NEW YORK — At a time when Jews in the United States are being blamed for COVID-19 or for paying asylum seekers to seek refuge there, fighting anti-Semitism can sometimes feel like standing in the middle of a downpour with no umbrella.
“I would argue that today anti-Semitism is more complex than at any other point in history because all of these factors don’t just exist separately, they also exist simultaneously online,” Holly Huffnagle, the newly appointed American Jewish Committee’s US Director for Combating Antisemitism, told The Times of Israel in a recent interview.
In her new role, Huffnagle will direct the agency’s response to anti-Semitism in the US and its efforts to better protect the Jewish community.
Huffnagle, who previously served as a policy advisor to the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism at the US State Department, has fought against anti-Semitism since her graduate school days at Georgetown University. Yet, in spite of her resume, Huffnagle’s promotion has been met with consternation in some quarters. That’s because Huffnagle, 33, is an observant Baptist who goes to church every Sunday.
Still, she’s determined to forge ahead.
“As someone who is not Jewish, it’s hard to personally figure out my own voice in this space because I’m not the direct recipient of anti-Semitism or bigotry. However, I want to help American Jewish communities be freer. We can’t necessarily solve the problem, but we can work to make people freer from prejudice,” she said in a Zoom call from her home in Los Angeles.
Prior to her promotion Huffnagle was assistant director of AJC Los Angeles and worked as a researcher in the Mandel Center of Advanced Holocaust Studies at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC.
Additionally, Huffnagle lived and worked in Poland on and off between 2011 and 2017. While there, she conducted research on Muslim-Jewish relations before World War II, volunteered at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum and served as a liaison for the Jan Karski Educational Foundation.
The following conversation was edited for brevity and clarity.
Tell us a little about the home you grew up in, was it particularly religious?
The religious community I grew up in Thousand Oaks, California, was actually a Baptist community, a Protestant denomination which probably would be identified as Evangelical.
My family background is Baptist. My father was born in Jackson, Mississippi, and his father was a southern Baptist minister from Mississippi who got his license to preach in the South and moved his family of six children to California to start a Baptist church. My father grew up in this very religious environment.
On my mother’s side, my grandparents co-founded the Bethany Baptist Church in Thousand Oaks in the 1960s. I was raised in that church.
What does your family think about the path you’ve taken?
My parents are very supportive. They are now on the Chabad of Conejo Listserv. They donate to the Holocaust museum and my dad goes to a few of the Chabad programs. They are very supportive and get the “why” of what I do — although my father will sometimes tease that I’m going to come home one Christmas and say I’m Jewish now.
Regarding my broader extended family, I don’t think they know exactly what it is I’m doing. They know it has something to do with “Jews” or “Jewish issues,” or “Holocaust.” I take that as a measure of me having to share more and be more in conversation with them about what I’m doing.
I also have a lot of members of my extended family who are very pro-Israel from an Evangelical standpoint.
What influenced you to study history?
I loved history as a kid. I was especially fascinated with the Civil War growing up. Then I had a teacher in high school, Mrs. Jackson, who taught AP European history. She made me realize how little I actually knew about the world around me.
Something that was drilled into us in school was that we are supposed to be lifelong learners. However, it wasn’t until college that I explored this further. I was much better in chemistry and math. I actually got a scholarship to the University of California Davis to study chemistry, which I declined.
Do your math skills inform what you’re doing now?
The math part of me really likes facts. I want to make sure that 2 +2 = 4. When I worked in the State Department it was much easier to take the time to get things right before putting out a policy.
When you’re in the advocacy space, or in the constant news cycle space, you have to be ready to go all the time. We’re operating in a world with a lot of false information and so you can’t always wait to have exact answers before having to answer. That’s been a huge learning curve for me.
That is the biggest challenge. Giving people rational facts is not going to work anymore. Many of them don’t need any proof for what they believe. They just believe the conspiracies. They’re not going to necessarily believe it when a Jewish advocacy organization says, “This is anti-Semitism, and this is why it’s anti-Semitism.”
We know now lies spread six times faster than truth, and online, where there are no gatekeepers or fact checkers, the lies have a life of their own. So that is one of the biggest challenges we face against all this misinformation and disinformation swirling around — having a loud enough voice.
