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A White House summit tackles right-wing extremism with talk of security, hugs — and Christian forgiveness

The day was infused with a Christian sensibility, including a major theme about forgiving one’s attackers, and more than one speaker likened the event to ‘church’

WASHINGTON (JTA) —  At the White House’s “United We Stand” summit against extremism, there was almost as much talk of hugs as there was of hate. 

But the day-long event on Sept. 15 also was an example of some of the obstacles Jews face in joining with other groups to fight extremism.

The day overwhelmingly focused on right-wing extremism, with only scant allusion to the attacks Jews have faced from other sectors in recent years, including the pro-Palestinian left. In addition to a few policy promises around security funding and reporting hate crimes, the event emphasized feel-good unity panaceas, and not a lot was said about how Blacks, Latinos, Asians, LGBTQ people and Jews are targeted for different reasons and experience the fallout in different ways.

The summit also often brought up confronting hate in ways Jewish activists rarely express.

Jewish participants emphasized that they saw the event as a success in that it demonstrated the Biden administration’s dedication to confronting extremism and the deadly attacks it fuels.

“It’s a truly diverse cross-section of faith leaders, civil rights leaders and people who have experienced real trauma and turn that pain into a platform for good,” said Sheila Katz, the CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women.

Amy Spitalnick, the CEO of Integrity First for America, which funded a successful lawsuit against the perpetrators of the deadly 2107 Nazi march in Charlottesville, Virginia, said this degree of White House interest in combating hate was unprecedented. Vice President Kamala Harris opened the day-long event, and Biden closed it.

“Putting a spotlight on this crisis is something many of us have been hoping to see from the White House for some time,” said Spitalnick, who will soon assume the leadership of Bend the Arc, a liberal Jewish domestic policy advocacy organization. “And this moment requires some sort of leadership. And this summit begins to do just that.” 

There were still some awkward moments. The day was infused with a Christian sensibility, including a major theme about forgiving one’s attackers, and more than one speaker likened the event to “church.” Emcee Ana Navarro, the CNN commentator, offered a gospel-like “Can I get an amen!” at one point.

Katz said she was unsettled by a session called “Healing the Soul of the Nation.” It featured a number of survivors of racist and homophobic attacks who forgave their attackers. It was especially jarring before the Days of Awe between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, whose major theme is personal and communal accountability, not learning to forgive others.

“There was definitely a theme that forgiveness is good, and that the act of forgiving can help someone move through their journey. And I think people who have experienced trauma don’t owe their perpetrator anything,” Katz said in an interview during a break. 

“We’re not obligated to forgive people who cause us harm,” she said.  “It’s on the person who causes harm, to do the work and to be accountable.”

At least four of the six people speaking in the session on “healing” dwelled on forgiving their attackers and even advocating for them once they were captured.

“We have to do a better job of listening to pain and that includes the pain of those who are exhibiting or even perpetuating hate and violence,” said the moderator, Lisa Ling.

Joseph Borgen, the only Jewish participant on the panel, subverted the narrative of unsolicited forgiveness. Borgen, who wears a kippah and was beaten by pro-Palestinian activists in New York during the May 2021 Israel-Gaza conflict, said accountability was paramount. 

One of his assailants, Borgen told the room, “was released the next day on minimum bail when he said he would do it again to another individual just like me, and it’s just unfathomable for me that someone in this situation can just be let out.”

Borgen’s presence was significant for another reason: He was one of the few victims who was not targeted by the extreme right. The session in which he appeared immediately followed two sessions focused on the extreme right, including one featuring Bill Braniff, the director of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism. Braniff, a University of Maryland professor, said the focus should properly be on the far right because that was where the overwhelming number of attacks originated.

Ling introduced every speaker except for Borgen with details of why the person was attacked. Turning to Borgen, she said, “Joseph, you are also a survivor of an antisemitic hate attack that happened just last year in New York,” without elaborating that his attackers were pro-Palestinian protesters, as CNN itself has reported. She asked Borgen to explain how his attack made him more sensitive to attacks on Asians.

The Anti-Defamation League was one of five civil rights groups that initiated the event after a mass killing of Black people in Buffalo by a white supremacist fueled by antisemitic conspiracy theories. Jonathan Greenblatt, the group‘s CEO, said in an interview before the event that he hoped to see a focus on hateful language and actions from all sides.

“We need to recognize that extremism isn’t just an issue on one side of the spectrum or the other,” he said in an interview a day before the event. “No one in politics is necessarily exempt from hate and we need people on both sides of the aisle to fight it.”

