WASHINGTON (JTA) —- At a meeting with Jewish leaders, Biden administration officials vowed to make a plan within two weeks to counter what they say is an alarming rise in antisemitism at U.S. colleges and universities since Hamas’ deadly Oct. 7 attack started a war with Israel.
The government officials, led by Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff and Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, told the Jewish leaders they would reconvene with them to lay out the proposal, sources in the off-the-record meeting Monday told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
Emhoff’s office, in a statement, said that “the administration will continue to engage with leading organizations and students to hear from them directly and take additional actions to counter antisemitism and hate.” Emhoff, who is Jewish, has played a leading role in the Biden administration’s efforts to fight antisemitism.
William Daroff, CEO of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said the Jewish leaders came away reassured.
“The secretary spoke movingly about the obligation that America has to protect the Jewish community, and specifically the obligation that the Department of Education has to ensure that Jewish students in both higher education and K-12 feel safe and secure in their educational centers,” he said in an interview after the meeting.
Since Oct. 7, when Hamas invaded Israel, killing more than 1,400 people, most of them civilians, pro-Palestinian groups at a series of campuses have celebrated or endorsed the attack. At multiple campuses, Jewish students have been barricaded in buildings amid pro-Palestinian protests. Other Jewish students have been assaulted or engaged in violent altercations with pro-Palestinian students.
Participants told JTA that the 13 Jewish leaders present represented the religious and political span of the community — from Reform to Orthodox, from politically progressive to politically conservative — and yet presented a unified message of a call for action.
“I said, it’s no secret that I think that many consider me a progressive but in this moment, what we’re seeing is unlike anything I’ve ever seen, and it goes so far beyond criticism of Israel to very direct attacks on Jews and Jewish spaces, simply because they’re Jewish,” said Amy Spitalnick, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs CEO who has worked for Democrats and who launched her career with J Street, a liberal Jewish Middle East policy group.
“I’ve always been extraordinarily careful about distinguishing between criticism of Israel and antisemitism,” Spitalnik added. “This is not that. This is full-fledged, masks-off antisemitism.”
It was not clear what kinds of steps the Biden administration could implement to combat campus antisemitism.
Ahead of the meeting, the Biden administration outlined steps it has already taken, including having the Justice Department and Department of Homeland Security engagement law enforcement nationwide on the campus, local and state level; supporting Jewish, Muslim and Arab students on campuses around the country; and having federal cybersecurity experts reach out to schools.
The Biden Administration has also expedited an initiative launched just over a week before the Hamas attack to instruct federal officials to include antisemitism and other forms of religious bigotry as protected under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. That initiative was part of a broader presidential strategy to combat antisemitism launched in May, the first of its kind.
Sheila Katz, CEO of the National Council for Jewish Women, suggested that the initiative could be expanded from Title VI of the act, which bans discrimination, to include Title IX, which targets violence and harassment and outlines penalties for offenders.
Also speaking were Adam Lehman, CEO of Hillel International, who described the current campus environment, and Julie Rayman, the American Jewish Committee managing director, who outlined the effect the spike in antisemitism has had on K-12 schools. Other groups represented include the Anti-Defamation League, the Brandeis Center for Human Rights, the Jewish Federations of North America, the Reform and Conservative movements and the Orthodox Union.
Education Department officials have held roundtables for Jewish students around the country, and Cardona and Neera Tanden, Biden’s top domestic policy adviser, plan to visit an as yet unnamed campus this week.
Spitalnick said she hoped that the Biden administration would “leverage their bully pulpit and speak out loudly and clearly, showing up on campuses, making very clear that Jewish students are not isolated and alone.”
Over the weekend, anonymous antisemitic posts on a Greek life website threatened to “shoot up” the Cornell University kosher dining hall and kill and rape Jewish students. Police were called to the dining hall, and the campus Hillel warned students to stay away from it.
Sen. Chuck Schumer, the Jewish New York Democrat who is the majority leader, used his daily address on the Senate floor on Monday to say he was “sickened and frightened” by the Cornell incident.
“The incident targeting Cornell’s Jewish community is utterly revolting, but unfortunately, it was not an isolated occurrence,” Schumer said. “Across the country, on campuses and public spaces, the ancient poison of antisemitism has found new life.”
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Julie Platt, chair of Jewish federations group, is helming Penn’s board amid leadership transition
(JTA) — To steer the university through an unexpected leadership change induced by debate over antisemitism, the board of the University of Pennsylvania turned to their vice chair — who is also one of the most prominent Jewish communal leaders in the country.
