Biden touts administration’s approach to antisemitism

President cites appointment of antisemitism envoy, increased funds for synagogue security, at White House Rosh Hashanah reception.

By Dmitriy Shapiro, JNS

President Joe Biden discussed his administration’s efforts to combat antisemitism during a High Holidays event at the White House last Friday.

Biden addressed a large gathering of Jewish leaders and administration officials in the White House’s East Room, following remarks by First Lady Jill Biden and the Jewish Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff—a fixture of the administration’s events with the Jewish community.

The president began by expressing that he was thinking about the Jewish families in Florida, whose homes at the time were being threatened by Hurricane Ian.

“Our heart goes out to everyone there in the state experiencing what could be maybe one [of] the most devastating hurricanes in the history of that state,” he said.

After recognizing Reps. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) and Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), who were in attendance, Biden said that he was working closely with Florida’s governor and Congressional delegation—irrespective of party affiliation—to provide rescue, recovery and rebuilding assistance.

“And whatever it takes, we’re going to be there as one nation and one America,” he said.

Biden called Deutch a dear friend and jokingly urged him not to leave Congress, which Deutch has done to become CEO of the American Jewish Committee.

He also welcomed Rabbi Michael Beals of the Congregation Beth Shalom of Wilmington, Del.

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“I probably went to shul more than many of you did,” quipped Biden, a practicing Catholic.

“Beth Shalom is home for countless friends. And, for me, it’s been home,” he added.

Biden quoted the U.K.’s late Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks as saying that “nothing is broken beyond repair.”

“It’s never too late to change and to be better,” he said. “I’ve always believed that message and I also think it’s universal.”

The context for that statement followed, with Biden referencing the COVID-19 pandemic as one of the most difficult moments in American history.

“We can and we are emerging stronger from this pandemic. We’re building an economy that works for everyone. We’re responding to the cry for action by the climate. We’re actually rallying the world. We’re rallying the world to keep support for Ukraine strong and consistent and [for] Ukraine’s right to exist as a people,” Biden said.

He said more could be done to restore the soul of America. One of the reasons he ran for president, he claimed, was to “bring back some decency and honor in the way we talk about one another, the way we deal with one another, standing up to antisemitism that was constantly lurking in the shadows.”

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“I decided to run for president—and this is not hyperbole, you’ve heard me say this for almost three years now—when I saw those people walking out of the field, literally walking out of the fields in Virginia, carrying torches, Nazi flags, and chanting the same antisemitic bile that was chanted on the streets of Berlin and Germany in the early ’30s,” Biden said.

Referring to former President Donald Trump, Biden continued, “And when asked, when the young woman was killed, ‘What do you think?’ — and the comment made by a former leader was, ‘There are good people on both sides.’”

Biden said that his father taught him that silence is complicity, which is why the White House held the first summit against hate-fueled violence just a few weeks prior.

“Hate can have no safe harbor. It’s never defeated; it only hides,” he said. “It hides under rocks. And when we breathe a little oxygen under those rocks, it comes out.”

Biden then listed other steps the administration has taken to tackle rising antisemitism in the U.S., including nominating Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism Deborah Lipstadt—the first time the role has reached the level of ambassador after the position was elevated under the Trump administration.

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The president also touted helping secure increases in funding for nonprofit security grants that include synagogues. The White House also established a National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism.

“The Jewish tradition holds that from the time the Book of Life is opened on Rosh Hashanah until the gates close on Yom Kippur, our fate hangs in the balance,” Biden concluded. “It’s in our hands—it’s in our hands to change, to do better to ourselves, for ourselves, and for others.”

Notable attendees in the audience included Lipstadt, Attorney General Merrick Garland, Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, U.S. Ambassador to Argentina Marc Stanley, Assistant Secretary of Health for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Admiral Rachel Levin, Israeli Ambassador Michael Herzog and at least 19 Democratic members of the House of Representatives.

Vice President Kamala Harris joined the group on stage but did not offer remarks.

At the end of the event, the audience was ushered into the foyer, where the White House had invited Israeli-American violinist Itzhak Perlman to perform.