The Biden Administration released the first National Strategy to Counter Antisemitism last week. This is a big, historic step forward. The new strategy focuses on education, boosting the safety and security of the Jewish community and Jewish institutions, reversing the increasing normalization of antisemitism in public spaces, online, and on university campuses, and encouraging communities that experience different forms of discrimination to work together to combat it. It promises action at the federal level, and it calls on state and local governments, institutions, and civil society to do their part, too, in what it calls as “whole-of-society” approach. The strategy, in its scope and ambition, is the best example I have seen so far of government acknowledgment of the problem the Jewish community in America faces and of concrete actions that government and others can take. For example, the Strategy calls for the use of existing civil rights law to protect Jewish students on campus who are targeted for abuse “because of their actual or perceived views on Israel.” It calls for legislative and executive measures to enhance the security of synagogues, schools, and other Jewish spaces. It calls for education about the Jewish contribution to America and about Jewish history, including of course the Holocaust. And it links the fight against antisemitism to the fight against abuse and hatred aimed at other American minority communities. If all the steps mentioned in the Strategy are carried out, we will have done a lot to eliminate the resurgent threat of American antisemitism. So there is a lot to celebrate.
As always when discussing antisemitism, there is some controversy as anti-Zionist factions seek to carve out room for their views on the Jewish state. The illustrations to the most widely accepted definition of antisemitism here and abroad, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition, which I wrote about earlier this year, make it clear that “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.” But they suggest that “[a]pplying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation,” or “[d]enying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor,” may indeed be antisemitic. The new Strategy notes that the United States has embraced the IHRA definition, as has the Jewish community generally and many state and local governments and governments abroad.
The Administration also gives a positive mention to the so-called Nexus Document in the new Strategy. While the Nexus Document, prepared by a group of scholars, appears to me to be a good faith response to the problem of antisemitism, it has some language that, to me, is troubling. In particular, it reads:
Opposition to Zionism and/or Israel does not necessarily reflect specific anti-Jewish animus nor purposefully lead to antisemitic behaviors and conditions. (For example, someone might oppose the principle of nationalism or ethnonationalist ideology. Similarly, someone’s personal or national experience may have been adversely affected by the creation of the State of Israel. These motivations or attitudes towards Israel and/or Zionism do not necessarily constitute antisemitic behavior.)
It is true that opposition to Zionism or the existence of Israel does not necessarily reflect anti-Jewish animus. As I have written before, a thoroughgoing opponent of nationalism, who objects to the identification of state and nation wherever it exists (and it exists in lots of places), is not an antisemite because he or she opposes Zionism. But what about the idea that someone’s “personal or national experience may have been adversely affected by the creation of the State of Israel?” This seems to me to suggest that the authors think the Palestinians have a free pass to reject the existence of the State of Israel and that they should be exempt from criticisms that assert such rejection is a form of antisemitism. This seems wrong to me in principle and as a political matter. It is wrong in principle for the same reason it would be wrong to justify Jewish anti-Arab racism (which of course exists in Israel) on the grounds, say, of the Hebron Massacre and the resulting flight of the Jews from that city. No one should justify racist attitudes with an appeal to history or his or her own past or present oppression. And it is as wrong in principle to deny the Jewish right of self-determination in the Jewish homeland as it is to deny the Palestinian right of self-determination in Palestine. That’s the point of the two-state solution.
The main thing, though, its that because American Jews face antisemitism and threats to their safety from both the left and the right, we shouldn’t let the mention of the Nexus Document detract from overall approval of what the Administration has proposed. We should congratulate the Administration on this big step and encourage Congress, the Administration, state and local governments, and civil society to implement the Strategy’s recommendations.