Jewish organizations critique Biden's antisemitism strategy

A number of organizations have said they are worried about the definition of antisemitism as portrayed in the 60-page national strategy plan.

 US PRESIDENT Joe Biden speaks at the White House, in April 2023. (photo credit: Nathan Howard/Reuters)
US PRESIDENT Joe Biden speaks at the White House, in April 2023.
(photo credit: Nathan Howard/Reuters)

While most Jewish organizations and Jewish leaders support US President Joe Biden’s unprecedented broad strategy to combat antisemitism announced last week, some have added a hint of criticism to their comments.

Aside from entities such as the Republican Jewish Coalition that said “Joe Biden had a chance to take a strong stand against antisemitism and he blew it,” a number of more central or a-political organizations have said they are worried about the definition of antisemitism as portrayed in the 60-page national strategy plan on combating antisemitism in the US.

One of the main legacy Jewish organizations, The World Jewish Congress (WJC), led by president Ronald Lauder, thanked the White House for the new plan, but also added some hinted criticism: “We must have concrete action, not just words,” the WJC said towards the end of its statement reacting to the White House strategy. “The inclusion of a secondary definition in addition to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism is an unnecessary distraction from the real work that needs to be done,” they said of the Nexus definition, that was included in the text referring to the different types of antisemitism.

THE STRATEGY specifically said that it acknowledges IHRA as the main definition of antisemitism but also acknowledged the existence of other definitions such as the Nexus Document, that is more to the left of the political map regarding its attitude towards Israel and to antisemitism.

Another legacy organization, B’nai B’rith, reacted to the new plan saying that they also see a problem with the addition of the Nexus definition. B’nai B’rith President Seth J. Riklin and CEO Daniel S. Mariaschin said in a statement that they are “disappointed in the document’s mention of the Nexus definition of antisemitism.” They added that “we believe that definition allows the more invidious of Israel’s nemeses to hide their animus behind ‘strident’ criticism of Israel. The important and well-established IHRA definition addresses this issue in a far superior manner.”

 World Jewish Congress chairman Ronald S. Lauder speaks at the Congress honoring Former Secretary of State George P. Shultz with the Theodor Herzl Award at a gala dinner at New York’s Waldorf Astoria on November 9, 2015.  (credit: FLASH90)
World Jewish Congress chairman Ronald S. Lauder speaks at the Congress honoring Former Secretary of State George P. Shultz with the Theodor Herzl Award at a gala dinner at New York’s Waldorf Astoria on November 9, 2015. (credit: FLASH90)

They emphasized that “even with those concerns we are deeply satisfied that the national strategy to fight antisemitism provides an invaluable investment in promoting and realizing tolerance, safety and security for Jews across the country.”

The Combat Antisemitism Movement

THE COMBAT ANTISEMITISM Movement (CAM), one of the newest but central groups in promoting dialogue about antisemitism, especially online, reacted similarly. They too welcomed the new strategy, adding that they “would be remiss if we did not point out several reservations and suggestions as the Biden administration tries to implement this plan.”

“While the strategy rightly raises alarm about antisemitism rooted in white supremacist ideology, it does not highlight enough the threats posed by other, equally menacing and potent, manifestations of Jew-hatred, including from the far-left and the radical Islamist communities in the US,” CAM said, adding that contemporary antisemitism, in all its forms must be confronted with the same vigor and resources.”

CAM also highlighted the issue they have with the addition of another definition than antisemitism, other than IHRA. “In addition to the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism, the strategy also praises alternative definitions, most notably the ‘Nexus Document.’

“If the White House wants its strategy to be a success, it must center its implementation efforts solely around the IHRA definition, the most authoritative and widely-accepted tool to delineate all variations of modern-day antisemitism.”

CAM also observed that one of the organizations chosen to implement some of the strategy was The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a self-declared Muslim civil rights and advocacy group that the FBI severed ties with a number of years ago. “The guidance specifically stated that, until the FBI could determine whether there continued to be a connection between CAIR or its executives and Hamas, ‘the FBI does not view CAIR as an appropriate liaison partner’ for non-investigative activities,” an official Justice Department document stated in 2013.

