What Biden Needs to Say About Anti-Semitism


Updated at 9:05 a.m. ET on May 3, 2024

President Joe Biden will make a speech on anti-Semitism on Tuesday, May 7, by way of observing the Holocaust remembrance in the Jewish religious calendar. If the speech is not to fail, or even backfire, the president needs to be very clear in his mind about what he has to say, and why.

The questions Biden needs to answer on Sunday are not questions about beliefs or values. They are not questions about himself or his personal commitments. They are questions about American liberalism in general, about its ability to defend its stated commitments against challengers who plead victimhood as their justification. Biden hit a lot of the right themes in informal remarks at the White House yesterday. But there’s more to say, and it should be said clearly and without any Trumpian caveats about “good people on both sides.”

Anti-Semitism appears chiefly in two different forms in the United States. There is a right-wing variant based on religious dogmas or delusions of racial supremacy, which was the one on display in the “Jews will not replace us!” chants in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. There is also a left-wing variant, the one on display at American college campuses this spring, in which Jews are presented as the supreme oppressors of all the world’s oppressed. The first version is echoed by Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene’s worry that she might be prevented from accusing Jews of killing Christ. The second is exemplified by Representative Ilhan Omar’s sneer about “pro-genocide” Jews.

Most American Jews accept that mainstream U.S. liberals like Biden reject both variants of anti-Semitism. But very observably, mainstream American liberalism is a lot more comfortable standing up to the Greene version than the Omar one.

This disparity explains why the campus anti-Israel protests have so alarmed many American Jews. The schools are reverberating with slogans such as “From the river to the sea, Palestine must be free” which to many ears means “Destroy the state of Israel and kill, expel, or subjugate its Jewish inhabitants.” We hear chants of “Globalize the Intifada,” which translates as “Bring mass murder to Jews everywhere on Earth.” We hear Jews blamed by association for every problem from police brutality to climate change—even both of those things at once. We see checkpoints on campus where Jews are quizzed on their beliefs before they are allowed to approach the university library.

I would assume that virtually every university president in the country (and surely the great majority of university professors and administrators) disapproves of these behaviors. But these officials have over many years demonstrated that they flinch from acting against such misconduct: Jews are subjected to harassment and intimidation in ways that, if carried out against any other similarly identifiable group of students, would instantly invite the full weight of institutional punishment. Yet those responsible for the harassment and intimidation of Jews enjoy near-total impunity.

The universities provide the most conspicuous current instances of this phenomenon in American society, but they are not unique cases. In every domain where American liberalism holds sway—public education, local politics in deep-blue cities, labor unions, literature and the arts—Jews who share the almost-universal Jewish connection to the land of Israel face insult, threat, ostracism, even outright violence.

All of this presents a tremendous political problem for Biden. Of course, he’s not in charge of the art world or the literary milieu or the unions. He does not have much influence over public education, and even less over local politics. But he personifies American liberalism, and his political hopes in November are deeply intertwined with American liberalism’s image and standing.

Think of a national election as a job interview. The Republican candidate needs an answer to the question “Do you have the heart to care about me?” The Democrat must have an answer for the question “Do you have the guts to protect me?”

When Democrats look too weak to stand up to anti-Israel protests on campuses and in other liberal domains, their problem is not only one of how they handle anti-Semitism. It is a problem that goes to the central risk to their political brand: the perception of weakness.

The anti-Israel protesters get this: There’s a method to their mayhem. They want to punish Biden in November. They don’t have the votes to elect anyone they like better, nowhere near. But if they cannot hope to replace Biden, they can help to defeat him. By creating images of chaos, they support the Republican message that liberals like Biden are to blame for disorder.

Republicans audaciously tried that message during the riots that devolved from protests against the police killing of George Floyd in 2020, when Donald Trump was actually president. They’re eager to repeat the message in 2024.

Biden’s instinct on May 7 will be to speak sympathetically about Jewish fears while stressing his respect for the right to protest. His instinct will be to express compassion for all civilians at risk from the violence in the Middle East, both Palestinians and Israelis. If he does that and stops there, he will be delivering the right answer to the wrong question—the one for a Republican, about caring enough.

The speech he needs to give is not a speech from the heart. It’s a speech about his guts. The message wanted is more than “I care.” The message wanted is “I dare.”

So after saying the things that are instinctive for him to say, he must keep going. He needs to say that no cause justifies violence on the streets and quads of America. He needs to affirm that universities cannot accept intimidation and unlawful disruption of educational activities. He needs to make clear that he supports those leaders who have protected their universities’ academic function, including their decision to call in the police where required. He should share his firm conviction that protest is not peaceful if it forcibly interferes with the rights of others.

He needs to do all of these things—not as a special favor to Jews on campus or off, but as a basic rule of good government. As president and as a presidential candidate, Trump has played favorites among lawbreakers. With one kind of culprit, he urged the police to crack their heads on the doors of their squad cars. Another kind of culprit he hailed as “hostages” and promised to pardon. If Biden is to campaign against Trump by calling him an inciter of riots, he himself needs to be an unwavering voice against riots, whatever the ideology of the rioter.

The campus protesters may fantasize about a rerun of the disturbances of 1968. Mercifully, I do not see history repeating itself. But one lesson from that year bears applying to this year: Disorder hurts Democrats. When Biden speaks about anti-Semitism on Sunday, he will be speaking not only for and about Jews; he will be speaking for and about his party and his belief system. Can Democrats enforce rules? Do they uphold equal justice, or do they indulge privileged categories of rule-breakers? Is his party strong enough to lead? Is he strong enough to lead?

In 1843, Karl Marx wrote an essay titled “On the Jewish Question” that argued for “the emancipation of mankind from Judaism.” Marx was calling not for murder, exactly, but for the forced dissolution of Jewishness as a form of self-identification. In the century-plus since that essay, