The Biden Administration's Anti-Semitism Blindspot

Will the administration’s new strategy to counter anti-Semitism camouflage its own inaction?

President Joe Biden, Vice-President Kamala Harris, and second gentleman Doug Emhoff depart a celebration to mark Jewish American Heritage Month at the White House on May 16, 2023. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.
President Joe Biden, Vice-President Kamala Harris, and second gentleman Doug Emhoff depart a celebration to mark Jewish American Heritage Month at the White House on May 16, 2023. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.
July 10 2023
About Ruth

Ruth R. Wisse is professor emerita of Yiddish and comparative literatures at Harvard and a distinguished senior fellow at Tikvah. Her memoir Free as a Jew: a Personal Memoir of National Self-Liberation, chapters of which appeared in Mosaic in somewhat different form, is out from Wicked Son Press.

In response to the alarming rise of anti-Jewish activism and calls from concerned Jews to do something about it, the Biden administration recently announced a “first-ever” National Strategy to Counter Anti-Semitism (NSCA), outlining over a hundred new actions that executive-branch agencies have committed to take within a year. Most Jews and fellow Americans welcome this as an obviously encouraging response to an ever-more-pressing problem. But both the administration and the Jews who pushed it to action have much to learn from an historical precedent that likewise publicized its intention of countering anti-Semitism but instead did irreparable damage.

In 1938 President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was under increasing political and moral pressure to address the crisis facing the Jews of Europe. Hitler had begun his program of eliminating the Jews from Germany and the countries that he intended to conquer. Ideological Jew-blame, fueled by fascist parties across the continent, encouraged other countries like Poland and Romania to target their Jewish populations.

Anti-Jewish politics promoted by German propagandists had also penetrated America. The KKK, Henry Ford, Father Coughlin, and Charles Lindbergh helped the Nazis carry the fascist message in the interwar years. Counteracting the demands to rescue the Jews from Europe were two compelling priorities: isolationism and fallout from the Great Depression. Those who called for opposing Hitler were accused of dragging America into an unwanted war.

Nazi annexation of Austria in 1938, threatening its 180,000 Jews, finally forced Roosevelt to take action. He convened an international conference in the French resort town of Evian-les-Bains to consider what could be done to resettle European refugees; Jews were not named. But the president preemptively excluded from consideration both North America and Palestine—the two most obvious destinations. Hitler had announced that he would help the Jews leave for any countries that agreed to take them, but the only country that did was the Dominican Republic, which accepted 800 of Europe’s 9 million. To Nazi propagandists, this was proof that the Jews were toxic, unwanted by everyone.

Fear of anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant sentiment kept Roosevelt from allowing Jewish refugees into his own country. But since 1918 Britain had been charged by the League of Nations with allowing for the establishment of a Jewish national home in Mandatory Palestine. Surely this was the natural destination for Jewish refugees. Here, however, Britain’s perfidy exceeded even Roosevelt’s political cowardice. Determined to prevent an influx of Jews, the British-appointed Muslim leader Amin al-Husseini incited violence that by the late 1930s cowed London into agreeing to his demand to stop Jewish immigration. Rather than challenging Britain’s criminal betrayal of responsibility, Evian reaffirmed its right to stop Jews from entering their land. Thus, the conference called to address the crisis instead camouflaged its own inaction. Worse, the mufti, like Hitler, whom he admired, took it as a green light to pursue the elimination of Jews from the Middle East. Even assuming the president’s intentions were good, he failed to take seriously enough those intent on destroying the Jews.

Thankfully, much has changed since then. Though Jews are still three million fewer than they were in 1939, most now live in Israel, which absorbs all Jewish refugees. As Jews changed, so did anti-Semitism: ideology once aimed at them in dispersion was redirected at them in their homeland. German-inspired anti-Semitism gave way to Communist-inspired anti-Zionism that was embraced by Arab and Muslim leaders who refused to coexist with a Jewish state. Anti-Jewish politics proved as adaptable as the Jews themselves.

