WASHINGTON — The White House convened top administration officials and Jewish leaders on Wednesday for a summit on antisemitism, which has spiked sharply in recent years — and has become a national crisis in recent months.
Antisemitic violence, like the 2018 mass shooting at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, has been on the rise. Rapper Kanye West has been at the center of a weeks-long controversy engendered by his antisemitic screeds and threats; despite this, he was recently hosted at Mar-a-Lago by former President Donald Trump. And online hate speech continues to proliferate, creating a tense environment for many American Jews and other communities.
“I’m in pain right now. Our community is in pain,” said second gentleman Doug Emhoff, the husband of Vice President Kamala Harris, who presided over the meeting. “It hurts me to see what we’re going through right now. We cannot normalize this. There’s no both-sides-ism on this one. All of us should just be against antisemitism.”
Emhoff is the first Jewish spouse to have been part of a successful presidential ticket. Many of President Biden’s top advisers are also Jewish — as antisemitic conspiracy theorists have unfailingly noted. The coronavirus pandemic, and the economic devastation it caused, appear to have supercharged animosity against Jews, which had been rising since 2015; the bigotry has been further boosted by other factors like the rise of online extremism.
“For too long, too many people have failed to take antisemitism seriously,” said Deborah Lipstadt, the famed Holocaust scholar now serving as a special State Department envoy to combat antisemitism.
“People are no longer saying the quiet parts out loud,” Emhoff said. “They are literally screaming them.”
Recent months have seen several high-profile outbursts of antisemitism, most notably from the performer and designer West, now known as Ye, who has engaged in several prolonged and vitriolic tirades, most recently on the Infowars program hosted by far-right media personality Alex Jones. West used the three-hour interview to heap praise on Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler.
Last month West and prominent Holocaust denier and white supremacist Nick Fuentes were invited to a pre-Thanksgiving dinner hosted by Trump at his South Florida golf club and resort. Despite the ensuing outrage, the 2024 Republican presidential frontrunner has never condemned the hateful views West and Fuentes have labored to popularize.
Also in attendance Wednesday was former Ambassador Susan Rice, who heads the Domestic Policy Council. She recounted growing up in Shepherd Park, a District of Columbia neighborhood that was home to large Jewish and African American populations. The fraying of bonds between Jewish and Black communities has only contributed to the pervasive feeling that old animosities are becoming prominent again, helped along by the universality of social media and fostered by deepening social isolation and political polarization.
Joining administration figures were leaders of various Jewish groups and denominations, many of whom have had to implement security measures that would have once been unthinkable in the United States. Last month synagogues in both New York and New Jersey faced threats of attack. Just hours before the White House summit began, a man was arrested in the New York City borough of Staten Island for allegedly shooting a BB gun at a father and son outside a kosher market.
Lipstadt warned that antisemitism almost always portends a broader societal shift toward intolerance and authoritarianism. “Antisemites don’t stop with hating Jews. Antisemitism is the tip of the iceberg of hate and prejudice. Antisemitism is the death knell of democracy.”
Still, it is not clear just what the Biden administration — or any government entity, for that matter — can do to combat the proliferation of antisemitism and other forms of hatred. The White House recently launched an effort to provide security funds for houses of worship, and intelligence agencies now monitor domestic extremism with a newfound urgency. Even so, antisemitic and racist tropes proliferate freely on the internet and are sometimes amplified by political leaders like Trump.
Emhoff vowed to continue working on the issue. “For me, this is not the end,” he said at Wednesday’s summit. “This is just the beginning of this conversation. And as long as I have this microphone, I am going to speak out against hate, bigotry and lies.”