Biden administration official says Wednesday’s roundtable was only a first step; “You don’t set up a meeting like that not to take action.”
By Mike Wagensheim, JNS
Wednesday’s high-profile White House roundtable on antisemitism garnered plenty of headlines. Now, according to those present, the real work starts.
America is facing an “epidemic of hate,” said Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff, who chaired a discussion with Jewish leaders at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.
“Let me be clear—words matter. People are no longer saying the quiet parts out loud, they are screaming them,” said Emhoff, the Jewish husband of Vice President Kamala Harris. “We cannot normalize this. We all have an obligation to condemn these vile acts. We must not stay silent. There is no either-or. There are no two sides. Everyone must be against this.”
The roundtable comes in the days and weeks former U.S. president Donald Trump hosted antisemitic rapper Kanye West and white supremacist Nick Fuentes at his Mar-a-Lago home. Both guests have professed admiration for Adolf Hitler.
Twitter has been flooded with antisemitic content since CEO Elon Musk’s takeover, and Black Hebrew Israelites have been marching through Brooklyn, claiming today’s Jews are fake. Antisemitic hate crimes in New York City last month were up were up 125% over last November’s figures.
The discussion also came a day after a bipartisan, bicameral group of 125 lawmakers, led by the chairmen of congressional task forces for combating antisemitism, called on the Biden administration to adopt a “whole of government” policy regarding the problem, including the creation of an interagency task force.
A letter sent to Biden on Tuesday urged officials from a spectrum of agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice, the State Department, the White House, the Department of Education and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum to take action.
Aaron Keyak, State Department Deputy Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism, said in a phone interview that Wednesday’s event was not the result of any one incident or the recent series of controversies, but an acknowledgment of a broader problem.
State Department antisemitism envoy Deborah Lipstadt, White House domestic policy adviser Susan Rice, senior Biden aide on public engagement Keisha Lance Bottoms and White House Jewish liaison Shelley Greenspan participated in Wednesday’s discussion, as did representatives from around a dozen Jewish organizations, including the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism; Agudath; Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations; American Jewish Committee; Orthodox Union; Jewish on Campus; National Council of Jewish Women; Hillel; Secure Community Network; Religious Action Center; Anti-Defamation League; Integrity First for America and American Friends of Lubavitch.
Elana Broitman, Jewish Federations of North America’s senior vice president for public affairs, told JNS that the White House made no firm commitments going forward, “But there was a sense that this administration was really hearing us. There was a lot of note-taking.” She said that the congressional letter to Biden, which her organization worked to support, combined with Wednesday’s White House discussion, “are building blocks we can work off of.”
According to Broitman, the Jewish organizational representatives in attendance were “all fairly united in our concerns and our wish lists.” That included a broad feeling of distress about the rise in antisemitism on college campuses.
Julia Jassey, CEO of Jewish on Campus, was the only college student invited to the discussion. She told JNS that she had relayed that “many Jewish students are faced with the decision of whether to hide parts of their identity that they’re proud of. Or do they accept antisemitism in their college experience?”
She said she emphasized the importance of uplifting student voices and increasing access to education “in order to prevent a future rise of antisemitism by educating not just on antisemitism, but on Jewish identity and the importance of who the Jewish people are.”
Broitman said her wish list for the White House included stronger Department of Education oversight not just on college campuses, but in high schools and below, where antisemitism is increasingly fomenting.
She said a range of other groups also pointed to increasing government funding for nonprofit security, increasing implementation of the IHRA definition of antisemitism and addressing Jew hatred and bias against Israel at the United Nations.
While both Democrats and Republicans have often been slow to criticize antisemitic actions on their respective sides of the aisle, Jassey indicated Wednesday’s conversation avoided finger-pointing.
“My impression from the administration today is that they take antisemitism seriously, bar none. I think this went beyond a partisan issue. It didn’t enter the conversation,” Jassey said.
As to what comes next, Broitman told JNS that officials “weren’t specific. They’re publicly reflecting that this is not the end of the conversation. And we know that this doesn’t go away. So I didn’t leave with the feeling like it was one and done.”
Keyak said Wednesday’s roundtable was merely a first step by the Biden administration, and that “you’ll see we’re going to work together based off the recommendations of the various Jewish leaders, and then figure out what’s the best path forward.”