The scope of the NSCA is domestic, focused on countering the threat of anti-Semitism in the U.S., but just as a century ago, the most virulent strains of the disease developed elsewhere. In 1945, the energy of anti-Jewish politics shifted from Europe to the Middle East when the Arab League organized against the presence of a Jewish homeland. Arab and Muslim countries refused to accept the partition of Palestine, expelled their Jews, and then aligned with the Soviet Union to ignite the wars of 1967 and 1973 aimed at Israel’s destruction. This war was so lopsided that it could only stop when the belligerents accepted the principle of coexistence. The essential function of Arab-Muslim anti-Zionism was to keep Israel contingent. Just as Christians were once raised in the faith that the Jews killed Christ, so millions upon millions of Muslims and Arabs, including many who moved to America, have been raised to believe that Israel was an illegitimate assault on their people and faith, that Israel “displaced” and “kills” the Palestinians.

The 1975 resolution sponsored by the Soviet and Arab blocs, libeling Zionism as racism, remains, despite its formal repeal, the cornerstone of anti-Jewish ideology at the United Nations, in most Muslim and non-aligned countries, and overwhelmingly in America through intersectional coalitions in universities, the media, and the left wing of Congress. What the U.S. ambassador to the UN Daniel Patrick Moynihan called this “abomination of anti-Semitism” has since then far exceeded the reach of many earlier forms of Jew-baiting.

Anti-Zionism has several advantages over its right-wing predecessor. Because it is directed against a people now in its own land, the ideological attack is made to seem a “normal” conflict. Israel’s ability to stave off the combined Arab forces further obscures the asymmetry of the assault against it. Yet when it comes to other lopsided aggressions like Turkey against the Kurds or Russia against Ukraine, there are no political coalitions, resolutions, demonstrations, or other organized expressions of “hatred” against the Kurds and Ukrainians in this country as there are against the Jewish state.

Anti-Semitism disguises a poisonous ideology as support for the underdog in a bilateral conflict. The greatest advantage of anti-Zionism over all earlier anti-Jewish politics is the presence of the Palestinian Arabs whose perpetual homelessness their fellow Arabs and Muslims guaranteed. This is in no way intended to minimize the suffering of people who have been cast as the perpetual victims of the Jews, and who are supported by their fellow Arabs only as long as they menace Israel. When Arab leaders refused the partition of Palestine, they refused either to resettle Arab refugees in their lands as the Jews did theirs or to allow them a separate polity that might have destabilized Jordan. Instead, they created a permanent casus belli and pretext for genocide. Jews as Christ-killers have lost their potency in a secular age, but Palestinian Arab refugees are expected to show their stigmata forever.

Thus, despite the very welcome peace agreements with Arab and Muslim countries, the anti-Zionist assault continues to metastasize. In Iran the ayatollahs declare their intention of making Israel a “one-bomb state.” Islamists project a hegemonic Middle East. “If all the Jews gather in Israel, it will save us the trouble of chasing them down around the world,” says Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Hezbollah, Iran’s chief terrorist proxy, giving the lie to claims that anti-Zionism is not anti-Jewish.

At home, look no further than this year’s valedictory addresses by two Muslim immigrants, one from Yemen in New York, the other from Jordan in California, who took enormous pride in attacking “the oppressive apartheid state of Israel [that is] killing and torturing Palestinians as we speak.” In place of gratitude to the land of the free and home of the brave that immigrants once proclaimed, they thanked their ancestry and their classmates for being able to slander, defame, and libel the Jewish homeland. Obscenity that no dean would have sanctioned a decade ago is applauded today.

Returning, then, to the administration’s strategy for countering anti-Semitism, the comparison with the Evian conference comes into bold relief. Some American Jews, especially those of the president’s party, are relieved that the White House has outlined a large-scale program to combat such bigotry. Certain provisions like commitment to security for Jewish institutions are likely to do some good. But those who helped frame this document ought to have been aware that the priorities of the Jewish people do not necessarily coincide with those of the party in power, which may be looking for its political advantage, separate from—and if necessary, at the expense of—the Jews.

Here are some preliminary points of concern, beginning with how the Biden document frames its message:

Six years ago, Neo-Nazis marched from the shadows through Charlottesville, Virginia, chanting, “Jews will not replace us.” With torches in hand, they spewed the same anti-Semitic bile and hate that were heard across Europe in the 1930s. What happened in Charlottesville—the horror of that moment, the violence that followed, and the threat it represented for American democracy—drove me to run for president. The very soul of our nation was hanging in the balance. It still is today.

Repeated episodes of hate—including numerous attacks on Jewish Americans—have since followed Charlottesville, shaking our moral conscience as Americans and challenging the values for which we stand as a nation. That is why I convened the first-ever United We Stand Summit at the White House in September 2022: to bring communities from across the country together to combat hate in all its forms—including the persistent scourge of anti-Semitism—that has long plagued our nation. We must stand united—regardless of our backgrounds and beliefs—to affirm that an attack on any one group of us is an attack on us all and that hate can have no safe harbor in America.

Members of the Biden team did indeed draw attention to the neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville and attacked then-President Trump’s apparent indifference to the threat that such fascists posed. But only someone who believes that this is what stirred Joe Biden to run for president could believe that this is at present the primary threat to the Jews and America. There are no known neo-Nazis in the BDS movement, in campus Israel-apartheid campaigns, radical mosques and churches, or at the New York Times. Neo-Nazis do not run anti-Israel Middle East programs or excite anti-Jewish sectors of African American and Muslim communities. They do not promote anti-Israel resolutions in Congress. Like Bugs Bunny turning a signpost to steer Elmer Fudd in the wrong direction, the Biden statement points us away from the greatest dangers to the Jews, and back to pursuing the villains America once defeated.


Next, Jewish organizations wanted the White House to accept the definition of anti-Semitism that the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) crafted in 2016 in the hope of clarifying an ideology of Orwellian inversion. It reads: “Anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions, and religious facilities.” It goes on to list other characteristics including hostility to Israel. Although I have serious reservations about this definition, Jewish leaders have patiently gotten hundreds of governmental bodies to adopt its guidelines as they educated leaders about its subject. The NSCA duly included this working definition along with its own expanded version, but then added, “the administration welcomes and appreciates the Nexus document and notes other such efforts.”

The Nexus document, which could only have been conceived by American Jews, is a throwback to the ghetto mentality that, more than any of the verbal and physical attacks on Jews, confirms how much harm anti-Semitism has already done. This “kick me” document assures anti-Semites that “criticism of Zionism and Israel,” “even contentious, strident, or harsh criticism of Israel for its policies and actions, including those that led to the creation of Israel,” plus “opposition to Zionism and/or Israel,” or “paying disproportionate attention to Israel and treating Israel differently”—none of this is dangerous. Nexus even offers kosher examples of Jew-baiting. If ever anyone wants to get away with “going death con 3” on the Jewish people, here is a readymade script sanctioned by the White House that they can hold up in their own defense.

Reproach of Israel is not criticism but blame—blame for the aggression against it. Anti-Semitism is the strategy of the pointing finger that keeps negative attention focused on the misdeeds of the Jews and their homeland. Jewish apologetics in the face of such assaults have always been reprehensible, but these American Jews are not asking to be kicked themselves: they are inviting Americans to join them in condemning the Jews of Israel. “Please go on pointing the finger away from us and at the Jews over there and we will excuse you, defend you, lend you support.” The corruptions of exile have reach new heights when this happens in the freest society the Jewish Diaspora has ever known.

With anti-Zionism now receding in some of its places of origin while rising in Western democracies, it is good that the White House has outlined a counter-strategy. However, the NSCA does not address the obvious sources, political agents, financial supporters, and ideological carriers of anti-Zionism. Indeed, rather than calling out organizations like the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) for fomenting anti-Zionism, it includes them among those expected to implement the strategy, and it supports initiatives that create “a sense of community” among the diversity-equity-inclusion coalitions that have joined together in the past to assail the Jews. The inclusion of CAIR in particular, known as a group with ties to Hamas, systematically engaged in promoting anti-Israel politics, shows how far the administration had to go to accommodate the anti-Jewish elements among its supporters. Whereas President Roosevelt faced the opposition of both parties, today’s anti-Zionism is ideologically centered on the left. The Biden team faces headwinds because, as British author Melanie Phillips observes, “the progressive world to which they belong are themselves the problem.”

