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The White House antisemitism plan is full of good ideas. Will it actually help Jews?

Combatting American antisemitism will require fixing our broken society

A realistic goal must be three things: specific, measurable and achievable. 

Will the proposals outlined in the White House’s first official strategy to counter antisemitism, released with much fanfare this week, pass this test? Or are they more political pablum?

The report, which followed conversations with more than 1,000 community leaders, distills the challenges American Jews face. It is a thoughtful and comprehensive effort that should be applauded.

But understanding a problem and fixing it are two very different things. And reducing antisemitism will require deep societal changes, something no decrees from on high — save maybe the Torah from Mount Sinai — can ever hope to accomplish.

A ‘Battle for the soul of this nation’

Combating antisemitism — and its insidious effects on our democracy — has motivated this administration since its inception. “Charlottesville, Virginia” were the first words out of Joe Biden’s mouth in his 2019 campaign launch video. Vice President Kamala Harris’s husband, Doug Emhoff, is famously Jewish, and was tasked by the president himself with making antisemitism a central issue of his portfolio.

The brazen white supremacist violence of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville taught Biden that we were “in the battle for the soul of this nation.” The consequences of moral turpitude, of insisting there are “fine people on both sides,” threatened to destroy everything this country stands for.

Americans seemed to agree. Biden won, and it wasn’t close

Many breathed a sigh of relief. We had closed a dark chapter of our nation’s history, and it seemed that we had avoided the dystopia it threatened. Violence, societal unrest and demonizing minorities? “This is not who we are,” the president often says.

But here’s the thing: Often, it is.

The Nazis were famously inspired by the vicious cruelty of our Jim Crow laws. As our nation’s challenges evolve, so too does our white supremacy: Blacks, Jews, Asians, Hispanics, Arabs, LGBTQ+ people, and virtually every immigrant and minority group has taken turns playing scapegoat.

Trump may no longer occupy the Oval Office. But uncertainty still preoccupies the world.

“As in previous eras, demographic changes, new technologies, economic disruptions and deepening socioeconomic inequality may be leading more Americans to turn to conspiracy theories that scapegoat Jews and other vulnerable communities,” says the White House report. 

Do the proposed solutions stand any chance of solving this?

What’s in a plan

The second of the report’s four-pronged strategy, on beefing up physical security, contains arguably the most important action items: making security grants easier for nonprofits to access, strengthening community-based violence prevention efforts and expanding both federal cybersecurity and physical security support for houses of worship, community centers and parochial schools. Many of these proposals are precise, come with a deadline, and fall within the executive branch’s jurisdiction.

But the entire first section of the plan — proposals to “Increase Awareness and Understanding of Antisemitism” —  and much of the rest of the report, relies on what the authors term “whole society calls to action.”

These include enforceable mandates under the executive branch’s control, like requiring federal agencies to update their anti-bias policies.

But they also include more general calls for local leaders to “speak out,” for school districts to beef up Holocaust education standards, for sports leagues to hold players accountable for antisemitic comments, and for influencers to avoid stereotypical depictions of Jews.

While the values they invoke are essential, the heavy-handed generalizations and platitudes throughout are a bit much.

“We must tell the positive story of Jewish contributions to the United States and the world,” the report states, in one particularly eyebrow-raising line. Americans already think 30% of the country is Jewish; surely antisemitism is not caused by a lack of awareness of Jewish achievement and prominence in certain industries, but often just the opposite.

So what, exactly, would this “awareness-raising” accomplish?

Holocaust education, another proposal mentioned throughout the plan, has long been required in most states. There’s also no evidence it’s actually effective.

“We must all say clearly and forcefully: Antisemitism and all forms of hate and violence can have no safe harbor in America,” the report later adds.

In other words? More summits, more research, more talk.

It’s a start

Overall, the strategy represents quite an accomplishment. It’s rare that an administration lives up to its promises, and this White House followed through.

But antisemitism is insidious, and the executives’ reach is limited. I’ve witnessed and discussed — with Emhoff, Ambassador Deborah Lipstadt, and various members of the White House team, over many months and on two continents — the deep work and reckoning each has done to understand these challenges and potential solutions. These are serious people who bring serious expertise.

But in many ways, their hands are tied. Many of the calls to action — like holding social media companies accountable for the antisemitism and hate speech that proliferates on their sites — would require congressional action.

And some proposals are downright cringe-inducing: The White House Office of Public Engagement, for example, plans to launch “the Ally Challenge,” in which Americans can apply to receive an award for “their acts of allyship with Jewish, Muslim, or other communities that are not their own.”

But even so, it’s a step in the right direction.

None of society’s woes — antisemitism very much included — will be solved solely from the top down. Healing a nation ravaged by divisive and anti-democratic politicians, the slow degradation of local communities, the COVID pandemic, and an internet filled with bigotry and lies will take time.

We’re in the midst of an outright war for America’s future, with book burners on one side and agents of chaos all around. And as the report notes, antisemitism — as always — is but one symptom of a society in existential crisis.

Real change will require deep economic, social and political effort. And that will start not with decrees from on high, but from social and civic relationships at the local level. 

This may, ultimately, be what it all boils down to: “While we cannot require actors outside the executive branch to take on the roles envisioned for them in this strategy,” the report’s authors admit, “combating antisemitism is a truly whole-of-society challenge that demands a whole-of-society response, and we hope all will join our call to action.”

As the report notes, “solidarity and mutual support across diverse communities of different backgrounds and beliefs is crucial.” Yet “targeted communities are often too siloed in their experiences of hate and attempts to combat it.”

Or as the American political scientist Robert Putnam put it in the introduction to his seminal book, Bowling Alone, “life is easier in a community blessed with a substantial stock of social capital.”

If nothing else, it’s certainly a start.

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