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The White House’s Strategic Plan on Antisemitism Is Fatally Flawed

Those concerned with antisemitism must understand what it truly means to challenge it as part of movements for justice.

President Joe Biden departs a celebration marking Jewish American Heritage Month in the East Room of the White House on May 16, 2023, in Washington, D.C. The event focused on the Biden Administration's efforts to combat rising antisemitism.

A recently released White House strategic plan on combatting antisemitism, while including numerous mentions of “cross community solidarity” and the importance of combatting all forms of hate, fails to promote a framework that makes that kind of solidarity possible.

The plan, in actuality, singles out antisemitism and, by extension, Jews, as requiring a special strategy — one that does not embrace a commitment to the well-being of all communities. The plan’s approach to ensuring Jewish safety relies heavily on the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, and other law enforcement agencies which jeopardize the safety of other communities, including Jews of color, who experience violence not only by white nationalists but also, quite routinely, by the state and by the very agencies that are listed in the White House’s recent plan.

The White House plan’s disregard for these other communities is also evidenced through its heavy reliance on the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), an organization that has deep partnerships with law enforcement and a well-documented history of targeting marginalized communities (which is why hundreds of progressive organizations have signed a letter urging our social justice communities not to partner with the ADL).

At a time when white nationalist violence and ideology are on the rise and targeting so many of our communities, the power that comes from multiple forms of collective resistance and organizing together for justice cannot be underestimated. This work is being done all the time, with integrity and commitment, and with a recognition of the specificity of particular injustices and systems of oppression as well as the ways they connect and intersect.

As antisemitic violence is part of the white nationalist agenda, those of us concerned with antisemitism must locate our work within a broader commitment to collective liberation — and many do. That means understanding what antisemitism is and thinking deeply about what it truly means to challenge antisemitism as part of, and not in isolation from, movements for justice — not only in our words but in our actions.

In contrast to the White House plan, many of our communities who have been working together know that resisting antisemitism, like resisting all forms of injustice, requires a very different model. What does it mean to challenge antisemitism from the lens of collective liberation and from an abolitionist, liberatory framework? This is not a rhetorical question or necessarily one with a clear-cut answer but an ongoing question that is answered through the lived experiences and envisioning of those committed to its implementation. We need to be thinking about it all the time — in what we do, in how we build relationships, in whose voices and experiences are elevated, in how we challenge ourselves to think and act differently.

The center I am part of, PARCEO (Participatory Action Research Center), in consultation and partnership with individuals from many different communities, has been creating a curriculum on antisemitism grounded in a commitment to liberation. The initiative grows out of a belief in community education as critical to our organizing for justice and includes the work and thinking of educators, organizers and activists, and scholars of Jewish history.

The intention throughout the curriculum is to open space for engaging more deeply and interactively with the issues — from the historical to the present — building upon the range of conceptual, theoretical and experientially rooted thinking on antisemitism and on Jewish histories and experiences, all interwoven within broader social, political and economic contexts and realities and firmly situated within a framework of pursuing justice and dignity for all people.

As we think about antisemitism and the creation of this curriculum, we are deeply aware of the breadth and depth of different Jewish backgrounds, histories and experiences. Jewish experiences of antisemitism differ as well. We understand antisemitism as contextual and as part of a continuum that interacts with society as a whole. Antisemitism is not static, but rather, is part of historical, interactive processes. Experiences of antisemitism do not define Jewish experience alone. We also honor the richness of Jewish experiences across the globe.

Understanding what antisemitism is not — and how accusations of antisemitism are misused — is also crucial to our work, particularly with the preponderance and intensity of false charges of antisemitism directed at Palestinians and all those fighting for justice for the Palestinian people. We, of course, know that the struggles against antisemitism and for justice for the Palestinian people are deeply interconnected. Part of our work is to continue to make visible those connections and to build solidarities that run deep.

Unfortunately, at a briefing hosted by the White House and the ADL after the release of the White House strategic plan, in which is became clear how closely the White House and the ADL collaborated on the plan, both speakers — ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt and the U.S. Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism Deborah Lipstadt — reaffirmed their dangerous view that opposing Israeli apartheid and Zionism falls into the category of antisemitism. This view is echoed in the White House plan, with, for example, a statement that “the U.S. Government, led by the Department of State, will continue to combat antisemitism abroad and in international fora—including efforts to delegitimize the State of Israel.”

The plan also embraced (though didn’t adopt) the controversial International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance Working Definition of Antisemitism, which is one of the main ways that criticism of Israel has been equated with antisemitism. A large number of progressive groups had worked hard for this definition not to be a central part of the plan, and it is only mentioned once, which is noteworthy and reflects a recognition of serious opposition to it, even though, as stated above, it makes similar points in other places in the plan.

It is important to note also that the plan draws upon the ADL’s data on antisemitism, which is fundamentally flawed because it includes not only episodes that are unarguably antisemitic, but incidents involving criticism of Israel and Zionism, which have nothing to do with antisemitism. When an organization inaccurately considers criticism of Israel as antisemitism in its data, the results will necessarily be unreliable.

In a roundtable conversation that will be included in the curriculum moderated by PARCEO’s Nina Mehta — and including educators and organizers for justice Nyle Fort, Lara Kiswani and Lesley Williams — participants drew on their own lives and experience to highlight why challenging antisemitism must go hand in hand with challenging anti-Black racism and all forms of injustice; why we must not look at antisemitism in isolation; what it means and what it takes to transform the world; how we can form and build solidarities across different identities and experiences; and what collective liberation can look like.

As minister, scholar and social justice organizer Nyle Fort so eloquently asks: “What does it take to transform the world? What does it mean to transform ourselves in the service of that work? So when I think about this project of thinking about antisemitism in the context of collective liberation, what other way is there to think about it if we are really talking about collective liberation?”

This unwavering commitment to deep solidarity is also expressed through the powerful words of Sister Aisha Al-Adawiya, a visionary leader in Muslim and other social justice communities: “This is exactly where I believe we need to move as human beings. Standing up for each other in a real authentic way. No cameras rolling. Just the human spirit calling on us to say, ‘This is not right and I have to say something.’”

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