For most Jews, the specter of antisemitism is anything but theoretical.
Even for those of us fortunate enough to grow up in America in the late 20th/early 21st century with protections for equality and freedom, we live under the shadow of stories from our relatives, friends and ancestors who faced persecution and violence.
I think of my mother fleeing the Nazis and the nightmare of the Holocaust. Of my father’s family fleeing violent pogroms in the Russian Empire of the late 19th century. Parts of my family trace their roots back to the Inquisition, and the mass expulsion of Jews from Spain.
Jewish history is about so much more than suffering and violence, yet these experiences inform who we are, our core values and how we approach the world.
For me and for J Street, our memories remind us that we must be vigilant against not just antisemitism but all forms of hate, and make clear the importance of defending tolerant, pluralistic, liberal democracy here in the United States and around the world.
That’s why we’re so heartened to see the new National Strategy for Combating Antisemitism released today by the Biden Administration.
In a period when the threats of antisemitism, far-right extremism and white nationalism are surging in the United States, it’s deeply encouraging to see the White House make this a top priority and adopt a nuanced, well-considered, comprehensive approach.
It’s no secret that a growing number of voices in America today are using antisemitic tropes, rhetoric and ideology to whip up fear, division and resentment and build their followings.
Most seriously, Donald Trump’s MAGA coalition and the QAnon movement continue to employ vile conspiracy theories about “The Great Replacement” and George Soros, portraying him and a number of other Jewish philanthropists as all-powerful puppet-masters bent on undermining America and threatening our country’s future.
This embrace of antisemitic rhetoric at the highest levels of our politics has helped pave the way for horrifying acts of violence against Jewish Americans and other vulnerable minorities. Indeed, 74 percent of Jewish voters say Trump and the MAGA movement are a threat to Jews in America.
That’s why it’s so important that the Biden Administration has put forward over 100 concrete recommendations and policies for combating hatred and keeping our communities safe.
It’s why we as Jewish Americans need to continue to work in partnership with our fellow communities under threat, building powerful alliances against hatred and in defense of liberal democracy.
And it’s why we can’t afford for the critical work of dismantling the machinery of antisemitism to become derailed and sidetracked by divisive and ultimately tangential debates about criticism of Israel.
Unfortunately, some in our community – and their allies in the Israeli government – have sought to single-mindedly focus discussion about antisemitism on the question of whether and when criticism of Israel and advocacy for Palestinian rights constitutes antisemitism.
This is a debate that distracts focus from the truly pressing threat posed to our community and others by Trump, his allies and their white nationalist followers.
Some well-established organizations have been pushing the US government to exclusively elevate and codify a definition of antisemitism put forward in a different context years ago by the International Holocaust Remembrance Association (IHRA).
J Street respects the original creation of the IHRA Working Definition as an illustrative tool and one of several definitions to consider when battling the scourge of antisemitism.
But officially codifying the IHRA definition and the examples it incorporates (7 out of 11 of which deal with Israel, 5 of them exclusively) into US law would create significant opportunities for abuse and politicization. It would prioritize the narrow agenda of a small number of loud voices who seek to chill debate over Israeli policy, Zionism and occupation over the community’s broader concern about the rise of right-wing ethnonationalism.
We’re glad that the White House recognized that codifying any one specific, sweeping definition of antisemitism as the sole standard for use in enforcing domestic law and policy could do more harm than good.
We commend them for meeting with and listening to a wide range of Jewish communal stakeholders as they formulated this strategy, and for putting forward recommendations and policies that meet the needs and priorities of the large majority of our community.
The struggle against antisemitism and all forms of bigotry is far too important to become a mere proxy for debates over Israel. To help keep our community and our country safe, tolerant and democratic, we need to uphold core freedoms, including freedom of speech – and protect the right to have strong differences of opinion over Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Instead of teaming up with dangerous MAGA politicians to target and suppress those who support Palestinian rights, we need to build bridges with fellow vulnerable minorities to make common cause against the dangers of ethnonationalism, white supremacy and insurrection.
The Biden administration has laid out a commonsense, principled approach that is true to our community’s needs and values. It’s the right approach for confronting the antisemitism that threatens us today – and doing everything in our power to ensure it becomes, once and for all, a thing of the past.