Recently, the Biden administration released an impressive 60 page plan titled “The U.S. Strategy to Counter Anti-Semitism.” It contains hundreds of detailed action items. Some are to be carried out by the federal government (which include deadlines for when they are to be done), while others are calls upon congress, state and local governments, or even businesses and private citizens to take actions. You can read a summary here, or the full document here.
Definition of anti-Semitism
The most controversial matter in the plan seems to have been defining anti-Semitism. Some Jewish organizations wanted the administration to endorse a definition composed by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (you can see it here). That definition relates extensively to Israel, for example by defining as anti-Semitic such things as ‘Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor’, or ‘Applying double standards by requiring of it (Israel) a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.’
This raised extensive opposition among left-leaning Jewish groups, concerned that this definition of anti-Semitism could be used to stifle criticism of Israel or in general chip away at free speech. For example, you can read a statement opposing this definition from the Progressive Israel Network here. And news coverage of the debate surrounding this from the Jewish Insider here.
In the end, the White House plan does not include any formal definition of anti-Semitism and rather deftly tiptoes around the question of when criticism of Israel crosses that line. On page 9, in the section on ‘Framing the Challenge and the Solution’, the plan states, “when Israel is singled out because of anti-Jewish hatred, that is antisemitism. And that is unacceptable.” A paragraph on page 11 reads, “As we confront antisemitism, we do so with profound respect for our democratic traditions, including free expression and speech protected by the First Amendment. We also do so with an unshakable commitment to the State of Israel’s right to exist, its legitimacy, and its security.” The question of what to do about speech questioning Israel’s legitimacy and security that can’t be written off by attribution to anti-Jewish hatred is neatly not resolved.
Most Jewish groups were pleased by this final draft. It is, after all, remarkable for the administration to be devoting so much effort and resources to be taking firm action on behalf of the Jewish community. Some of the action items, in particular those related to increased security for Jewish institutions, may have an immediate positive impact. Even the more general and long-term oriented actions are welcome. Even the Council on American- Islamic Relations released a supporting statement (you can read it here).
The only action items in the plan that seem likely to generate significant controversy are related to hate speech and content moderation online. For example, one action to achieve the strategic goal labeled ‘tackle anti-Semitism online’ calls upon Congress to, “remove immunity if an online platform utilizes an algorithm or other computational process to amplify or recommend content to a user that promotes violence (p. 37).” Social media companies will of course fight this tooth and nail as their content recommendation algorithms are critical to their business and altering them even for noble purposes such as this creates huge headaches they would rather not confront.
Why Single Out Anti-Semitism?
The more troubling aspect of this document is its singling out of anti-Semitism for special emphasis over other forms of prejudice. The document itself is clearly labelled a strategy to combat specifically anti-Semitism- anti-Semitism is the only thing written on the cover. And it begins with a letter from President Biden that opens by recalling neo-Nazis chanting ‘Jews will not replace us’ in their now infamous Charlottesville march.
But then Biden’s letter quickly pivots to speaking about hatred and bigotry in universal terms. It goes on to say that the plan, “Brings Americans together. . . to stand united against the hate, racism, bigotry, and violence that have long haunted our Nation.” In that sentence anti-Semitism is gone. Later in that same paragraph we read, “The Strategy. . .also serves as a blueprint for tackling other forms of bigotry, hate, and bias that fuel toxic divisions in America.” So we really have three explanations for the focus on anti-Semitism just in Joe Biden’s letter. It’s a crisis on the rise that merits special attention, the plan is really about all hate, racism, bigotry, and violence so it’s not really focused on anti-Semitism at all, and if that’s not satisfying enough then the focus on anti-Semitism is justified because it’s just a start on fighting all bigotry and after tune-up against anti-Semites we’ll do a better job combatting other racists later on.
This same tension between focusing on anti-Semitism in particular and bigotry in general is found in many of the action items. For example, strategic goal 1.2 is to, “Raise Awareness about Antisemitism and Jewish American Heritage Outside of the classroom (p. 17).” Yet the first action item for the Federal Government reads, “Federal Agencies will incorporate information about bias and discrimination related to religion, national origin, race, and ethnicity, including information about antisemitism and Islamophobia, and about workplace religious accommodations into training programs.” In other words, while the problem we started out with is anti- Semitism, the solution is much, much more broad.
Strategic Goal 3.4 is to, “Address Antisemitism in K-12 Schools and on College Campuses (p. 40).” It begins by citing a survey in which 50% of Jewish students worry that people make unfair judgments about them because they are Jewish, and that over 50% of Jewish students feel they pay a social cost if they support the existence of Israel as a Jewish state. It then recounts a detailed list of recent anti-Semitic incidents on college campuses, which we all know is a serious and widespread issue. But then the first executive branch action item states, “The Education Department Office of Civil Rights will issue a Dear Colleague Letter (DCL), reminding schools of their legal obligation under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to address complaints of discrimination, including harassment based on race, color, or national origin, including shared ancestry, such as Jewish ancestry, and ethnic characteristics. OCR will continue to enforce federal civil rights laws, including Title VI.” In other words, the response is not directly centered around anti-Semitism at all.
To be free of discrimination based on race, religion, and so forth, is fundamental to human rights. States are required to pass and enforce laws preventing this. For a state to take measures protecting members of one religious group from discrimination while not taking similar steps for members of other religious or racial groups would itself be a form of discrimination and a violation of human rights. Therefore, the broad, all-encompassing nature of the plan’s action items is to be praised.
In fact, it would have been better if the entire plan had been framed in this manner. The plan would have been better off titled, “A U.S. strategy to combat racism, discrimination, and prejudice.” Then, anti-Semitism could have been singled out as deserving special attention simply because it is currently prevalent and on the rise.
The Biden plan is certainly welcome, and if the only quibble is with the way it is phrased and how it is presented rather than the numerous, substantive actions it calls for that means it merits high marks. But singling out anti-Semitism over other forms of prejudice and discrimination is not a good way to enhance human rights on the whole. Let’s commend the administration for issuing such a thorough and comprehensive plan, along with a gentle reminder that governments are responsible for protecting all human rights equally for everyone. Let’s hope this book is judged by its content, and not by its cover.