Antisemitism is focus at White House event
Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
President Joe Biden poses for a selfie with Amanda Berman, the founder and executive director of the Zioness Movement, during a celebration marking Jewish American Heritage Month in the East Room of the White House, May 16, 2023.

Gathering celebrates Jewish American Heritage Month

By Ron Kampeas

WASHINGTON (JTA) — In songs and in speeches, an event at the White House marking Jewish American Heritage Month celebrated the presence of Jews in America since colonial times — and fretted about threats to American Jewry today.

“For some reason it’s come roaring back in the last several years,” President Biden told a crowd of Jewish supporters in the White House’s East Room on Tuesday evening, May 16. “Reports have shown that antisemitic incidents are at a record high in our history — a record high in the United States.”

The emphasis on antisemitism was evident even in the entertainment — which featured a selection of songs from “Parade,” a Broadway musical about the 1915 lynching of a Jewish man. That theme was a departure from past White House Jewish American Heritage Month events, which focused on Jewish accomplishments and spotlighted legendary Jewish athletes, scientists, artists and performers.

Biden says he was shaped as a child by his father’s fury with the United States for not doing enough to stop the Holocaust. Last Tuesday, he spoke again of how he was spurred to run for president in 2020 after the deadly neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, Virginia, three years earlier — and former President Donald Trump’s equivocation when he was asked to condemn the marchers.

“That’s when I knew… our work was not done,” he said, turning to address a delegation of Jewish Democratic lawmakers who were attending the event and who have pressed for a more aggressive response to antisemitism. “Hate never goes away.”

This was the first Jewish American Heritage Month event at the White House since 2016. Trump’s administration paid less attention to the commemoration, which was enshrined in a law passed with bipartisan support in 2006. Biden’s hopes of staging an event were delayed in the past couple of years by the coronavirus pandemic.

Describing current antisemitism, Biden referred not just to attacks from the far right, but to attacks on visibly Orthodox Jews, which have proliferated in the Northeast, and to the threat some Jewish students describe on campuses. He listed incidents including “violent attacks on synagogues and Jewish businesses, Jewish institutions under armed guards, Jews who wear religious attire beaten down in the street, Jewish students harassed and excluded from college campuses, swastikas on cars and cemeteries and in schools.”

Biden’s emphasis on a broader understanding of antisemitism, beyond the far right, came after a number of Jewish groups met in December with Doug Emhoff, the Jewish second gentleman, and asked him and other top officials to consider a more holistic approach to the problem.

A task force led by Emhoff, who also spoke at the event, is expected to release a strategy to counter antisemitism in the next few weeks.

Biden, in his remarks, said the strategy “includes over 100 meaningful actions that government agencies are going to take to counter antisemitism.” He did not detail any of those actions, except to say that the strategy would increase understanding of antisemitism and Jewish heritage, provide security for Jewish communities, reverse the normalization of antisemitism and build coalitions.

“It also includes calls to action for Congress, state and local governments, technology and other companies, civil society, faith leaders to counter antisemitism,” he said.

A backgrounder to the event sent to reporters focused entirely on antisemitism, listing five actions Biden had taken to combat the phenomenon, including signing a bill to combat hate crimes and increasing funding for security at vulnerable institutions.

There were lighter elements to the event, including recognition of the services Jews have provided to the United States over the centuries and a rendition of “Hava Nagila” by the Marine Band. Israeli-American chef Michael Solomonov, whom Biden recognized, prepared Moroccan cigars, smoked sable on challah and something called “fairy tale eggplant,” a variety of the nightshade vegetable.

“Our special guest shall ensure that today is both delicious and glatt kosher,” Biden said, to surprised laughter, as Solomonov took a bow.

Still, even the entertainment referred to what Biden called the “stain” of antisemitism threading through American history. Ben Platt and Micaela Diamond performed songs from “Parade,” in which they are starring. Its subject matter is the 1915 lynching of Leo Frank, a Jew in Georgia falsely accused of murder.

Platt and Diamond had to rush back to New York in time for an 8 p.m. show, but beforehand, Platt praised the musical’s composer, Jason Robert Brown, who accompanied them on piano. Brown, Platt said, “is really telling you an important Jewish story.”

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