CAM said that “given CAIR’s checkered history of regularly defaming and demonizing the Jewish people and state, it is not a legitimate partner in the collective effort against antisemitism.”

They added that while they themselves were not mentioned in the report, “CAM, along with its 740 interfaith partners and millions of engaged grassroots followers, stands ready to do its part to assist in this vital endeavor to turn back the surging tide of antisemitism, both in the US and across the globe.”

FOUNDED IN 2019, CAM has emerged as a leading voice in the fight against antisemitism. On their advisory board are former chairman of the Jewish Agency Natan Sharansky, Senator Joe Liberman, Rev. Johnnie Moore, Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt, a Conservative rabbi from the US, Dr. Irwin Cotler, Canada’s Special Envoy on Holocaust Education and Antisemitism and Prof. Dina Porat, one of the world’s top experts on antisemitism.

CAM’s CEO is Sacha Roytman-Dratwa, who created the Digital Advocacy Unit at the WJC, as well as leading the #WeRemember Campaign for International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the world’s largest digital educational campaign.

The StopAntisemitism organization only focused on the criticism of the new White House strategy. They said that they are “extremely disturbed by several key aspects of the White House’s antisemitism strategy. Our country’s crisis of Jew-hatred needs to be addressed clearly, completely and as a phenomenon unto itself and the Biden Administration’s plan falls short on all counts.”

STOP ANTISEMITISM added that this strategy was written “against the advice of major antisemitism advocacy organizations,” and that “the plan does not use the IHRA definition to delineate what counts as antisemitism, instead relegating it to a brief paragraph that also includes the inferior, competing Nexus definition.”

They explained that “not using IHRA as a foundational guide creates a gaping hole; while the plan acknowledges that Jews have been targeted because of their connection to Israel, it fails to name anti-Zionism as a primary form of antisemitism.

“The plan will not even allow antisemitism to stand alone, repeatedly mentioning planned executive actions to fight ‘antisemitism, Islamophobia, and related forms of bias and discrimination.’ Fighting Islamophobia and other bigotries is an excellent goal, but it does not belong in this particular antisemitism strategy,” StopAntisemitism said.

StopAntisemitism is a grassroots watchdog organization dedicated to “exposing groups and individuals that espouse incitement towards the Jewish people and State and engage in antisemitic behaviors,” according to their website. Founded in 2018, StopAntisemitism was born “in response to increasing antisemitic violence and sentiment across the US.”

Senior officials in central Jewish organizations in the US said wholeheartedly that the White House strategy is “beyond expectations,” yet that they are “worried about the fact that the Nexus definition of antisemitism was included,” and that “anti-Zionism isn’t necessarily seen as antisemitism,” according to the new plan. Senior Israeli officials actually said that the fact that the progressive Jerusalem Definition of Antisemitism wasn’t included, is a success. They added that “the fact that IHRA is mentioned as the main definition of antisemitism, means that anti-Zionism is perceived to be antisemitism.”

The source added that the State Department, as well as the administration itself, has been using IHRA as the official definition for antisemitism and aren’t planning on changing that. In addition, they explained, “more than half-of-the US States have already adopted IHRA,” and therefore, “IHRA is the only definition that is used by law enforcement,” in the US.

What are the differences between the IHRA and the Nexus definitions of antisemitism? 

The IHRA definition is a non-legally binding statement that provides a broad and general description of antisemitism, accompanied by 11 illustrative examples that include criticism of Israel as a potential manifestation of antisemitism. The Nexus definition is a more recent and alternative definition that aims to provide a clearer and more precise description of antisemitism, with a focus on the nexus between antisemitism and Israel or Zionism. The Nexus definition also provides guidelines to identify when criticism of Israel or opposition to it crosses the line into antisemitism, without stifling legitimate debate or expression.

Another difference is that the IHRA definition has been widely adopted and endorsed by various governments, institutions and organizations around the world, while the Nexus definition has been supported by some academics and activists who are critical of the IHRA definition for being vague, ambiguous and susceptible to misuse. The two definitions have sparked controversy and debate among different Jewish communities and groups over how to best define and combat antisemitism in the 21st century. All of the mainstream Jewish organizations in the US have pushed for the administration to adopt the IHRA definition solely.