Speaking Out

Biden condemns violent campus protests, Oct. 7 denialism and defenders in Holocaust remembrance speech

House Speaker Mike Johnson and Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries also spoke out against rising antisemitism at the annual congressional Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony

Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

President Joe Biden and House Speaker Mike Johnson hold images of Holocaust victims during the annual Days of Remembrance ceremony for Holocaust survivors at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on May 7, 2024. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

In a forceful speech on Tuesday at the annual Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony on Capitol Hill, President Joe Biden delivered strong remarks denouncing violent anti-Israel protests on college campuses, harassment and violence targeting the American Jewish community and ongoing efforts to deny, downplay or move past the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel.

The remarks, one of Biden’s clearest denunciations of antisemitism and Hamas in months, came amid surging anti-Israel protests on college campuses around the country and growing domestic and international pressure on Israel.

“I see your fear, your hurt and your pain, let me reassure you as your president you are not alone, you belong, you always have and you always will,” Biden said. “And my commitment to the safety of the Jewish people, the security of Israel, and its right to exist as an independent Jewish state is ironclad, even when we disagree.”

The president said that the right to hold strong beliefs about world events and to “debate, disagree, protest peacefully” is fundamental to America, but that there is “no place on any campus in America, any place in America for antisemitism, hate speech or threats of violence of any kind.” 

Biden emphasized that attacks and destruction of property — which have happened on a number of campuses — are not protected speech and are illegal.

“We are not a lawless country, we are a civil society. We uphold the rule of law,” Biden said. “No one should have to hide or be afraid just to be themselves.”

He said that it’s incumbent on all Americans to “be those guardians, we must never rest, we must rise against hate, meet across the divide, see our common humanity,” and that attacks on any minority group are threats to all minority groups.

Biden also condemned those who have already moved past the Hamas attack on Israel, and the “too many people” who are “denying, downplaying, rationalizing, ignoring the horrors of the Holocaust and Oct. 7, including Hamas’ appalling use of sexual violence to torture and terrorize Jews.”

“Now, here we are, not 75 years later, but just seven and a half months later,” Biden said. “People are already forgetting that Hamas unleashed this terror. It was Hamas that brutalized Israelis, it was Hamas that took and that continues to hold hostages. I have not forgotten and neither have you. And we will not forget.”

He connected such rhetoric to the Holocaust, highlighting that the Holocaust began with smaller crimes in the face of “indifference” from the world.

“It’s absolutely despicable and it must stop,” Biden added, of the Oct. 7 denialism. “Silence and denial can hide much but it can erase nothing… it cannot be buried no matter how hard people try.”

Biden pledged that he is “working around the clock” and “will not rest” until all hostages held in Gaza are freed.

In connection with Biden’s speech, the administration announced on Tuesday a series of additional steps to combat antisemitism. 

The Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights issued new guidance to every school district and college in the country that provides “examples of Antisemitic discrimination, as well as other forms of hate,” which could prompt civil rights investigations, according to a White House announcement. 

Education officials told Jewish leaders last week the guidance is aimed at helping school leaders distinguish between protected free speech and antisemitic incidents.

The Department of Homeland Security will create a new “campus safety resources guide” to help schools access “financial, educational and technical assistance” available to them. 

DHS is also set to assemble and disseminate guidance on “community-based targeted violence and terrorism prevention” and ensure that targeted communities are aware of the federal resources available to them.

And the State Department’s Office of the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism will bring together technology companies to discuss procedures for combating antisemitism online.

In separate remarks, Stuart Eizenstat, the administration’s special adviser for Holocaust issues, praised the House for passing the Antisemitism Awareness Act, which would codify the requirement that the Department of Education use the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism and its examples in assessing campus antisemitism. Eizenstat said the bill would help clarify the definition of antisemitism.

House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) drew direct connections between the Holocaust, and the events that led up to it, and current events on U.S. college campuses, highlighting the role of German universities in perpetuating antisemitism and ultimately atrocities during the Holocaust.

“We remember what happened then, and now today, we are witnessing American universities quickly becoming hostile for Jewish students and faculty,” Johnson said. “The very campuses [that] were once the envy of the international academy have succumbed to an antisemitic virus… Now is the time for moral clarity, and we must put an end to this madness.”

Speaking graphically about both events, Johnson drew direct parallels between the atrocities of the Holocaust and the Oct. 7 attack.

“We must be graphic right now because the threat of repeating the past is so great,” Johnson said. “And some are trying to downplay, justify what happened on Oct. 7. Some are even blaming Israel for the barbaric, inhuman attacks. There are some who would prefer to criticize Israel and lecture them on their military tactics… than punish the terrorists who perpetrated these horrific crimes.”

Johnson added that it’s “very important we deliver” the “critical assistance” to Israel “without any delay at all” and that “we have to do all that we can, everything within our power, to ensure that evil does not prevail.”

The administration has reportedly been delaying shipments of bombs to Israel over disputes about Israel’s operations in Gaza.

House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) likewise highlighted the “deeply disturbing rise in antisemitism on campuses, throughout the country and around the world, adding that it’s a “very searing time for the Jewish community.”

Jeffries called to “recommit to the principle of Never Again,” and to “eradicating antisemitism whenever and wherever it rears its ugly head.”

“We must crush antisemitism along with racism and sexism, Islamophobia, xenophobia, homophobia and all other forms of hatred, together,” Jeffries said. “That is the American way, together. And together, we will defeat antisemitism with the fierce urgency of now. That’s a moral necessity.”

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