ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 141

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Biden includes antisemitism in Civil Rights Act protections at 8 cabinet departments

Expansion includes victims of antisemitism and other forms of religious bigotry; White House launching a listening tour to hear from Jewish students about hostility on campus

President Joe Biden meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in New York, September 20, 2023. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
President Joe Biden meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in New York, September 20, 2023. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — The Biden administration is aiming to counter antisemitic discrimination in federally-funded transit systems, housing, food programs and other areas — one of the most major actions the White House has taken since it unveiled a far-reaching strategy to combat antisemitism in May.

On Thursday, the administration announced that it is instructing eight cabinet departments to extend civil rights protections to victims of antisemitism and other forms of religious bigotry. The decision marks a broad expansion of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

In addition, the administration is launching a listening tour of schools and colleges this fall to hear from Jewish students about hostility on campus, which Jewish groups say often comes from the anti-Israel left. Last week, an LGBTQ student group at Rice University cut ties with Hillel over its support for Israel, and in a separate incident, the Hillel at the University of Pennsylvania was vandalized.

Thursday’s launch of the listening tour in San Francisco will include a meeting between the deputy secretary of education and representatives of the city’s Hillel chapter.

“The Biden-Harris Administration will continue to lead a robust, whole-of-society effort to combat antisemitism and discrimination in all its insidious forms,” a White House official said in an e-mailed statement. The four-page release was the most comprehensive accounting to date of how the antisemitism strategy has been implemented since May. Biden set a deadline of May 2024 for the strategy to be implemented across the executive branch.

The announcement includes a comprehensive list of initiatives already taken under the antisemitism strategy. It also comes the same day as US President Joe Biden is set to deliver a speech in Phoenix at the McCain Institute, named for the late Republican senator, that will warn of threats of democracy from the far-right and former US president Donald Trump.

Under the 1964 act’s Title VI, which the White House release cites, any program or activity receiving federal funding cannot discriminate on the basis of race, color, or national origin. The White House statement said that staff at the Departments of Agriculture, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development, Interior, Labor, Treasury, and Transportation will be told the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act bans discrimination based on antisemitism, Islamophobia and other forms of religious bias.

Doug Emhoff, center, the husband of US Vice President Kamala Harris, speaks during a roundtable discussion with Jewish leaders about the rise in antisemitism and efforts to fight hate in the United States in the Indian Treaty Room in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House Campus in Washington, December 7, 2022. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

The initiative is a substantial expansion of initiatives by the Obama and Trump administrations to extend the Civil Rights Act’s protections to Jews through the Education Department. An executive order signed by Trump led to a series of federal complaints alleging that Jewish and Zionist students faced hostile campus environments.

Staff will be trained “to respond to this kind of discrimination, engage with entities that are prohibited from discriminating in these ways to explain their legal responsibilities, and inform communities of their rights to be free from such discrimination and how to file complaints,” said the release. Fact sheets on the topic will be available in Yiddish, Hebrew, Arabic, Punjabi and other languages.

Examples of how the expansion would work, the release said, include “shielding people from harassment or discrimination on transit systems funded by the Department of Transportation; in housing funded by the Department of Housing and Urban Development; or in U.S. Department of Agriculture-funded food programs.”

In recent years, Jewish watchdog groups have recorded a spike in antisemitic attacks in public places, targeting people who wear outwardly Jewish symbols or clothing. Muslim and Jewish groups have also long advocated — with some success —  for making kosher and halal food available through relief programs.

Jewish groups have, for decades, sought the act’s protections, but have been frustrated by the difficulty of resolving constitutional guardrails around the separation of church and state. The Obama and Trump Education Department directives worked around that issue by defining Jews not simply as a faith but as a group defined in part through ancestry, and also as a group perceived by bigots as being a race — categories that fall under Title VI’s purview.

Then-US president Donald Trump signs an executive order combating anti-Semitism on college campuses at the White House Hanukkah party on December 11, 2019. (Screen capture/YouTube)

As part of the launch of the listening tour of Jewish students, Deputy Secretary of Education Cindy Marten will meet with Jewish students, teachers and community leaders at San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum, followed by a closed session with Hillel-affiliated students from the Bay Area about campus antisemitism.

The emphasis on allegations of campus antisemitism may address concerns by some Jewish organizations that the Biden administration was not as focused on combating antisemitism from the left as it was on antisemitism from the right, and that it is not addressing antisemitism in the context of anti-Israel activism.

In addition to the expansion of Title VI and the listening tour, the White House statement mentioned a list of actions the administration has taken as part of the strategy on antisemitism. Those include delivering information and training to Jewish and other communities on securing their buildings and their computer systems in the face of threats, and bringing together law enforcement agencies and religious communities targeted by violence. Federal officials are also training National Park Service staff on stopping and preventing antisemitic harassment.

The White House is providing information to religious communities on their rights to build houses of worship, an issue that continues to dog Muslim and Orthodox Jewish communities thwarted by local authorities. Alongside those measures, the administration is informing members of religious minorities of their rights to religious accommodation in the workplace and is educating medical students, professionals and chaplains on religious discrimination in healthcare settings. In addition, an exhibit on how the United States reacted to the Holocaust is touring libraries across the country.

In November, a planned Agriculture Department summit of religious leaders in Omaha will “assess the state of antisemitism, highlight effective strategies to counter antisemitism, and build solidarity across faiths.”

Also on Thursday, the State Department’s Office of the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism published a report on policies, programs and actions worldwide aimed at countering antisemitism.

The report identifies more than 40 multilateral activities, city and municipal programs, civil society leadership, and law enforcement and education resources around the world. Emphasizing a global approach to fighting antisemitism, the report examines best practices internationally and at a local level.

Jacob Magid contributed to this report

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