President Joe Biden celebrates Jewish American Heritage Month at the White House the week before releasing a major plan to combat antisemitism.
Adam Schultz/White House Photo/Alamy
This is a newsletter by associate editor Mari Cohen.
June 1st, 2023
Last Thursday, after the Biden administration released an unprecedented, 100-plus-pronged federal plan to combat antisemitism, my inbox filled up with press releases from Jewish organizations across the political spectrum claiming victory. Progressive groups like Bend the Arc and Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ) as well as establishment organizations like the Conference of Presidents, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), and the American Jewish Committee (AJC) all celebrated their success in lobbying the administration to adopt their policy priorities. (Only a few right-wing exceptions, like the Republican Jewish Coalition, StopAntisemitism, and the Zionist Organization of America, have expressed disappointment.) In some cases, the groups seemed to be drawing contradictory conclusions from the same document, especially when it came to the plan’s inclusion of the controversial International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) “working definition” of antisemitism, which explicitly defines certain types of anti-Zionist speech as antisemitism. The Jewish Federations of North America announced that they were “pleased that the White House reaffirms the [IHRA] working definition of antisemitism,” adding that they “maintain our commitment to its uncontested use.” The ADL even insisted in a press release that the Biden administration had “adopted” the IHRA. Meanwhile the dovish two-state-solution organization Americans for Peace Now (APN) wrote to “thank the administration for . . . not endorsing or otherwise codifying into law the problematic” IHRA definition.
The unanimous acclaim for the plan makes it hard to parse what the document is actually doing. “All the groups that put out statements are sophisticated enough to know that it was extremely important for them to be supportive,” said Matt Nosanchuk, founder of the liberal group New York Jewish Agenda, who served as a liaison to the Jewish community in the Obama White House. “Here you have the first ever American national strategy to combat antisemitism, so how could a major Jewish organization—many of which called for such a strategy—credibly criticize it and distance themselves?” Still, a close read shows that, on a few key debates, the Biden administration has incorporated the advice and perspectives of progressive Jewish groups—and rejected the more conservative organizations’ agenda. While the administration acknowledged that IHRA is the “most prominent” definition of antisemitism, it did not fulfill the Jewish establishment’s request that the government adopt IHRA as the sole acceptable definition and encourage its use in policy; instead, the Biden plan nodded to the fact that multiple definitions of antisemitism have been proposed. The plan also emphasized the idea, common in progressive Jewish advocacy circles, that antisemitism frequently occurs alongside other manifestations of hatred—including racism, Islamophobia, and anti-LGBTQ sentiment—and is best fought in coalition.
Despite these nods to progressives, the majority of the plan’s policy planks simply reiterate the federal government’s existing approaches to fighting antisemitic violence—many of which involve security programming run by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the FBI, agencies that left-wing activists have criticized for targeting marginalized groups. Still, the plan signals that progressive Jewish groups in the US have succeeded in making antisemitism policy contested territory, rather than the sole purview of legacy organizations like the ADL. “The White House, in having to listen to the Jewish community, had to go beyond what the usual suspects wanted,” said Emma Saltzberg, US strategic campaigns director for Diaspora Alliance, a group that fights antisemitism and its weaponization. “There’s something hopeful and encouraging about what can happen when more of the range of Jewish opinions and experiences are taken into account.”
The Fight Over the IHRA
When Biden announced the formation of a council to combat antisemitism last December, “the assumption was that the White House was going to endorse and codify IHRA,” said Hadar Susskind, president and CEO of APN. The definition had been adopted by the US State Department in 2016 and praised by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and by Deborah Lipstadt, the special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism. US allies abroad had also made IHRA a linchpin of their government-sponsored anti-antisemitism work: A 2021 European Union plan to combat antisemitism called on member states to adopt it as a top order of business; to date, 30 European countries have done so. Establishment groups have long lobbied the Biden administration to do the same: Expanding the use of IHRA was central to a list of recommendations to the executive branch the AJC released last September, for example. But in conducting nearly 1,000 listening sessions over five months, the administration spoke not just to bigwigs like the AJC, but also to representatives of progressive groups like Bend the Arc and local social justice organizations like New York City’s JFREJ, Chicago’s Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, and Minneapolis’s Jewish Community Action. The week before the plan’s release, the Jewish press reported that legacy organizations were in a panic, because they had learned that alongside IHRA, the plan would reference an alternate definition of antisemitism known as the Nexus Document. (Nexus, created in 2021 by a task force of liberal professors and activists, explicitly states that not all anti-Zionism is caused by antisemitism.)
