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Jewish groups meet with White House to discuss wave of antisemitism

A coalition of Jewish organizations has several suggestions for the Biden administration to address the rise in anti-Jewish bias, including filling the role of a White House liaison.
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Prominent Jewish organizations welcomed President Joe Biden's tweet Monday morning denouncing a series of attacks on American Jews in recent weeks as "despicable," and met with White House officials Monday afternoon to convey their concerns and give guidance.

"We're incredibly grateful that the president is using his bully pulpit and we hope he will continue to do so," said Janice Weinman, CEO of Hadassah, the Women's Zionist Organization of America, one of the groups invited to join the meeting.

"But there are concrete actions that he can take now, and those would be a powerful step to combat antisemitism," she added.

Apparent hate crime incidents, including vandalism against synagogues and street assaults, have been reported across the country, including in New York, Los Angeles, suburban Chicago and South Florida, as large-scale protests have been held in response to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. Over the weekend, the New York City Police Department was searching for three suspects accused of yelling antisemitic statements to four men outside a synagogue before damaging a car and attacking two Jewish teenagers with a baseball bat.

Mosques have also reported anti-Muslim vandalism this month, with one house of worship in Brooklyn getting spray-painted with the phrase, "Death to Palestine." Prominent Muslim and Palestinian activists have spoken out against the spate of violence, as well.

Hadassah, along with four other legacy Jewish organizations — the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish Federations of North America and the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America — offered several recommendations in a letter Friday to the Biden administration on how to fight antisemitism.

Among them: appoint an ambassador tasked with monitoring and responding to antisemitism, a move the groups believe would signal to other countries that the U.S. is serious about the initiative; re-establish the position of a Jewish liaison in the White House who would be in contact with various Jewish communities and leaders; host a meeting between Jewish community groups and the departments of Justice and Homeland Security and the FBI to address the increase in violence; offer support to college campuses, where antisemitic incidents often arise; and increase funding that can help communities with security for their houses of worship and other religious institutions.

Karen Paikin Barall, Hadassah’s government relations director, said White House officials and members of the Department of Homeland Security listened to the organizations’ concerns at Monday’s meeting and their recommendations “were received positively.”

“It’s clear that the dramatic spike in antisemitic attacks in the U.S. and around the world has the president’s attention,” she said, adding the groups will “continue working with the Biden administration to fully implement the tactics detailed” in their letter.

A White House official responded last week that the administration would be working alongside the community organizations to condemn and respond to the "disturbing rise" in incidents, and that senior officials will partner with Jewish groups about how to address antisemitism, which has seen a surge in the U.S. and globally since early May amid the fighting in Gaza.

Holly Huffnagle, the American Jewish Committee's U.S. director for combating antisemitism, said she was thankful that Biden was unequivocal about stopping attacks against the Jewish community.

But she also said the groups felt it necessary to join forces, writing in their letter that the latest conflict has been used to "amplify antisemitic rhetoric, embolden dangerous actors and attack Jews and Jewish communities" and "will have ramifications far beyond these past two weeks."

"We wish we didn't have to write this letter. We wish it wasn't needed. But there was almost this deafening silence," Huffnagle said. "It was almost like nobody wanted to say anything, whereas before, when it's white supremacist hate, people do speak out. For the Jewish community, it's very disconcerting because they're thinking, wait, where are our friends?"

The deep concern for safety isn't unfounded. The Anti-Defamation League found that antisemitic incidents, including assault and harassment at Jewish institutions such as schools and synagogues, were up 40 percent from 2019 to 2020.

And the American Jewish Committee's report, "The State of Antisemitism in America 2020," found that 9 in 10 American Jews believe antisemitism is a problem in the country.

Nathan Diament, executive director of the Orthodox Union Advocacy Center, a nonpartisan public policy arm of the nation's largest Orthodox Jewish organization‚ said it's been disappointing that some elected leaders have been slow to condemn antisemitism.

"What was in the president's tweet this morning was the right statement and appreciated," he said. "A lot of leaders we've reached out to, members of Congress, were very slow to speak out against these anti-Jewish attacks with the same strength and speed that they rightly denounced attacks on Asian Americans and others."

Mitch Silber, executive director of the Community Security Initiative, which helps secure Jewish institutions in the New York region, said it's important that community groups at the grassroots level have the support they need to make sure their schools and institutions are safe.

But he said he'd also like to see the White House foster a larger interfaith conversation between Jewish and Muslim groups and other faith communities that can "build a strong bond" in the face of bias attacks affecting whichever demographic is seeing a rise.

"No matter how tense things are in the Middle East, we must agree that violence is not acceptable here under any circumstances," Silber said.