It’s no secret that antisemitism is growing in the U.S., right alongside bigoted crimes aimed at trans people, LGBTQ+ people, immigrants, Black people, Asians, and other vulnerable groups. Infamously, in the deadliest antisemitic attack in U.S. history, Robert Bowers massacred 11 Jews at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018.
Five years later, the Biden-Harris administration issued the first-ever U.S. National Strategy to Counter Antisemitism. The White House announced this initiative on May 25 with great fanfare, but it has met with a chorus of well-deserved criticism. Let’s get into it, with a look first at what U.S. Jews are facing.
Malevolence rising. As with any “ism,” antisemitism takes forms that range from verbal harassment to fatal violence. A year before the Tree of Life murders, the notorious Unite the Right rally took place in Charlottesville, Virginia. Torch-bearing racists chanted “Jews will not replace us” and “white lives matter.” Three people were killed.
In October 2022, antisemitic flyers blaming Jewish people for environmental, racial and social issues like gun control were distributed at homes in Beverly Hills, California. On June 17 and 18 this year — the weekend before the Black emancipation holiday Juneteenth — hundreds of racist, homophobic, and anti-Jewish leaflets were distributed in and around Sacramento, California.
These are instances of a malicious and cowardly tactic that is spreading, with anonymous hate-filled broadsides appearing in far-flung neighborhoods from Florida to Washington state and Ontario, Canada.
Why now? Today is a time of inflation, bank failures, war, climate crisis, pandemic, and the constant threat of recession. A state of political and economic turmoil and instability like this causes the U.S. ruling class and the right wing to direct people’s anger and fear at scapegoats.
Jaime Tran, for example, who shot and wounded two Jewish men as they were leaving their Los Angeles synagogue on February 7, 2023, claims that Jews invented Covid.
Targeting historically oppressed and marginalized groups is meant to distract workers from understanding that capitalism is the root of their troubles. Ultimately, if the crisis of the system becomes acute enough, the ruling class may resort to fascism with the help of Nazi thugs, turning to open force to destroy the power of the working class to resist.
No solution from the top. In contrast to the blatant Jew-hatred of malignant Republicans like ex-president Trump and Marjorie Taylor Greene, Biden’s National Strategy to Counter Antisemitism appears to be comprehensive and action-oriented. However, it has a worm at its center.
The White House has been criticized for the plan’s reliance on the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, and other repressive state agents to ensure Jewish safety. And it has been condemned for its close collaboration with the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), a Jewish watchdog group that fraudulently sees any criticism of Israel as antisemitic.
In fact, in step with the ADL, Biden’s initiative embraces a widely adopted but controversial definition of antisemitism that includes opposition to Israel, developed by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. In other words, it falsely equates Jewishness with the state of Israel.
This is a definition that accommodates to Zionism, the belief that Jews must have their own Jewish nation to be secure, and the basis for a movement that expanded after the Holocaust. Zionism is Israel’s rationale for forcibly evicting Palestinians from their land and taking it over. In so doing, the Zionist occupiers starkly betrayed the Jewish value of tikkun olam, “to repair the world.”
Biden’s new plan endorses smearing left-wing defenders of Palestinians against Israel as antisemites. This gives a dangerous green light to the international right-wing campaign to extinguish support for the grassroots Palestinian rebellion against Israeli apartheid. As Jewish Voice for Peace describes it, the initiative is “explicitly racist against Palestinians.”
Fighting back. Recently, on June 24, hundreds of residents of Macon, Georgia, gathered at the Temple Beth Israel to support the Jewish community in response to a dozen neo-Nazis proclaiming antisemitic and anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric in front of the temple the day before. Support for the targets of antisemitism has been strong in places, but needs to be stronger and more widespread.
“Right-wing extremists see silence as … a green light,” says David Neiwert, author of The Age of Insurrection: The Radical Right’s Assault on American Democracy. “Your only option is to play hardball.”
Jews may be forgiven if we remember the Yiddish saying, “The world is huge and there’s no place to turn.” But with chutzpah and solidarity, the threat of fascism can be combated by raising our voices in unions and in community groups fighting for a just world, shoulder to shoulder with others oppressed on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability.
As Jewish Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky wrote, “Anti-Semitism is one of the malignant convulsions of capitalism’s death agony.” Thus, passing laws will not end antisemitism or stop fascism.
Instead, a powerful step toward these goals would be building a democratic united front with a working-class program and leadership. In this united front, Jews would come together with others who are abused and fed up to beat back encroaching fascism with education and organized self-defense. The work of liberation is in our hands, not Biden’s.