WASHINGTON (JTA) — Top Biden administration officials launched a roundtable on antisemitism on Wednesday by describing a “rising tide of antisemitism” and likening the atmosphere in the United States to that of Europe, where Jewish worship is held under lock and key.
“Right now, there is an epidemic of hate facing our country,” said Douglas Emhoff, the Jewish second gentleman, who convened and chaired the 90-minute session.
Jewish officials represented at the meeting were impressed by how comprehensive the meeting was, saying it went beyond the white supremacist threat that the Biden administration has focused on in the past to other sources, among them attackers who target the visibly Orthodox and Jewish students on campuses.
The meeting in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, adjacent to the White House, comes on the heels of weeks of antisemitic invective spewed by rapper Kanye West, who now goes by Ye, and the dinner attended last month by West, Holocaust denier Nick Fuentes and former President Donald Trump at Trump’s Florida residence. The discussion also follows alarming spikes in antisemitic invective on Twitter and other platforms.
“In my experience, there’s nothing more vicious than what we’re seeing today,” said Susan Rice, President Joe Biden’s top domestic policy adviser, who described growing up in a heavily Jewish neighborhood in Washington, D.C.
Ten years ago, Rice said, when she was defending Israel against its many enemies as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, she did not imagine a threat to Jews domestically. Now she says she hears antisemitic expressions coming from elected officials, public figures and entertainers, calling it an “incredible rising tide.”
Deborah Lipstadt, the State Department envoy to monitor antisemitism, said she no longer has the luxury of her predecessors, who traveled abroad to assess antisemitism in foreign countries. Now, she said, she had to treat the problem as a domestic and a foreign one.
“I can’t go to these countries and say ‘You have a problem,’” she said. “Now I have to say ‘We have a serious problem.’”
After multiple attacks on synagogues stateside in recent years, she said, Jewish places of worship were becoming more visibly fortified than they were for years when security, if it existed, was unobtrusive and synagogues were welcoming.
“For decades, when we traveled in Europe, we used to identify synagogues by gendarmes,” she said. “Now we see police cars, now we lock the doors in the United States.”
The Kanye West episodes evidently helped spur the convening of the meeting. George Selim, the Anti-Defamation League senior vice president who was present, said the meeting came together within a week, unlike similar events which can take months to organize.
“The urgency was clear, the meeting needed to be convened, it needed to be in person,” he told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in an interview.
Representatives of the dozen or so groups that attended were impressed by the level of attention: in addition to Emhoff, Rice and Lipstadt, there were officials from the National Security Council, the Officer of Public Engagement, and the Office of Faith-based Partnerships.
The representatives were impressed by how personal Emhoff, who is married to Vice President Kamala Harris, made the battle. He described how moved he has been by American Jews who are proud of him — the first Jewish spouse of a president or vice president. “I’m in pain right now, our community is in pain,” he said.
Emhoff’s unabashed identification with the Jewish community helped elevate the issue of combating antisemitism, said Rabbi Levi Shemtov, the executive vice president of American Friends of Lubavitch (Chabad).
“He and I might see Jewish ritual and practice a little differently. But one thing Jewish people will remember forever in our history is that when the time came for him to make his decision, he decided to identify unequivocally as a Jew,” Shemtov said.
Amy Spitalnick, the executive director of Integrity First for America, the group that underwrote successful lawsuits against the neo-Nazis who organized the deadly 2017 march in Charlottesville, Virginia, said the officials closely listened to every presentation. (The media was present for opening remarks by government officials, and was ushered out so the representatives of Jewish groups could speak freely.)
“We were watching them take copious notes, they were genuinely listening,” she told JTA.
The range of invitees and the topics addressed also extended beyond the threat posed to Jews from the extreme right, an area that has until now been the Biden administration’s focus, through a summit on extremism in September and a speech Biden gave in Philadelphia last summer.
Speakers addressed antisemitic attacks on the visibly Orthodox which, particularly in the New York area, are most often not carried out by white supremacists. And there were officials from at least three groups that represent the visibly Orthodox: The Orthodox Union, which is Modern Orthodox, along with Agudath Israel of America and American Friends of Lubavitch (Chabad), which are haredi Orthodox.
Speakers also were sensitive to the plight of Jewish students on college campuses, who often face hostility from peers whose sharp criticism of Israel can sometimes manifest as antisemitism.
“On college campuses, the supposed bastions of liberal ideas and ideals, many students believe it better to camouflage their Jewish identity,” Lipstadt said. One of the speakers was Julia Jassey, a senior at the University of Chicago who is the CEO of Jewish on Campus, a student group that tracks antisemitism on campuses.
The Jewish participants said they benefited from hearing how others experienced antisemitism. Abba Cohen, Aguda’s Washington director, said he found receptive listeners when he described an increased effort by local councils to limit the building of Orthodox communities. He and Nathan Diament, the Washington director of the Orthodox Union, also described the threat to the visibly Orthodox.
Their accounts moved others present who do not live the Orthodox lifestyle. “We all have different experiences with antisemitism and clearly for someone who’s Orthodox, it might feel different than for someone who’s not,” said Sheila Katz, the CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women.
Katz said the meeting was a relief because she often has difficulty explaining to her progressive allies why antisemitism persists as a threat.
“I feel like in the last, you know, year, I’ve been saying over and over again, this is getting worse. This is getting amplified, people are emboldened,” she said. “And there are a lot, particularly in the progressive community that would say, ‘No, no, that’s not what’s happening.’”
Some practical proposals were discussed, including a letter this week from a bipartisan slate of lawmakers advocating for a cross-agency “whole of government” task force to combat antisemitism, and an expansion of federal funding that currently underwrites security upgrades for Jewish institutions to include paying for extra police patrols.
The meeting did not result in concrete decisions, but participants said they left with the impression that the federal government was ready to dive deep into finding practicable solutions.
“For me, this is not the end. This is just the beginning of this conversation,” Emhoff said.
Other groups represented included the American Jewish Committee, Hillel International, the Jewish Federations of North America, the Reform and Conservative movements, and Secure Community Network, the security consultancy for the Jewish community.
“It sends a very important message that the sort of rampant antisemitism we’re seeing is unacceptable and that the highest office in the country is doing something about it,” Spitalnick said.