Julie Beren Platt, a 1979 Penn graduate, has been on the Penn board of trustees since 2006 and recently started her second stint as vice chair, making her a natural fit to step up when chair Scott Bok resigned from the management body on Saturday, following the resignation of the university’s president, Liz Magill.
Platt is also the chair of Jewish Federations of North America, the umbrella of 146 local Jewish communal bodies that has collected more than $700 million — and allocated more than $240 — to drive the American Jewish philanthropic response to the Oct. 7 attack on Israel. Platt cited that commitment in emphasizing that her leadership of Penn’s board would last for a short period: She said she will step down in January when a permanent chair is selected.
Platt’s dual roles mean that she has been on the front lines in two of the most prominent organizations reshaped by the Oct. 7 attack and its aftermath. It also suggests, as she acknowledged in a statement, that even the presence of a seasoned Jewish leader in a senior university board position is not sufficient to address antisemitism on college campuses right now.
“I have worked hard from the inside to address the rising issues of antisemitism on campus. Unfortunately, we have not made all the progress that we should have and intend to accomplish,” Platt said in a statement issued by JFNA, adding, “I will continue as a board member of the university to use my knowledge and experience of Jewish life in North America and at Penn to accelerate this critical work.”
A JFNA spokesperson declined to elaborate on how she will balance the two roles.
Platt, 66, is the daughter of Robert Beren, the Kansas City oil magnate and Jewish philanthropist who died in August at 97. She is also the mother of five children — four of them Penn graduates — including the Broadway actor Ben Platt and Jonah Platt, a musician who also sits on the board of 70 Faces Media, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency’s parent company.
Previously the chair of the Los Angeles federation and the Foundation for Jewish Camp, Platt also chairs a foundation named for her and her husband, Hollywood producer Marc Platt, and has been involved in an array of Jewish educational initiatives.
She became the second woman to helm JFNA’s board last year, assuming leadership of the fundraising organization at a crucial time. The organization has distributed hundreds of millions to groups providing emergency aid in Israel since Oct. 7. The group has also supported local Jewish communities in the United States in strengthening their own response to antisemitism through an initiative, LiveSecure, created in 2021, that Platt was instrumental in launching.
“We are leading the largest mobilization in our history in support of Israel’s right to protect its citizens and against the rise of antisemitism in North America, including staging the largest Jewish rally in American history on the National Mall,” Platt said in her statement. “We will continue this fight with all our energy.”
Penn was already grappling with a crisis related to antisemitism in the weeks prior to Oct. 7, as a festival featuring Palestinian writers drew criticism. Platt and Bok had issued a statement of confidence in Liz Magill, Penn’s president, in the wake of that crisis and in the immediate aftermath of Oct. 7, even as some criticized the school’s initially response as tepid.
But last week, Magill was one of three college presidents who declined during a congressional hearing to say that the genocide of Jews would violate their schools’ codes of conduct. Her testimony drew criticism from Pennsylvania’s Jewish governor, Josh Shapiro, and even the White House.
Platt said in a statement that she believed Magill had fallen short in the hearing. “In my view, given the opportunity to choose between right and wrong, the three university presidents testifying in the United States House of Representatives failed,” she said. “The leadership change at the university was therefore necessary and appropriate.”
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Thousands of Jews and non-Jews rally against antisemitism in Berlin
BERLIN (JTA) – Several thousand Berliners braved a chilling rain Sunday to demonstrate against antisemitism at an interfaith rally at the city’s iconic Brandenburg Gate.
The event — which drew a broad coalition of politicians and religious leaders as well as popular stars — was a response to a record increase in reported antisemitic incidents across Germany in the month after Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7.
Dubbed “Never again is now — Germany stands up,” the rally was organized by a Jewish real estate magnate, Nicolai Schwarzer.
In announcing the event, Schwarzer, 48, said he wanted “to send a powerful and unmistakable signal to the world — from the heart of the capital — that no form of antisemitism, hatred or xenophobia will be tolerated in Berlin or anywhere else in Germany.”
The rally joins several others organized in major cities in Europe and the United States to demonstrate opposition to antisemitism. They have been organized in part as a counterpoint to the large pro-Palestinian rallies that have taken place in many of those cities. Such rallies have been relatively muted and heavily monitored by police in Germany, where antisemitic speech and criticism of Israel are circumscribed by laws enacted in part because of the country’s role in perpetrating the Holocaust. Still, pro-Palestinian sentiment, including among Germany’s large immigrant population, is high.
“Sometimes I don’t recognize this country, something has gone out of control,” Josef Schuster, head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, said at the rally.
