The Biden administration released its long-anticipated National Strategy to Counter Antisemitism in late May.
As an American Jew, I was heartened by the unequivocal way that the document took on what is known as “the world’s oldest hate.” It is almost certainly correct that there has never been a more hospitable society to a Jewish minority than the United States.
Jews have thrived, importantly as Jews, in almost every aspect of life in America, even if some of that success has been hard-won. Yet, it is also correct that widespread acceptance has not eliminated the pockets of bias and bigotry that serve as challenges to the Jewish community’s sense of security.
The empowerment of Jews as full citizens of the United States has resulted in the embrace of, and belief in, its values with intensity and, therefore, expectation. In every field of endeavor, Jews have sought to excel not merely as a matter of personal pride, but in contributing to the success of the country.
Civic engagement is remarkably high compared to the general population, as well as activism and philanthropy on behalf of our own community and other communities. And we have learned to cultivate effective advocacy for those causes we hold dear, including support for the State of Israel, perhaps due to what it represents to the world outside of American acceptance.
The National Strategy struggles some with a definition of antisemitism, in large measure because the Jewish community itself is less than unanimous about when criticism of Israel is political and when it is motivated by anti-Jewishness. It would be a mistake to allow an honest debate over where to draw the line to excuse behavior that is clearly on the wrong side of that line.
Of course, antisemitism is far from the only prejudice on display in this country. Racism, homophobia, classism and religious bias are all present in our society alongside antisemitism. Why is it, then, that the FBI reports that the most prevalent form of antagonistic behavior in the United States is against Jews?
The lack of reporting should not be seen as an absence of incidents in other communities; more likely it represents a lack of confidence in the response to such reporting. My hope is that as the White House puts the necessary effort into addressing antisemitism, it will give similar focus to other communities at risk.
But there is another perspective too important to ignore. The Jewish community has always benefited from cohesiveness centered around shared ideas and ideals. It centers around common values that emerge from Judaism and Jewish culture (two intertwined but distinct sources of Jewish identity).
Over the last century, large parts of the Jewish community have continued a trend toward assimilation. Jewishness may not be as central as it once was. Sadly, the one thing that continues to bring the community together is antisemitism.
Terrible and violent events – like the Charlottesville riots and the Tree of Life massacre – as well as the rise of exclusionary movements like Christian Nationalism have impelled individuals and organizations to seek out the brush fires that can lead to conflagrations.
These events need attention that goes beyond rhetoric. Yet, it would be a mistake to allow antisemitism to become the sole foundation on which our community is built.
Wisely, the National Strategy does not place the burden to counter antisemitism on the Jewish community. Everyone has a stake in the fight, especially those who practice bias and bigotry.
The steps identified include increasing awareness and understanding of both antisemitism and Jewish American heritage; improving safety and security for Jewish communities; reversing the normalization of antisemitism; and building coalitions across communities to fight hate.
Antisemitism is a problem for Jews, but it is the responsibility of those who hold and/or act on noxious values.
The National Strategy mentions less directly the responsibility of Jews to balance their disdain for antisemitism with deeper pride and practice of Jewish life, by whatever definition. The sustainability of a sense of identity based on who hates us creates the peculiar dilemma of devoting so much effort to erasing that hatred.
What the strategy does not address, but is important to mention, is the need for our political leaders to stop weaponizing antisemitism, using it as a wedge to divide and attack rather than focusing on solutions. I am hopeful this new national strategy will move us in the right direction.
The activists I know in the Jewish community are not satisfied that a national strategy to protect Jewish citizenry is the end of the story. It requires implementation to succeed (Read the document.), and its existence demands that other embedded prejudices in this country receive the same kind of attention from the highest levels of government and every stratum of society.
But the prophet Isaiah charged the Jews to be a light of nations, and if our advocacy for this strategy illuminates a path toward the beloved community, then it might be the most important contribution Jews have made to America.