By Ron Kampeas
October 30, 2023
WASHINGTON (JTA) —- At a meeting with Jewish leaders, Biden administration officials vowed to make a plan within two weeks to counter what they say is an alarming rise in antisemitism at U.S. colleges and universities since Hamas’ deadly Oct. 7 attack started a war with Israel.
The government officials, led by Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff and Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, told the Jewish leaders they would reconvene with them to lay out the proposal, sources in the off-the-record meeting Monday told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
Emhoff’s office, in a statement, said that “the administration will continue to engage with leading organizations and students to hear from them directly and take additional actions to counter antisemitism and hate.” Emhoff, who is Jewish, has played a leading role in the Biden administration’s efforts to fight antisemitism.
William Daroff, CEO of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said the Jewish leaders came away reassured.
“The secretary spoke movingly about the obligation that America has to protect the Jewish community, and specifically the obligation that the Department of Education has to ensure that Jewish students in both higher education and K-12 feel safe and secure in their educational centers,” he said in an interview after the meeting.
Since Oct. 7, when Hamas invaded Israel, killing more than 1,400 people, most of them civilians, pro-Palestinian groups at a series of campuses have celebrated or endorsed the attack. At multiple campuses, Jewish students have been barricaded in buildings amid pro-Palestinian protests. Other Jewish students have been assaulted or engaged in violent altercations with pro-Palestinian students.
Participants told JTA that the 13 Jewish leaders present represented the religious and political span of the community — from Reform to Orthodox, from politically progressive to politically conservative — and yet presented a unified message of a call for action.
“I said, it’s no secret that I think that many consider me a progressive but in this moment, what we’re seeing is unlike anything I’ve ever seen, and it goes so far beyond criticism of Israel to very direct attacks on Jews and Jewish spaces, simply because they’re Jewish,” said Amy Spitalnick, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs CEO who has worked for Democrats and who launched her career with J Street, a liberal Jewish Middle East policy group.
“I’ve always been extraordinarily careful about distinguishing between criticism of Israel and antisemitism,” Spitalnik added. “This is not that. This is full-fledged, masks-off antisemitism.”
It was not clear what kinds of steps the Biden administration could implement to combat campus antisemitism.
Ahead of the meeting, the Biden administration outlined steps it has already taken, including having the Justice Department and Department of Homeland Security engagement law enforcement nationwide on the campus, local and state level; supporting Jewish, Muslim and Arab students on campuses around the country; and having federal cybersecurity experts reach out to schools.
The Biden Administration has also expedited an initiative launched just over a week before the Hamas attack to instruct federal officials to include antisemitism and other forms of religious bigotry as protected under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. That initiative was part of a broader presidential strategy to combat antisemitism launched in May, the first of its kind.
Sheila Katz, CEO of the National Council for Jewish Women, suggested that the initiative could be expanded from Title VI of the act, which bans discrimination, to include Title IX, which targets violence and harassment and outlines penalties for offenders.
Also speaking were Adam Lehman, CEO of Hillel International, who described the current campus environment, and Julie Rayman, the American Jewish Committee managing director, who outlined the effect the spike in antisemitism has had on K-12 schools. Other groups represented include the Anti-Defamation League, the Brandeis Center for Human Rights, the Jewish Federations of North America, the Reform and Conservative movements and the Orthodox Union.
Education Department officials have held roundtables for Jewish students around the country, and Cardona and Neera Tanden, Biden’s top domestic policy adviser, plan to visit an as yet unnamed campus this week.
Spitalnick said she hoped that the Biden administration would “leverage their bully pulpit and speak out loudly and clearly, showing up on campuses, making very clear that Jewish students are not isolated and alone.”
Over the weekend, anonymous antisemitic posts on a Greek life website threatened to “shoot up” the Cornell University kosher dining hall and kill and rape Jewish students. Police were called to the dining hall, and the campus Hillel warned students to stay away from it.
Sen. Chuck Schumer, the Jewish New York Democrat who is the majority leader, used his daily address on the Senate floor on Monday to say he was “sickened and frightened” by the Cornell incident.
“The incident targeting Cornell’s Jewish community is utterly revolting, but unfortunately, it was not an isolated occurrence,” Schumer said. “Across the country, on campuses and public spaces, the ancient poison of antisemitism has found new life.”