Defenders of the administration will no doubt point out that the strategy mentions Israel ten times, that it makes clear that “efforts to delegitimize the state of Israel” should be considered anti-Semitism, that it states bluntly that “the United States has embraced” the IHRA definition, and that American Jews should be grateful we have a government willing to take any steps at all. I have already made clear that the “embrace” of the IHRA definition is effectively undone by the “appreciation” of the Nexus document. So far as the administration’s consideration of anti-Israelism is concerned, it does, to its credit, acknowledge forthrightly that Jews are persecuted “often because of real or perceived views about the state of Israel.” But a closer look at the two key passages shows us something more worrisome:

Although anti-Semitism remains a pernicious global problem, the scope of this national strategy is domestic. The strategy is focused on countering the threat and manifestations of anti-Semitism in the United States of America. The U.S. government, led by the Department of State, will continue to combat anti-Semitism abroad and in international fora—including efforts to delegitimize the state of Israel.

All this is well and good, except that nowhere does the text make any suggestion that the government will take any steps to combat delegitimization of Israel domestically. In effect, it farms out the fight against the greatest source of contemporary anti-Semitism to the State Department, while tacitly committing not to do anything about it domestically.

Worse still is the following: “when Israel is singled out because of anti-Jewish hatred, that is anti-Semitism.” This clause was tellingly cited by both Kamala Harris and an unnamed administration official (interviewed by Jewish Insider) when asked if the White House strategy pays sufficient attention to the issue of Israel. Read carefully: singling out Israel only amounts to anti-Semitism when it is motivated by hatred of Jews. But it is usually impossible to determine anyone’s motivation, especially when discussing irrational animus. According to this logic, a person can speak and write obsessively about the Jewish state’s imagined evils, accuse it of the most fantastical crimes, and argue that it is the demonic source of all the world’s ills—but, so long as he doesn’t slip and admit that he possesses a general hatred of Jews, he is in the clear. As with the Nexus Document, the White House strategy provides pre-approved excuses for the Jews’ most pernicious enemies.

Most ominously, one fears that the NSCA may be a cover for actions that endanger Israel. One of the simplest ways the Biden White House could combat anti-Semitism would be to invite Benjamin Netanyahu as the newly elected and longest-serving prime minister of Israel for an official visit—without punitive conditions. The democratic leader of the Jewish state is the political protector of the Jewish people and Israel is the most reliable American ally in the Middle East. Such a visit could have been the cornerstone of any genuine attempt to stem the war against the Jews, a message that America gives no sanction or assistance to anti-Zionism, and the president’s failure to arrange it speaks much louder than ten pages of national strategy.

Iran declares its unambiguous intention of creating a nuclear bomb to eliminate Israel and to add its menace to those of China, Russia, and North Korea. Yet the Biden administration is once again eagerly approaching Tehran, and is said to be about to unfreeze billions in Iranian assets in hopes of making a deal. Its attempt to circumvent the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act that requires prior submission to Congress for any such negotiation is already facing opposition from Republicans and parts of the media. Buying off the Jews with the NSCA is a cheap way of preventing their opposition to a deal with today’s genocidal schemers.


Without questioning the good intentions of many who crafted the counter-anti-Semitism plan, they do more harm than good if they do not honestly confront the evil strategies of those ranged against the Jews. This initiative advertises its strenuous effort while giving the aggressors every sign of acquiescence. The Evian precedent warns that appeasement is transparent to all but those willing to be deceived.

America and the Jews face myriad challenges. There are white supremacist groups and lone shooters who go after Jews and other minorities. Racism, homelessness, poverty, the “breakdown” of society, all call for redress. But those who organize grievance against the Jews are usually after a larger political conquest, using Jews as the pretext to bring down democracy. This is what the National Strategy should be marshaling federal power to prevent; but instead, it does nothing to deter these enemies of America and its Jewish citizens. Roosevelt’s America missed the danger signs. Biden’s America risks the same threat—to itself.

More about: Anti-Semitism, Anti-Zionism, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Joe Biden, Politics & Current Affairs