He described a pro-Hamas protest that took place at Berlin’s University of the Arts on Nov. 13, where he said participants “dressed in black to look like Hamas terrorists. They had painted their hands red — a clear reference to the murder of two Israeli soldiers by an Islamist mob in Gaza more than 20 years ago. The whole thing was orchestrated by visiting professors from the global south – how can that be?” Schuster said the incident was proof of the danger of the movement to boycott Israel, which has been considered officially antisemitic in Germany since 2018.
Bärbel Bas, the president of Germany’s parliament, read through a litany of antisemitic incidents: “Swastikas and Stars of David have been daubed on synagogues, memorials and even private homes.” In one notable incident on Oct. 18, two Molotov cocktails were thrown at a Jewish community center that houses a synagogue as well as a kindergarten.
Bas described hearing from a student who was the only child to attend class at her Jewish school on a day when fear reigned about a Hamas call for violence abroad.
“Jews are afraid, and they feel left alone. And it’s not only hate that creates this feeling, but also silence and indifference,” she said. “And that’s why it’s important that we make a powerful, wipeable and loud statement here today. Never again is now.”
Other speakers included Israel’s ambassador to Germany, Ron Prosor; Berlin’s mayor, Kai Wegner; author Michel Friedman; 1990s pop music icon Herbert Grönemeyer; and Hubertus Heil, Germany’s minister of labor and social affairs.
The rally began with the lighting of a Hanukkah menorah by Rabbi Yehudah Teichtal, the head of Berlin’s chapter of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement. Representatives of Catholic and Protestant churches lit advent candles.
Eren Güvercin, a member of the German Islam Conference — which the German government started as a forum for dialogue in 2006 — delivered a prayer of his own, for “peace for the souls” of the Israelis murdered on Oct. 7 and for the hostages and their families, “who fear for their loved ones.”
“And we pray for peace for the people who are now suffering the consequences of this terrorist organization’s crimes in Gaza,” he added. “Nothing we say here today will solve the Middle East conflict. But we raise our voices to remind everyone who lives together here in this city, in this country: Faith is a source from which we draw to create peace. Faith must not divide us. It must unite us.”
Organizers claimed 11,000 people had taken part in the rally, though police estimated the attendance at 3,000. Those gathered were praised by many speakers for braving the weather to show their support. They included members of Berlin’s Jewish community, estimated at over 30,000, as well as non-Jewish allies.
“This is the third time we have been here in front of the Brandenburg Gate since Oct. 7,” said Berliner Melanie Schmergal, 55. “It upsets me that you don’t see any big demonstrations for Israel’s right to exist and against antisemitism. You see other people screaming quite a bit. [But] I believe… that the others are not in the majority.”
“It is important to take a stand against any kind of extremism,” said Christian Götz, 60. “And that Israel has a right to defend itself, and that we as a population have to show, especially here in Berlin, that we are on Israel’s side.”
The pair, who are not Jewish, said they had met the descendants of Jews who used to live in their building in Berlin, and who were either deported or managed to flee Nazi Germany.
“It’s so incredible that something like this seems possible again,” Schmergal said.
On Dec. 8, the Bergen-Belsen Memorial in Lower Saxony hosted a public panel discussion marking 75 years since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, specifically addressing the issue of antisemitism after the Hamas terrorist attack.
Next week, the Berlin-based Tikvah Institute is co-hosting the presentation of a study on how Russian-speaking Jews in Germany perceive antisemitism after Oct. 7. About 90% of all Jews in Germany today are migrants from the former Soviet Union.
And though not in Germany, the annual Claims Conference International Holocaust Survivors Night on Dec. 11 — a star-studded event whose virtual guests of honor will include German Chancellor Olaf Scholz — “takes on unique significance,” said the organization’s president, Gideon Taylor: “We are reminded that some of the strongest among us survived during the darkest of times.”
Despite the alarming statistics in Germany and elsewhere, Jews are in a better position today in terms of world support than they were in the 1930s-40s, said New Yorker Menachem Rosensaft, who was born at the displaced persons camp at Bergen-Belsen and participated in the recent round table at the memorial.
“President Biden, for one, is the polar opposite of FDR in his unequivocal support for Israel after Oct. 7 and his equally unequivocal repudiation and condemnation of all manifestations of antisemitism,” said Rosensaft, who is also the chair of the Advisory Board of the Lower Saxony Memorials Foundation.
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Jews don’t count, but do we want to? Phoebe Maltz Bovy on why the Ivy League antisemitism hearings (sort of) matter
Someone clue me in: What’s a “Harvard”? There is but one university in North America that anyone cares about, to the point that if someone at it has a hangnail, it’s front-page news. Only one that gets the euphemistic treatment: I went to school in the Boston area, as though if the H-word were uttered […]