The White House organizers of the event were conscious of the need to appear bipartisan; a session featuring mayors included two Democrats and two Republicans. But the session only made clearer the difficulties in making the session nonpartisan: Republican mayors David Holt of Oklahoma City and John Giles of Mesa, Arizona, both remarked that fellow Republicans lashed out at them for working with Democrats.

“This isn’t televised is it?” Holt joked about appearing on the same stage as Democrats.

How important it was to the White House to make clear it reached out to all sectors was evident days later. On Sept. 20, the New York Post quoted Duvi Honig, the CEO of the Orthodox Chamber of Commerce, as saying Orthodox Jews were not invited, presenting his non-attendance as evidence.

Susan Rice, President Joe Biden’s top domestic policy adviser, pushed back on Twitter. “The allegation that Orthodox Jews — or Americans of any background — were excluded from the #UnitedWeStand Summit is scurrilous and false,” she said. 

Rice noted the presence of, among others, Borgen, the survivor of the attack in New York; Nathan Diament, the Washington director of the Orthodox Union; and Ari Mittleman, an author who wrote about the event for the Jerusalem Post.

Another mark of the awkwardness: Among the five organizations that pressed Biden to convene the summit was the National Action Network, founded and led by the Rev. Al Sharpton. Sharpton is still reviled in some sectors of the Jewish community for his rhetoric in the 1990s that helped fuel deadly attacks on Jews. Sharpton has publicly regretted his rhetoric and reportedly has reached out to Jewish leaders in private, but not publicly. Jewish figures at the White House summit ducked away when they saw Sharpton approaching.

The other organizers were the National Urban League; the ADL; Asian Americans Advancing Justice, and the League of United Latin American Citizens.

The day functioned as much as a networking event as anything else. Cards were exchanged, relationships were established and there were hugs, some at the imploring of the moderators. 

Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, who weathered an hours-long hostage crisis in Colleyville, Texas, earlier this year, delivered one of the opening statements. He thanked Christian and Muslim neighbors in Colleyville who brought Jewish families “food and hugs.” During lunch, he approached folks saying, “I’m Rabbi Charlie!” and immediately evinced smiles and handshakes.

Biden, in his speech, rolled out initiatives to combat hate crimes, as did Attorney General Merrick Garland and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas — who are both Jewish — in a separate panel. All spoke in lofty but vague terms. 

Biden said he was launching training for law enforcement on local organizations to identify and prevent hate crimes. “We’re going to use every federal resource available to help communities counter hate-fueled violence, build resilience, and foster greater national unity,” Biden said.

Garland said he planned within a year for every U.S. attorney’s office to work with local community organizations to identify and report on acts of hate. Mayorkas said his department was earmarking $20 million for local groups “to fight against targeted violence” and pledged to work to expand the nonprofit security grant program, which helps fund the reinforcement of religious institutions, from $250 million to $360 million.

“Most encouraging was hearing DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas’ commitment to boosting funding for the Nonprofit Security Grant Program (NSGP) which helps religious nonprofits protect themselves,” the OU’s Diament said in a statement after the summit.

A Jewish presence was felt throughout. There were two rabbis among a large group of people honored at the end as “uniters,” including David Saperstein, a longtime Reform movement leader who was a religious freedom ambassador in the Obama administration and who co-leads the Multi-Faith Neighbors Network, and Rachel Schmelkin, who was present during the Charlottesville march and who now works for the One America Movement, which seeks to bridge divides. A video montage of ordinary Americans included a woman named Maital who spoke in front of shelves packed with Jewish paraphernalia.

Biden in his speech noted how the massacre of 11 Jewish worshippers in Pittsburgh in 2018 would haunt the coming Jewish High Holidays. “Families will gather for reflection under the shadow of the rise of antisemitism just four years after the attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh — the deadliest act of antisemitism in our nation’s history,” he said.

Maggie Feinstein, who directs counseling in Pittsburgh for Jews suffering post-traumatic stress in the wake of the massacre, was one of the few speakers who alluded to how different groups are targeted for different reasons — and how they cope with the aftermath in culture-specific ways. She described the public commemoration the community organizes on Oct. 27, and the private, more intimate one it marks on the Hebrew anniversary.

“We remember them in ways that are consistent with our culture in our community,” she said.

“Context matters, right?” she said on a panel. “Our communities were all attacked for different reasons, and all of the contexts were different, but the intent to do harm and to terrorize communities was the same.”

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