For American Jews, Biden’s Speech on Antisemitism Offers Recognition and Healing

President Biden, standing in front of six candles symbolizing the six million Jews killed during the Holocaust, delivered on Tuesday the strongest condemnation of antisemitism by any sitting American president.

For Jews monitoring a spike in hate crimes and instances of antisemitic rhetoric amid pro-Palestinian protests on college campuses, Mr. Biden’s speech at a Holocaust remembrance ceremony at the Capitol was both fiercely necessary and fiercely appreciated. The Anti-Defamation League, which has been tracking antisemitic incidents since the 1970s, says the number of such episodes has reached all-time highs in four of the last five years.

“In an unprecedented moment of rising antisemitism, he gave a speech that no modern president has needed to,” said Jonathan Greenblatt, the chief executive of the Anti-Defamation League. “There has not been a moment like this since before the founding of the state of Israel. We have said it will never get worse, but then it has.”

Still, if the president thought he might change minds with his emotional and deeply personal speech — recalling his father’s discussions about the Holocaust at the dinner table and taking his grandchildren to former concentration camps — there were few signs he had caused many to reconsider their views. Instead, initial reactions fell along ideological lines.

Republicans dismissed his comments as meek, while supporters of Palestinians on the left attacked him for conflating criticism of Israel with antisemitism.

Warren David, the co-founder of the Arab America Foundation, an advocacy group, said it was disappointing that Mr. Biden has not spoken more forcefully against anti-Arab racism and the death toll in Gaza.

“I wish that he would also give a speech and talk about the lives of Palestinians that have been lost, and the pain and the agony that we as Palestinians and Arab Americans feel,” said Mr. David, who added that he condemns antisemitism. “Biden has to give more attention in his discourse to Palestinians and Arab Americans.”

The president spoke seven months to the day after the terrorist attack on Israel by Hamas on Oct. 7. About 1,200 people were killed along Israel’s border with Gaza and more than 200 were taken hostage in the deadliest day for Jews since the Holocaust.

Echoes of the Holocaust have loomed in the background of the debate over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Activists have relied on slogans evoking the Holocaust both to defend and to attack Israel. While supporters of Israel chant and post on social media the phrase “Never again is now,” critics of Israel frequently invoke the idea that “never again means never again for anyone.”

On Wednesday, several leaders of three public school districts will be questioned by members of a House committee that has already questioned four college presidents about campus antisemitism, leading to the resignations of two of them.

For months, Mr. Biden and other Democrats have faced unrelenting protests against steadfast support of Israel. But the speech Tuesday and his remarks last week about the campus protests signaled that the president appears more concerned with shoring up support among moderates than with rallying the left flank of his party.

Representative Hakeem Jeffries, the House minority leader, who spoke before Mr. Biden on Tuesday, won applause when he decried racism, sexism and Islamophobia, along with other forms of hate. Mr. Biden kept his focus more squarely on antisemitism and offered an “ironclad” commitment to Israel, its security and its existence as an independent state “even when we disagree.”

“To the Jewish community, I want you to know: I see your fear, your hurt, your pain,” Mr. Biden said. “Let me reassure you, as your president, you’re not alone, you belong, you always have and you always will.”

Representative Jared Moskowitz, a Florida Democrat who is Jewish and has relatives who escaped or were killed in the Holocaust, called Mr. Biden’s speech a desperately needed moment of “moral clarity.”

“When we turn on the TV and we see all these people on college campuses protesting, there are people who are old enough to remember that happened at universities in Germany,” Mr. Moskowitz said. “It wasn’t uneducated people in the streets. It was the intelligentsia part of German society as well that got involved.”

He added that “parents of Jewish kids are scared” because “they see this rise going on, and it reminds them of the stories their grandparents told them.”

Just days before Mr. Biden’s speech, Sharon Kleinbaum, the rabbi of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in Midtown Manhattan, received a bomb threat targeting her synagogue, which caters to L.G.B.T.Q. Jews.

“He is walking a very fine line very well by referring to Jews and others, but this was Holocaust Remembrance Day, and we are feeling vulnerable in America,” she said. “While I do not think that all criticism of Israel is antisemitic, there are places where antisemitism is flourishing. It has been messy.”

Diana Fersko, a rabbi in New York City and the author of a book on antisemitism, said she heard the president’s remarks as a kind of pastoral salve.

“There was an effort to hold the Jewish people emotionally — so many of us are so deeply traumatized that it was comforting to hear those words of reassurance,” she said. “We don’t feel our pain has been seen and heard among people who we once considered friends, so the recognition of both then and now was deeply validating and empowering.”

Republicans have used the campus protests as a political cudgel against Mr. Biden and the Democratic Party. Donald J. Trump has called the demonstrators “raging lunatics” and praised police officers for arresting them. Last month, Speaker Mike Johnson held a news conference at Columbia University, where he suggested Mr. Biden should send in the National Guard to quell protests. Mr. Johnson also spoke at the event on Tuesday, comparing the protests to what happened in Nazi Germany.

Matt Brooks, the chief executive of the Republican Jewish Coalition, accused the president of not doing enough to support the efforts to defeat Hamas.

“This is a sad example of President Biden saying one thing publicly and privately working behind the scenes to do something radically different,” he said, speaking by phone as he traveled in Israel. “It’s quintessential Joe Biden: He is trying to tell everyone what they want to hear but the reality of what they’re doing is very different.”

Jeremy Ben-Ami, the president of J-Street, a left-leaning lobbying organization that supports Israel but has been deeply critical of its current government, called the speech “very welcome” and praised the president for addressing antisemitism broadly.

“The fight over a millenia-old hatred should not be a partisan issue, but it has become a political football and it’s a shame,” he said.

David Myers, a professor of Jewish history at the University of California, Los Angeles and the director of the Initiative to Study Hate, said the president soberly acknowledged the “extraordinarily surreal dark place we inhabit after Oct. 7, with all the profound political and moral complications.”

But, Mr. Myers said, the president could have said more about the universal message of the lessons of the Holocaust, including the treatment of civilians. “It would have been a brave and important statement to make clear that support for Palestinian freedom and justice need not be by definition antisemitic,” he said. And he added that Mr. Biden also missed an opportunity to explain that the current spike in antisemitism in the United States first emerged from the far right during Mr. Trump’s ascent.

Shane Goldmacher contributed reporting.

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