The Biden administration has finally launched its national strategy to combat antisemitism. The plan faced months of delay as groups on the extreme Left argued for a watered-down definition of antisemitism – one that would have given them license to pretend their anti-Israeli bromides weren’t antisemitism-by-a-different-name.
Whatever the Biden plan’s merits, the White House celebrations should be tempered by the hard reality that antisemitic incidents in the US rose by a third from 2021 to 2022, according to Anti-Defamation League data. Hate crimes against Jewish people make up almost two-thirds of all religiously-motivated hate crimes in the US. In other words, a plan is welcome – but woefully overdue.
It’s also insufficient, as any government body can only do so much to combat ancient hatreds.
Antisemitism often resides in the unfortunate space between vulgarity and crime, where the government is powerless: Supporting the antisemitic Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement; hinting at Jewish concentrations of power; ostracizing Jewish students on college campuses – the subtle and tolerated forms of antisemitism should trouble us as much as the outright hate speech.
Subtle forms of antisemitism
Consider a recent and stark example: Last month, a student graduation speaker at the City University in New York law school took to the podium to praise terrorists, condemn Israel, and repeat every antisemitic trope in the book. Later, it was found that she had a troubling history of such rhetoric.
“I’m banned from my homeland for as long as this Zionist settler entity, this organization called Israel, masquerading as a country, continues to exist,” she said in 2021.
“We had peace before Israel was created, so abolishing Israel is the key to peace.”
The Biden plan arrived just weeks after the student’s speech – but nothing in the plan’s text would have stopped her. This is why more must be done to fight antisemitism – including and especially by the organizations that certify the next generation of American professionals.
Take the case of the graduating law student. This would-be lawyer will soon sit for the bar exam and be scrutinized by the Bar Association for a “character and fitness” evaluation. To show its seriousness about antisemitism, the Bar Association must prohibit her from receiving her law license on the grounds that antisemitic beliefs are a sufficiently concerning character flaw in a future attorney.
Outside of this individual case, the Bar Association could strengthen its policies and procedures. Rather than indulge in the White House’s waffling about the proper definition of antisemitism, the Bar should come out strongly in favor of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition: “Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”
This would put the US in the company of several dozen countries as well as various EU and UN bodies. Denying antisemites admission to the bar and adopting the IHRA definition sends a message to all current and future American lawyers: Antisemitism has no place in the legal profession.
Of course, the Bar Association is not the nation’s only accreditation entity. Doctors, nurses, accountants, financial advisers and many others must subject themselves to evaluations, oaths and tests, all of which are prime opportunities for these professions to combat antisemitism.
Why do we need proactive stands by the nation’s professional bodies? Because what we’ve done to date hasn’t worked. The familiar theater of an antisemitic remark has only emboldened those who traffic in slurs against Jewish people: The speaker is sanctioned, they apologize, visit the Holocaust Memorial and all is forgiven.
If antisemitism merely results in a slap on the wrist, a trip to Jerusalem, or a donation to an organization perceived to be fighting antisemitism, hateful rhetoric and conduct will continue apace.
If, however, the future doctors and lawyers of America are warned that Jew hatred is professionally prohibited, we could witness a sea change. Those who amplify centuries-old bile would think twice. No commencement speaker would casually rail against Israel from a law school podium. We would deprive these hatreds of oxygen and meaningfully reduce antisemitism.
In the face of a striking rise in the unutterable and unthinkable, we must be unequivocal. Let the Biden national plan lead to an actual national commitment – beginning with America’s professional associations setting standards against antisemitism that will make a difference and send a message.
The writer is the former chairman of the United States Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad.