A new poll this week showed Biden with a 66% approval rating among Jewish voters.
“He’s a true friend of Israel and a true friend of the Jewish people, putting aside all the noise coming out of [the State Department] and alleged distress at the White House about his policy,” said the mid-level administration official. “Don’t forget, the duly elected president has made very clear his feelings.”
Ultimately, the question of language matters most insofar as it relates to what the White House is actually doing to combat antisemitism.
“I’ve been very pleasantly surprised and heartened by most of the verbal action coming out of the administration,” said the Jewish communal lobbyist. “They seem like they want to be doing more. There just seems to be a lack of certainty on what else they can and should be doing.”
The linkage of antisemitism and Islamophobia is not new, particularly within the Democratic Party. In 2019, after Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) used language that was widely viewed as antisemitic, many of her colleagues — including many Democrats — sought to condemn her. Democratic infighting led to a resolution that condemned both antisemitism and Islamophobia as “hateful expressions of intolerance.”
Diament said the federal government’s response to the two should be proportionate, particularly as data shows many more instances of antisemitism.
“If there was a category five hurricane in New Orleans, and then there’s a snowstorm in Boston that causes schools to close for a couple of days, you’re going to be sending more resources to deal with the impact of the category five hurricane then you’re gonna send to clear the roads in Boston,” said Diament. “The response has to match the need.”