WASHINGTON — As the public grappled with President Trump’s latest insulting tweetstorm, widely condemned as racist, the Department of Justice held a Monday event billed as a summit on combating anti-Semitism.
Trump went largely unmentioned at the event, which took place at the Justice Department’s headquarters and lasted for most of the day. Instead, speaker after speaker took aim at pro-Palestinian college activists, including those who support boycotting, divesting from and sanctioning Israel, a movement known as BDS.
“Their goal is elimination,” warned pro-Israel lawyer and activist Alyza Lewin, speaking of groups like Jewish Voice for Peace. “No mistake about it, what is happening today on campuses and beyond is part of an organized, well-funded strategy to marginalize pro-Israel Zionists and deny them a place in society.”
Meanwhile, the Middle East Media Research Institute played a prolonged video compilation of Islamic clerics and media personalities making anti-Semitic statements on Arabic-language television. The Department of Justice can do little to combat anti-Semitism on foreign media outlets.
Also in attendance was Eugene Kontorovich, a controversial legal scholar at George Mason University and a vociferous BDS opponent, and Jonathan Tobin, a pro-Israel journalist.
Jessie K. Liu, U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia and Chris Hardee, a high-ranking national security expert at Justice were also present, and offered sophisticated, politically neutral discussions of how the federal government handles complex issues like free speech, online extremism and hate crimes prosecution.
“Today’s summit — the first of its kind for the Department of Justice — was held to address the troubling rise in anti-Semitism and hate crimes that reflect a broader anti-religious freedom trend,” The Department of Justice told Yahoo News in an emailed statement. “Nationally-respected thought leaders, professors, commentators and attorneys were selected to lend their expertise to this important topic. The Department of Justice is grateful for the participation of all our partners in attendance today, including ADL.”
Some Jewish groups expressed dismay at the event.
“The facts show that the white nationalist, xenophobic far-right is the clear source of rising anti-Semitic violence in this country,” said Dylan Williams, vice president of government affairs at J Street, a progressive Jewish advocacy group. “Instead of seriously combating that threat — which the president has stoked with his own hateful rhetoric — the Trump administration and its allies in the right-wing minority of the Jewish community prefer to focus overwhelming attention on nonviolent campus critics of Israel, and to wield false accusations of anti-Semitism as a partisan weapon against progressives.”
The Anti-Defamation League, the nation’s foremost organization tracking and combating anti-Semitism, was also excluded from planning the event. “We’re attending and deeply appreciate the fact that the Department of Justice is focused on the important issue of rising anti-Semitism in the U.S. and around the world,” an ADL spokesman told Yahoo News. “We were not asked to participate in any of the panels, however. You should ask the administration why our experts were not included.”
ADL head Jonathan Greenblatt also took aim at Trump, who defended his attacks against four newly elected congresswomen of color — he had told them to “go back” to their home countries, even though three were born in the U.S. — by painting them as anti-Semitic and anti-Israel.
“#AntiSemitism is on the rise,” Greenblatt wrote in a Monday message that was shared thousands of times on the social media network. “@realDonaldTrump using Israel to defend his blatant racism only hurts the Jewish community. He doesn't speak for any of us.”
The conference began with U.S. Attorney General William Barr, who described the college anti-Israel movement as one of several threats facing American Jews. “On college campuses today, Jewish students who support Israel are frequently targeted for harassment, Jewish student organizations are marginalized, and progressive Jewish students are told they must denounce their beliefs and their heritage in order be part of ‘intersectional’ causes,” said Barr, echoing an argument popular among many conservatives, who have become more closely identified with Israel as their progressive counterparts have drawn closer, in recent years, to the Palestinian cause.
Barr also said that “under the banner of identity politics, some political factions are seeking to obtain power by dividing Americans.” His remarks did not mention Trump, who was rarely discussed during the carefully scripted event.
Also speaking at the event was Betsy DeVos, the education secretary, a Michigan native who was raised in a conservative Christian denomination. She affirmed that “Jerusalem is Israel’s capital,” a reference to the contested political status of the city, sacred to all three Abrahamic faiths. The Trump administration has moved the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a move widely supported by pro-Israel Jews and condemned by more liberal factions as a needless provocation.
“Israel is light to the region,” she said. “But we all know it’s surrounded by jihadists who embrace evil and who deny Israel’s existence and violently work to wipe it off the map.” She then denounced BDS, which she said was being propagated by “bullies” who harbored anti-Semitic, not merely anti-Israel, convictions.
Elan Carr, a state department official who works to combat anti-Semitism, similarly said that college campuses have become “hostile places for Jewish and pro-Israel students.”
On the whole, the event often seemed to be a reaffirmation of Trump’s support for Israel and pro-Israel causes, as opposed to an announcement of any new initiative.
The event concluded with remarks by two top Trump administration officials, FBI Director Christopher Wray, who gave a meticulously apolitical speech about combating hate crime, and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who continues to be one of President Trump’s staunchest supporters.
Mnuchin, who is Jewish, noted that he had been present for the opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, praising Trump for the move. He also touted his own efforts in making peace in the Middle East.
Before arriving at Department of Justice headquarters on Monday, Mnuchin had been at the White House, where reporters wanted to know if he found Trump’s tweets at the Democratic congresswomen to be racist. He said he did not.
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