Before the plan was even public, therefore, Jewish groups were sparring over its contents. ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt tweeted that “no other definitions” of antisemitism besides IHRA would “work”; the Conference of Presidents sent the administration a letter from 550 rabbis arguing that IHRA must be adopted as the “official and only” antisemitism definition. The fight over the definition threatened to “overshadow” the plan itself, the Forward’s Arno Rosenfeld reported, becoming a proxy war for “competing visions of Jewish safety.” On one side, he wrote, centrist and right-wing organizations “emphasize defending Israel and explaining the ways that antisemitism is different from other forms of racism,” and thus promote IHRA, which codifies some anti-Israel sentiment as antisemitism. On the other, “progressives see white supremacy as the greatest threat to Jews and focus on building broad coalitions to stop far-right extremism,” leading them to promote definitions of antisemitism that don’t preclude Palestine solidarity activism.
Ultimately, the leaks turned out to be true: Though the plan states that the US has “embraced” the IHRA definition, it also says it “welcomes” Nexus, and acknowledges that the meaning of antisemitism is disputed terrain, noting that “there are several definitions.” While only IHRA and Nexus are mentioned by name, the White House also notes the existence of “other such efforts,” likely referring to the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism, which has been endorsed by 350 scholars and states that opposing Zionism is not antisemitic. The plan does not suggest codifying IHRA or using it in any official capacity, and instead offers a paragraph of original language to describe anti-Jewish sentiment, defining antisemitism as “prejudice, bias, hostility, discrimination, or violence against Jews for being Jewish” that “can manifest as a form of racial, religious, national origin, and/or ethnic discrimination, bias, or hatred.” It doesn’t mention Israel at all. This demonstrates an avoidant approach to IHRA’s anti-anti-Zionism that also characterizes the rest of the document, in which the word “Israel” is mentioned on only three of 60 pages. The plan does note that the administration is approaching its antisemitism strategy with “unshakable commitment to the State of Israel’s right to exist, its legitimacy, and its security”—but none of the official policy suggestions advocate supporting Israel or challenging anti-Zionist politics. (This fact has not stopped the spin: After the plan was released, US Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer told Jewish Insider that he was proud of having “succeeded” in lobbying the administration for “strong language” on IHRA in response to the concerns of Jewish groups—a puzzling statement given that the document includes the very language that pro-Israel groups had said they feared.)
The document is the latest in a series of defeats for proponents of the IHRA definition. In February, the American Bar Association removed IHRA from a resolution condemning antisemitism after civil rights groups argued that including it would harm Palestinians and undermine free speech. In January, Biden’s Department of Education announced that it would delay issuing a rule that advocates had expected might enshrine the definition as the standard for adjudicating campus civil rights complaints. Now, the language in Biden’s plan suggests that progressive coalitions have indeed succeeded in politicizing the IHRA by pointing out its free speech implications. “The fact that this process didn’t result in the US government adopting the IHRA definition demonstrates that opponents of its adoption, which include most civil rights groups in the United States in addition to progressive Jews and Palestinian groups, are a force to be reckoned with,” said Saltzberg. Susskind agreed: “That’s a giant win for us and a loss of giant magnitudes for ADL and AJC and others who spent a gazillion dollars and hours on these huge campaigns pushing how essential IHRA is.”
Anti-antisemitism as a Platform for Coalition Building
The document frequently reiterates that antisemitism is bound up with racism and homophobia; it even cites historical context for these connections, noting that “the Nazis borrowed from Jim Crow laws to implement the Nuremberg Laws that isolated Jews as a separate race.” Many of the recommendations ask federal agencies to combat not just antisemitism but also Islamophobia and racism. One action step directs federal agencies to incorporate “information about antisemitism and Islamophobia, and about workplace religious accommodations into training programs”; another commands the Small Business Administration to provide training for small business owners to respond to “antisemitism, Islamophobia, and other forms of hate”; yet another instructs the Department of Agriculture and Department Health and Human Services to ensure kosher and halal meals are available in school lunch programs and health care settings.
