‘I have your back’: In Rosh Hashanah message, Biden vows to combat antisemitism

In hour-long call with rabbis, US president vows to fight hatred of Jews ‘at every turn,’ asserts antisemitism at ‘a record level, echoing the worst chapter in human history’

Michael Horovitz is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel

File: US President Joe Biden speaks about his administration's economic agenda during an event at Prince George's Community College in Largo, Md., September 14, 2023. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
File: US President Joe Biden speaks about his administration's economic agenda during an event at Prince George's Community College in Largo, Md., September 14, 2023. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

US President Joe Biden asserted his commitment to fighting antisemitism in a virtual meeting with American rabbis Thursday, a day before the beginning of Rosh Hashana.

In the 10-minute call, Biden vowed to “condemn and combat antisemitism at every turn” and hailed policies aimed at ensuring the safety of Jewish communities. He noted the national strategy his administration announced in May, which includes proposals for social media reforms and increased security funding.

“It’s important to show the world that we celebrate and protect Jewish Americans, whose values, cultures and contributions shape the very character of our nation, and I might add, from the very beginning,” he told the rabbis. “Especially at a time when antisemitism has risen to a record level, echoing the worst chapter in human history.”

“This month, as you attend shul for the high holidays, I know you’re concerned about security. As your president, I wanna make clear to you and to all your congregations: I have your back. I’m committed to the safety of the Jewish people,” Biden added.

At least 50 synagogues have been targeted in recent months by fake bomb threats that unleash police response, often at times when the congregations are streaming services online. Security experts are concerned that calls during the holidays, when sanctuaries are packed, could trigger panic.

In April, a report by the Anti-Defamation League and Tel Aviv University documented a sharp rise in 2022 in the number of antisemitic incidents in the United States and other Western countries, alongside a decline in several other countries, including France, Germany and the United Kingdom. It also found that Haredi Jews are the main victims of antisemitic assaults in the West.

The report featured data published the previous month by the Anti-Defamation League, which in 2022 had recorded 3,697 antisemitic incidents in the United States, the highest-ever tally since the ADL began collecting incident data in 1979.

The previous year was also a record year with 2,717 incidents.

Biden’s pre-holiday call, a tradition dating to at least the George W. Bush administration, was organized by rabbinical umbrella groups representing Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist denominations. It lasted over an hour, although Biden did not stay for questions, of which four were asked, each by a rabbi of a different denomination.

For the first time on such a call, Biden and a top White House official, Neera Tanden, the director of the Domestic Policy Council, gave a progress report on the strategy to combat antisemitism Biden unveiled in May.

“My administration has already started aggressively implementing,” he said. “We published security guides for synagogues across the country. We launched a national campaign to combat antisemitism at school colleges and universities. We delivered trainings on religious workplace accommodations and so much more.”

Tanden, speaking later in the call, added detail. Agencies have a May 2024 deadline to complete their assigned tasks, she said. “More than two dozen agencies are producing deliverables,” she added.

She mentioned, as examples, a letter from the Department of Housing and Urban Development “to 200 federally funded housing programs asking them to identify antisemitism in housing”; research and projects on antisemitism solicited by the National Endowment for the Humanities; the resource guides for houses of worship, published by the Department of Justice and Homeland Security; letters from the Department of Education to schools and universities reminding them of their obligation under the 1964 Civil Rights Act to address discrimination claims, with references to more recent enhancements under Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump that extend the protections to Jews.

“There’s been a rising concern on campus [about] antisemitism and the strategy really propels passion on the part of the Department of Ed’s Office of Civil Rights to really be aggressive, as aggressive on antisemitism as we are when we look at and investigate other issues of discrimination,” she said.

Tanden appeared to be addressing concerns that the Biden administration would focus particularly on right-wing antisemitism; a number off Jewish organizations have said that the alleged harassment of Jewish students on campuses, which they say often comes from left wing and pro-Palestinian groups, should also be a priority.

In his call Thursday, Biden reiterated that he was convinced to run for president after the 2017 neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, in which a woman was killed and over 30 were injured by a white supremacist who rammed his car into a group of people who were protesting the Trump-supporting “Unite the Right” rally.

After he “watched on television people marching out of the woods in fields with torches and carrying Nazi banners, and singing the same God awful antisemitic verses,” which was followed by then-president Donald Trump’s remark that there were “very fine people on both sides,” Biden said he decided to enter the race.

He also referred to controversies over the effort by conservative groups and parents to remove books from schools and libraries that they deem inappropriate, including some books about the Holocaust and racism.

“Books are being banned, if you can believe that in the United States of America, books are being banned in our schools and history is being erased,” he said.

He mentioned his nomination earlier this month of Jack Lew, a former Treasury secretary, to be ambassador to Israel. “I’m so proud to continue our support [of Israel] by nominating Jack Lew, an Orthodox Jew, to be ambassador,” he said.

Biden included a pledge of support for Israel in the call, and did not mention his tense relationship with the current Netanyahu government over its efforts to overhaul Israel’s judiciary and over its expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

“I want to reaffirm America’s unshakeable commitment to Israel’s security and its right to exist as an independent Jewish state,” he said. “My support for Israel’s security remains longstanding and unwavering, including its right to defend itself against attacks.”

On a lighter note, Biden joked that he was “raised in the synagogues,” as his local one in Delaware was “the home of countless friends for me.”

Canaan Lidor, JTA contributed to this report.

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