US response to antisemitism is reactive, uncoordinated, report claims

Ahead of Deborah Lipstadt’s confirmation hearing as antisemitism envoy, former senior Obama administration official calls for Biden to coordinate a whole-of-government approach

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Then-US Vice President Joe Biden speaks after the national menorah was lit during a ceremony marking the start of the celebration of Hanukkah, on the Ellipse near the White House in Washington, December 16, 2014. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)
Then-US Vice President Joe Biden speaks after the national menorah was lit during a ceremony marking the start of the celebration of Hanukkah, on the Ellipse near the White House in Washington, December 16, 2014. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

The US effort to combat antisemitism is hampered by the lack of a coordinated policy across a range of federal agencies, according to a report released Tuesday.

“The US does not have a unified, whole-of-government approach to combating antisemitism but rather a patchwork of responses — policies and legal frameworks largely focused on responding to violence and vandalism, countering harassment, and combating antisemitism globally,” argued Scott Lasensky, author of the Institute for National Security Studies report “Washington and the New Battle Against Antisemitism: The Executive Branch, Congress, and the Role of National Authorities.”

Part of an ongoing INSS series on antisemitism in the US, the report was released hours ahead of Deborah Lipstadt’s confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on her nomination as the State Department’s special envoy on antisemitism.

The response of federal authorities in the US “remains predominantly reactive,” wrote Lasensky, a senior policy adviser on Israel, the Middle East and Jewish affairs in the Obama administration.

Though law enforcement in the US is decentralized, the report said, “a coherent national policy is critical for shaping public discourse, gathering intelligence and providing early warning, securing funding, and establishing best practices in the security sphere, as well as monitoring and public reporting.”

Historian Deborah Lipstadt speaks at the Galicia Jewish History Museum in Krakow, Poland, June 2019 (courtesy: Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett via Facebook)

The president can play a critical role, it said, especially in speaking to the nation and coordinating efforts across government agencies.

The report, by a former Obama administration official, is critical of the Trump administration’s actions on the issue. While former US president Donald Trump signed a series of executive actions on domestic antisemitism, he was viewed as a major “purveyor of noxious ideas” that fed antisemitism.

Lasensky also argued that Trump and Republicans focused on global antisemitism rather than right-wing antisemitism and niche arenas like antisemitism at universities at home. The administration also sought to equate anti-Zionism and BDS with antisemitism, a view shared by many Jews and Israelis.

Trump’s landmark achievement in the effort was his December 2019 “Executive Order on Combating Antisemitism,” aimed at combating antisemitism on college campuses, which gave federal authorities the ability to combat “prohibited forms of discrimination rooted in antisemitism as vigorously as against all other forms of discrimination” across all federal institutions.

Meanwhile, Democrats face members of their own caucus, especially in “the Squad,” an outspoken group of six progressive members of the House of Representatives whose criticism of Israel has spilled over into antisemitism, the report noted.

US President Donald Trump shows the executive order he signed combating anti-Semitism in the US during a Hanukkah reception in the East Room of the White House in Washington, December 11, 2019. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

US President Joe Biden came into office supporting “a comprehensive approach to battling antisemitism that takes seriously both the violence that accompanies it and the hateful and dangerous lies that undergird it,” wrote the author.

The report sees an opportunity for Biden to take a proactive stance on antisemitism. It calls for an interagency mechanism led by the White House to coordinate domestic and national security bodies. It also encourages Biden to follow up on his 2021 statements with a detailed policy address in front of a bipartisan group of legislators, which could be delivered as part of the State of the Union address.

A woman plays her violin on the sidewalk outside the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh on October 27, 2019. (AP/Gene J. Puskar)

Lasensky would also like to see improved intelligence coordination between the Department of Homeland Security, local law enforcement, and Jewish communal organizations.

He pointed out a lack of federal educational guidelines for teaching about the Holocaust and antisemitism.

There is much that Congress can do as well, according to the report. Bipartisan tasks forces can be expanded, as can public hearings and legislation. At the same time, members can avoid procedural maneuvers aimed at making the other party seem unconcerned with antisemitism.

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