Such strategies are more a hallmark of the progressive approach than the establishment one: Though the ADL and the AJC both work in coalition with other identity-based groups—the ADL partners with organizations like the Asian American Foundation and the NAACP and the AJC runs a Muslim-Jewish advisory council—their commitment to anti-racism has historically flagged when their allies prove critical of Israel or of white Jews. (Notably, the ADL’s annual antisemitism audit did not mention coalition building among its action steps.) Centrist and right-wing groups have also tended to reject the idea that antisemitism is bound up with other forms of prejudice. As recently as May 16th, the European Jewish Association passed a resolution calling for antisemitism to be treated as a “unique” phenomenon, separate from other forms of hate, and for Jewish organizations to “reject intersectionality” because of “Zionist exclusion.”
It’s meaningful, therefore, that as with the IHRA, the White House has rejected the establishment groups’ vision and gestured to a vision of intercommunal solidarity. Yet many of the plan’s action steps appear largely symbolic, such as a proposed “Ally Challenge”—in which the White House Office of Public Engagement will invite Americans to share stories about standing up for members of marginalized groups they don’t belong to—and a digital campaign by the President’s Council on Sports, Fitness & Nutrition inviting the “public to share personal stories of how activities like sports or cooking have promoted connection, inclusion, and cross-community solidarity.”
Other aspects of the document seem to sidestep the political realities of doing anti-racist coalition work in the present moment. One of the pillars of the plan is a major investment in education on antisemitism and the Holocaust. The document promises that the federal government will create new educational grants and curricular materials and will establish a research center to study the effectiveness of existing Holocaust education efforts, to be run out of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. Yet in a document otherwise attuned to the intersection of antisemitism with other forms of hate, the vision for better Holocaust and antisemitism education elides how the country’s right wing is currently undertaking a project to ban education on queer identity and structural racism under the banner of fighting “Critical Race Theory” (CRT). The Biden plan suggests that Holocaust education can “teach students about hate, bigotry, racism, and prejudice more broadly,” but in much of the country, this may not be easily achievable due to anti-CRT attacks. Indeed, these efforts have sometimes caught Holocaust education in their crosshairs: In 2021, a Texas law designed to prevent the teaching of “CRT” in schools turned out to require that teachers present an “opposing view” of the Holocaust. The administration does not mention plans to counter this backlash or name its right-wing political origins, which some advocates see as an incomplete approach to a formidable issue. “[Anti-CRT attacks] undercut the possibility of a critical approach to antisemitism education, one which situates it within and alongside broader historic and ongoing structures of oppression,” said Ben Lorber, a senior research analyst for Political Research Associates who tracks white nationalism and antisemitism. Lorber sees what he calls the plan’s “depoliticized approach” as insufficient to address the “dire threats to multiracial democracy” that many states are facing.
Still other elements of the plan seem actively at odds with the administration’s stated goal of bringing multiple marginalized communities together to fight bigotry. The fact sheet accompanying the plan notes that the ADL will be tapped to join prominent identity-based groups like the Urban League and Asian American Foundation to host “local dialogues” that bring together minority communities “with the goal of building mutual understanding, countering extremism, and addressing manifestations of bigotry.” By elevating the ADL, the White House is limiting the political potential of these coalitions: The organization has earned the distrust of marginalized communities by attacking left-wing movements in service of defending Israel. In 2020, following the George Floyd uprising, more than 200 activist groups signed a letter calling on progressives to avoid allying with the ADL. Notably, the White House does not list any Muslim organizations that will join the ADL in its cross-communal dialogues—which could have something to do with the fact that the ADL has condemned the country’s foremost Muslim organization, the Council of American Islamic Relations (CAIR), as an extremist group because of its anti-Zionist politics. (The fact sheet mentions that CAIR will work elsewhere with the administration to educate houses of worship on security measures, and the organization’s inclusion has drawn backlash from Zionist groups.)
