There is a Hebrew maxim that reads “ve’haikar chaser min hasefer,” which roughly translates to: “The essential point is missing from the argument.” Or, to use more popular vernacular, “the emperor has no clothes.” This, in essence, is our central critique of the recently released U.S. National Strategy to Counter Antisemitism. For all its pomp and flair, the strategy misses some of the key forces driving antisemitism today and how to fight it effectively.
The lengthy, 60-page document offers a multiplicity of ways to counter the world’s oldest hatred. Many of these are quite positive, including its focus on beefing up security for Jewish institutions and the emphasis it places on education—a vital building block for any tolerant society.
But the positives it presents make the strategy all the more dangerous, as the good it espouses lends credibility to its fundamental weaknesses.
The most serious flaw is that the strategy lacks any real consideration of how anti-Zionism, the denial of the Jewish right to self-determination in their ancestral homeland, almost invariably manifests as a politically correct version of antisemitism, a version that is spiraling out of control in America today.
Unfortunately, the strategy gives cover to this contemporary iteration of antisemitism. It does so by including the fringe Nexus definition as a guide for identifying Jew hatred, alongside the globally accepted IHRA working definition. While IHRA equates anti-Zionism with antisemitism, Nexus provides several caveats allowing for opposition to the Jewish right to self-determination, as well as applying double standards to Israel, by declaring that “paying disproportionate attention to Israel and treating Israel differently than other countries is not prima facie proof of antisemitism.” Here the Nexus definition opens the antisemitism loopholes that IHRA was intended to close, thereby rendering the endorsement of IHRA entirely meaningless.
Throughout the centuries, antisemitism has manifested in three distinct ways. Some—like Amalek in biblical times or the Nazis in the modern era—have focused their venom on the Jewish people, based on an almost instinctive, gut-level hatred. Their goal was to annihilate us, just because we existed.
Others have directed their hatred against our religion. A prime example is the Christian persecution of Jews during the Middle Ages. The Crusaders at the time denied any intention to murder Jews based on their peoplehood per se, but rather because they rejected the Christian faith. In the end, however, it became clear that their goal to destroy our fundamental beliefs was the equivalent of destroying the Jewish people.
Nowadays, a third type of Jew-hatred has emerged in the form of anti-Zionism. In this post-Holocaust world, targeting Jews because of a perceived ethnic identity is generally unacceptable. In order to circumvent this new barrier, attacks have shifted focus and now largely target the State of Israel. What many do not understand, is that denying Jews their homeland uproots a fundamental pillar of our peoplehood.
Uncoincidentally, these three forms of antisemitism parallel the three covenants found in the Bible. Specifically, the Genesis covenant with Abraham, where God promised our forefather that his descendants would become a people; the Exodus covenant at Sinai, where we embraced our faith before God; and the Deuteronomy covenant with Moses, when God promised the Jews the Land of Israel.
Upon reflection, these covenants make up the foundations of Am Yisrael: people, faith, and land.
It is concerning this last type of Jew hatred that the national strategy truly drops the ball. There is zero mention in its entirety of the words “Zionist,” “Zionism,” or any variation of the word. Not one.
When people convey messages of “Zionism is racism” or “Zionism is terrorism,” they are speaking to millions of Jews living in Israel and millions more worldwide, across all denominations, who passionately express their dream of Zion in their daily prayers, in the Jewish wedding service, and in expressions of condolence in houses of mourning. These messages malign Jews as racists or terrorists and can easily inspire reprisal acts of antisemitism.
And while the strategy lays out dangers that students on campus face because of their perceived or real support of Israel—and insists that security for these students be guaranteed—it does not offer a plan to respond educationally to this phenomenon. Time and again it emphasizes the need for education about the Holocaust and the role Jews play in American society, but it fails to even suggest a program or curriculum that would teach the meaning of Zionism going back to biblical times, or how the State of Israel is profoundly tied to the Jewish people.
Certainly, the strategy’s generous mention of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) as a stakeholder impedes the chance of such programs being implemented. CAIR’s founders were tied to Hamas, a U.S.-designated terrorist organization, and its current leaders routinely promote antisemitic conspiracies. For example, CAIR’s San Francisco Bay Area executive director described “Zionist synagogues” as “enemies.” Its Los Angeles leader wrote, “No person with a conscience can be a Zionist.” Unsurprisingly, CAIR hosted notable antisemite Linda Sarsour as a keynote speaker for their conferences and honored her as the group’s inaugural “American Muslim of the Year.”
It’s no secret, too, that the majority of antisemitic acts in America are taking place in Haredi/Hasidic communities, such as Monsey, Crown Heights, and Borough Park, all in New York. With their visibly Jewish garbs, these innocent people can—and have been—easily singled out for constant attack. This is raw antisemitism, attacking Jews because they are Jews. One would imagine, then, that the strategy would devote much attention to this challenge.
Not so. Only in two small paragraphs, one in Appendix A at the conclusion of the 60-page strategy, is this matter mentioned, sounding therefore like a postscript, the classic too little, too late. One wonders, too, why alongside the prominently mentioned stakeholders, there is no mention of any grassroots Hasidic or community organizations where these attacks have played out.
In light of the strategy’s failures, our sense is that many in Jewish leadership, even here in the United States, are afraid to confront contemporary antisemitism head-on in all its forms, concerned that it draws too much attention to the Jewish community. Today, speaking out with intensity about the inextricable link between Judaism and Israel touches upon our insecurities and heightened sensitivities about what others may think of us—insecurities and sensitivities that we, as diaspora Jews, have acquired and absorbed over the years.
And so, our leadership grasps for the low-hanging fruits, placing emphasis on the aspects of fighting antisemitism that involve little risk. But recognizing that antisemitism is inextricably bound to anti-Zionism requires much more courage.
The time has come to raise a voice of moral conscience without fear, recognizing that the more we speak out, directly and forthrightly, about the new face of antisemitism, the more our community is protected, rather than rendered vulnerable.
The U.S. National Strategy to Combat Antisemitism falls lamentably short in upholding this principle.
Rabbi Avi Weiss is the founding rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, the founder of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and Yeshivat Maharat, and co-founder of the International Rabbinic Fellowship. He served as National Chairman of the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry and the Coalition for Jewish Concerns. He is the author of Spiritual Activism: A Jewish Guide to Leadership and Repairing the World. He is the proud grandfather of Eitan Fischberger.
Eitan Fischberger is an analyst based in Israel whose writing has been featured in NBC News, The National Review, New York Daily News and other op-ed pages. He is a lifelong student and admirer of his grandfather, Rabbi Avi Weiss.