A close reading of the Biden administration’s new strategy to counter anti-Semitism shows that it distorts and trivialises the problem. President Biden may be an 80-year-old white male – not a demographic normally associated with “woke” ideas – but the document embodies many of the worst elements of identity politics.
The most striking feature of the 60-page document is how it de-judaises anti-Semitism. In other words it strips out its specifically Jewish character. It portrays anti-Semitism as just one of the many types of hate that plagues American society. Almost like one of a range of brands on a supermarket shelf.
Most of the time the report presents anti-Semitism not as intrinsically bad but to be condemned because it is linked to many other forms of hate. Indeed the word “hate” is mentioned 240 times in the relatively short report. So it has numerous sentences along the following lines:
“People who peddle these antisemitic conspiracy theories and fuel racial, ethnic, and religious hatred against Jews also target other communities—including Black and brown Americans; Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders; LGBTQI+ individuals; Muslim Americans; women and girls; and so many others”
It also follows the well-worn path of relativising the anti-Semitism of the Nazi Holocaust. The centrality of anti-Semitism is talked down to present it instead as an outburst of generic hate. From there it draws the conclusion that: “Both antisemitism and Holocaust education specifically can also teach students about hate, bigotry, racism, and prejudice more broadly.”
Another way of gauging the way in which it diminishes anti-Semitism is to look at the frequency of many key words. Islamophobia / Islamophobic is mentioned 21 times, LGBTQI is at six, there are three mentions of AANHPI (which evidently stands for Asian American and Native Hawaiian / Pacific Islanders) and even one specific mention of transphobia.
Even the two references to the “unique characteristics” of anti-Semitism are both made in the context of it sharing much with other forms of hatred. The closest the document gets to saying anything specific about anti-Semitism is that it often rests on a conspiracy theory. While this is true the idea is not properly explored or explained.
Of course all forms of bigotry should be challenged but something strange is going on here. That a short document ostensibly about anti-Semitism should refer so often to other forms of hatred is telling. Every type of hostility needs to be understood in its specific context but the problem goes deeper than that. The Biden administration seems to see the bulk of the American public as “deplorables” swathed in a seething mass of bigotry. Its focus is therefore on micro-managing the public’s behaviour rather than considering the specific political challenges involved in tackling anti-Semitism.
In that respect the frequent references to the 2017 neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, Virginia, is telling. It features in the first two paragraphs of the report and is mentioned six times in total. The report seems to assume that many Americans, at least potentially, hold similar views to those on the most extreme fringes of the far right.
The framing of the report overwhelmingly in relation to the far right means it skews the entire discussion of anti-Semitism. There only a few oblique references I could see to left wing anti-Semitism. There were mentions of Jewish students feeling they pay a social cost if they support Israel and another of the idea that Jews have too much privilege. The pernicious influence of Islamism was not mentioned at all in the report despite the multiple mentions of Islamophobia ( I have written elsewhere about the problematic nature of Islamophobia as a concept).
This virtual blindness to anything other than far right anti-Semitism leads to a one-sided take on the subject. There is no discussion of what is often referred to as left wing anti-Semitism: the way that identity politics is increasingly making Jew-hatred acceptable again. As I have previously noted on this site it has become acceptable in some circles to talk about Jews as beneficiaries of white privilege. This outlook leads to the rehabilitation of old tropes of Jewish power in a new form. The fact that the document itself is imbued with identity politics probably makes it blind to the pernicious effects of this outlook.
The report does explicitly support Israel’s existence and condemns attacks on Jews for being associated with the Jewish state. However, its failure to tackle left wing anti-Semitism means it cannot get to the nub of this question. It does not grasp that anti-Israel activists typically see it as not just as another nation but as at the centre of a global system of oppression. This is then typically linked to the idea of American Jews as hyper-beneficiaries of privilege. So supposedly hyper-privileged American Jews are cast as benefiting from the actions of an allegedly global imperialist power. This combination of false premises gives contemporary left wing anti-Semitism a particular incendiary character.
As for Islamism this is not mentioned at all. Neither Islamist terrorism nor Islamist politics figure in the report. This is despite the fact that an Islamist terrorist (admittedly from Blackburn in Lancashire) took hostages in a Texas synagogue in January 2022. If the hostages had not escaped there is a high chance they would have been killed.
Going further back it should not be forgotten that the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were motivated by anti-Semitism. The 2002 “letter to America” by Osama bin Laden, the head of the al-Qaeda terrorist group, contained multiple reference to Jews. The thrust of his argument is to justify the attack on America because it has been taken over by Jews. For example, his claim that: “the Jews have taken control of your economy, through which they have then taken control of your media, and now control all aspects of your life making you their servants and achieving their aims at your expense.” Of course this is an unhinged view of the world but anti-Semitism all too often has that character.
Nor is Islamist politics discussed at all. Yet Islamist activists often play a role, for example, in promoting the most virulent anti-Israel activism. In this they often make common cause with leftists despite the fact that they often disagree with other matters.
It is truly astonishing that a short report specifically on anti-Semitism has no mention of Islamism but multiple references to hostility to LGBTI people and Hawaiian islanders. This certainly suggests a strange sense of priorities. It is hard to imagine, for example, a short report on hostility to the lesbian and gay community having multiple references to anti-Semitism. Nor would it makes sense for it to do so.
In terms of specific measures advocated by the report these are often vague and contradictory. There are proposals for measures to be taken by the executive branch along with calls to congress and suggestions for what it calls whole of society action. Many of those are supposedly designed to improve education and raise awareness. However, given the dearth of understanding in the report it is likely these will do more harm than good. Sometimes they are linked to existing diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.
Although the report mentions the importance of “free expression and speech protected by the First Amendment” there are multiple ways it suggests free speech should be curtailed. For example, there are several references which amount to calls to curb speech on online platforms. Yet nowadays these are vital parts of the public square. As I have argued elsewhere such measures are an evasion of the need to tackle anti-Semitism rather than a way of challenging it.
Rather than trying to understand and tackle anti-Semitism the Biden administration seems obsessed with the supposedly hate-filled outlook of the American people. This leads to an authoritarian outlook which is itself blind to key forms of contemporary anti-Semitism.
Photo: Official portrait from the White House.