Antisemitism and the Security State
Perhaps the area where progressive groups were least successful is in their various proposals to shift away from the security state in countering antisemitism. In general, the Biden plan takes the opposite approach, routing many of its recommendations through the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, and the National Counterterrorism Center—a decision consistent with the federal government’s existing practice of tasking law enforcement with the defense of vulnerable communities. In a policy memo submitted to the task force creating the plan, JFREJ lamented that federal, state, and local governments “continue to promote increased policing, heightened surveillance, aggressive prosecution, and restrictions of political speech and dissent,” which it called “ineffective responses” that “will disproportionately harm many of the communities of color and low-income communities they are supposed to protect.” One illustrative example of the problem with this approach to hate violence involves the Nonprofit Security Grant Program (NSGP), housed in DHS, which spends hundreds of millions of dollars a year to fortify houses of worship against attacks—most of which is sent to synagogues and Jewish organizations. In 2020 and 2021, CAIR raised the alarm that the NSGP was discouraging Muslim applicants by implying that grantees could be subject to government surveillance or checked against the Terrorism Screening Database, known for unfairly targeting Muslims. At the time, Fatema Ahmad, executive director of the Boston-based Muslim Justice League, told me that accepting a grant from DHS allows the agency to “say that they’re supporting the community while they’re the same ones who are harassing Muslims when we try to travel, and doing everything horrific that we’ve seen at the border.”
Biden’s plan does acknowledge this fraught history, noting that DHS is “mindful that previous prevention programs created trust deficits with key communities.” It also acknowledges the importance of “community-based violence prevention,” such as programs that connect individuals at risk of committing violence to social supports. But the agencies it directs to oversee these community-based efforts are the National Security Council, the FBI, the Department of Justice, and DHS. (It even names the DHS Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention Program, the successor to the Countering Violent Extremism [CVE] program, an initiative infamous for targeting Muslims.) To be sure, progressive responses that emphasize grassroots community relationships and shun the involvement of law enforcement are a hard sell for this administration, as they would require a radical reorientation of the status quo. A policy memo submitted to the administration by Bend the Arc, for example, suggested the relocation of anti-violence programs such as the NSGP to the Department of Health and Human Services to make it more accessible to communities distrustful of DHS—a move that would require Congressional action.
Progressives warn that further empowering security agencies—even by funding programs ostensibly designed to stop white supremacists—can support the targeting of marginalized groups and left-wing activists. Currently, the state of Georgia is prosecuting more than 40 activists fighting the “Cop City” police training center on “domestic terrorism” charges, in part because DHS classified their activist group as a domestic terrorist organization. “The events in Atlanta reflect a disturbing nationwide trend to respond to the very real problem of rising white nationalist violence with broad ‘counter-terrorism’ measures that can stifle dissent,” the ACLU wrote in response. A coalition of locally focused progressive Jewish groups from New York, Detroit, Chicago, Minneapolis, Boston, and North Carolina made a similar point in a statement on the Biden plan. “We remain deeply concerned about approaches to protect our communities that rely on increased policing, surveillance, and other carceral approaches that grant false promises of safety to some at the expense of others,” they wrote. Still, the plan mostly seems to direct these federal agencies to work on projects already within their purview—conducting online workshops; doing outreach to additional synagogues; preparing research reports—rather than, in the words of Jason Kimelman-Block, Washington director of Bend the Arc, “turbo charging” them with massive funding and expansion.
Overall, in a policy climate where antisemitism prevention efforts frequently result in pro-Israel and pro-police initiatives, the plan is notable for its decision not to meaningfully advance either mode, sticking largely with a reiteration of the status quo. Its lukewarm approach to IHRA in particular suggests that establishment Jewish organizations have lost some of their primacy, and can no longer take for granted the government’s support for their agenda. Though the plan does not fully embrace progressives’ analysis—neither offering a rebuke of IHRA nor taking up left-wing groups’ anti-carceral suggestions—some activists on the left are relieved all the same. “A lot of what we saw was a restatement and underscoring of previous policy,” said Kimelman-Block. “It’s not the strategy that Bend the Arc would’ve written, and there’s a lot in there we could criticize, but I wouldn’t say it’s a step in the wrong direction.”
Before you go: A digital copy of our Spring issue has already hit inboxes, and the physical magazine will be arriving in mailboxes soon! We’re offering a special promotion for newsletter readers: Receive 50% off the cover price when you use the code “SPRING23” at checkout. Subscribe now to receive our award-winning magazine. You’ll receive 3 quarterly issues, and our winter gift, delivered to your door.