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January 28, 2021 8:14 am

Confronting Antisemitism in Biden’s First One Hundred Days

avatar by Julie Rayman

Opinion

US President Joe Biden delivers his speech after he was sworn in as the 46th President of the United States on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S., January 20, 2021. REUTERS/Jim Bourg

President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. has made it clear from day one that there is simply no time to waste in tackling the to-do list for his administration and Congress.

Uniting a fiercely divided nation, confronting climate change, reckoning with a long history of racial injustice, and helping the country heal from a global pandemic that has taken more than 400,000 lives are among the top priorities.

Multiple pre-election surveys confirmed that the primary concerns of Jewish voters mirrored those of other Americans — economy, jobs, social security, health care, and the COVID-19 response.

But when American Jews sense danger, national priorities are balanced with more parochial concerns, which is the case now amid a new wave of hatred and prejudice. The State of Antisemitism Report released in October by the American Jewish Committee (AJC) indicated that 82% of American Jews believe antisemitism has increased over the past five years. In a separate pre-election survey, AJC found that 75% of Jewish voters believed Biden was the candidate who could better address the scourge.

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Indeed, Biden suggested on the campaign trail and in his inaugural address that the alarming rise of hateful ideologies in the US is hardly a parochial concern. In recent years, deadly antisemitism has spread from shore to shore: from Charlottesville, Pittsburgh, and Jersey City to Poway, Seattle, and Portland. The threats of domestic terrorism from various sources and violence that target Jews demand the nation’s urgent attention and truth telling.

Truth starts with gathering facts. While Jews account for less than 2% of the American population, the latest FBI Hate Crimes Statistics report found that more than 60% of religious-based hate crimes in 2019 targeted Jews, an increase of 14% over 2018.

But the federal data only tells part of the story. The FBI does not require local law enforcement agencies to report crimes driven by prejudice. As a result, cities as large as Baltimore reported no hate crimes in 2019, despite the widely reported assault of a Baltimore man on his way to synagogue.

The new Congress must adopt, and President Biden to sign into law, the Jabara-Heyer NO HATE Act. This bipartisan bill, long supported by my organization, would provide resources to adequately track and prosecute hate crimes in all 50 states. It would improve hate crime reporting with incentives to submit data to the FBI and grants to empower state and local governments to train law enforcement, create reporting hotlines, direct resources to minority communities, and conduct public educational forums.

Education should include a clear explanation of antisemitism in its various forms, including conspiracy theories and veiled attacks on Israel.

AJC’s State of Antisemitism report found that 25% of Americans are unsure of what antisemitism means, and 21% never heard the term.

To correct this ignorance, the Biden administration should embrace and utilize the International Holocaust Remembrance Association (IHRA) Working Definition of Antisemitism. Already in use by the US Departments of Education and State, and adopted by nearly 30 countries around the world, the definition is a useful guide to help Americans and the American government understand what antisemitism is and thus protect the Jewish community against stereotypes and prejudices, as well as denial of the Holocaust and Israel’s right to exist.

Adopting the working definition would reinforce US global leadership in the fight against the world’s oldest and most pervasive hatred.

One of the last bipartisan bills passed by the previous Congress and signed into law by former president Trump elevated the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism to the rank of ambassador-at-large, reporting directly to the Secretary of State. The envoy post, created in 2004, as antisemitism rose in Europe, was left vacant for the first two years of the Trump administration. Though the eventual appointee, Elan Carr, masterfully juggled concerns about antisemitism both at home and abroad, Biden should not allow a similar lapse. That post should never be vacant.

Additionally, since the Carter administration, every president, except for Trump, appointed a White House liaison to the Jewish community. Biden should revive that custom, which existed for a reason. As an ambassador-at-large monitors antisemitism abroad, a liaison would focus on the hatred here at home. He or she would guide the Biden administration on the many issues that matter to the Jewish community and work to expand the range of Jewish voices being heard at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Orthodox, Jews of color, Reform, Conservative, and even unaffiliated should add a diversity of views and political opinions to the conversation, so Jews are not pushed to the margin nor misrepresented as a monolith, which further feeds antisemitic conspiracies and stereotypes.

Antisemitism left unchecked can be a death knell for democracy. Efforts in the first 100 days of the Biden administration to fight antisemitism would show the world that the US places a high priority on promoting pluralism, protecting minorities, and safeguarding democracy. That keeps all Americans safe.

Julie Rayman is the American Jewish Committee’s Senior Director of Policy and Political Affairs.

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