What’s one experience you had working in Poland that still sticks out?
In 2011 I lived in the town of Oświęcim, where Auschwitz is located. I volunteered at the state museum there. We learned how to do several things around the site, but the most powerful thing was being trained how to clean shoes. The shoes get rotated in the display cases because of conservation issues.
I remember there was this one red sandal. I remember it because it had a distinct design on the side.
In 2017 I was teaching two courses in Europe for my undergraduate school, Westmont College. I took my students to Auschwitz and when we walked down that hall where the shoes are displayed, I saw the shoe that I cleaned years before. I have been to Auschwitz-Birkenau nine times now. Every time it hits you differently, but this time I lost it. It was so powerful to see that shoe again after all those years.
Talk about overt versus coded anti-Semitism on social media.
Yes, we’ve seen a lot of that online, especially around the pandemic. We’ve also seen some weird conspiracy theories around the [Black Lives Matter] protests where Jews have been blamed for wanting these protests or causing riots. We’re at a point where the radical left and far right are recycling each other’s material.
Anti-Semitism was rising before 2016, but since 2016, white supremacist accounts across social media platforms have grown 600 percent in the United States.
Researchers will point to several factors: global economic uncertainty, issues of immigration, fading memories of the Holocaust and Israel-related anti-Semitism.
Regarding coded language, there are certain words like globalist or New York bankers. Some people use these terms and don’t realize they are both using an anti-Semitic trope and bolstering real anti-Semites.
All this presents a real challenge right now for anyone combating anti-Semitism to call out and condemn anti-Semitism. You don’t want to call everyone an anti-Semite, because you don’t want to use the word as a bludgeon. The term loses value when you overuse it.
What do you say to those, like former governor of Vermont Howard Dean, IfNotNow and others on Twitter, who either oppose or are mistrustful of your role with AJC because of your faith?
The first thing I’ll say is that the outpouring of support, which I don’t think I deserve because this is part of my job, was overwhelming. I had so many people, Jewish and non-Jewish colleagues and former colleagues, asking how I’m doing, telling me they’re glad to have me in this fight.
Unfortunately Christians don’t have much a reputation for anything but hate these days thanks to Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell and other trump friends. AJC gets no points for this. https://t.co/Jwge4z6Spf
— Howard Dean (@GovHowardDean) July 11, 2020
What was sad about the Howard Dean tweet was the broad brushstroke it painted about Christianity. We try so hard in our work not to paint any group as a monolith.
The IfNotNow tweet was interesting because, yes, I’m white, and yes, I’m Christian. Those two identifiers are accurate, but I would hope that I would be seen for my commitment and my experience in this fight [against anti-Semitism].
We welcome allies in the fight for Jewish safety — but it should be obvious that white Christians should not be leading Jewish organization’s advocacy against antisemitism.
The AJC continues to show how out of touch it is with American Jews. https://t.co/tsZY4pLGIz
— IfNotNow???? (@IfNotNowOrg) July 12, 2020
What should President Donald Trump do in this moment regarding anti-Semitism?
I would hope the president would call out anti-Semitism from his own political party and political supporters in addition to calling out anti-Semitism on the left, which he should do absolutely.
Also, he should address the growth of white supremacists. We know Richard Spencer and David Duke have said that President Trump is the best thing that’s happened for them. I’m not putting any blame on President Trump for this, but my request, as someone who is in this fight, would be the disavowing of white supremacists.
What should presumptive Democrat nominee Joe Biden do?
Continue pushing hard against white supremacy. He also needs to call out anti-Semitism when it comes from his own party. He needs to listen to the majority of the Jewish community.
Last year the AJC did a landmark study about Jewish attitudes toward anti-Semitism. One of the questions we asked was along the lines of “Do you think it’s anti-Semitic when someone says Israel doesn’t have a right to exist?” About 80% of American Jews respondents said yes. I think that’s especially important for Joe Biden to listen to that because he represents the left.
Lastly, what’s slipping through the cracks?
In this hyperattentive go-go-go world I don’t think we’re taking enough time to figure out how we are going to combat anti-Semitism of the future. The fight against anti-Semitism is often reactive and I think what is slipping through the cracks is long-term planning.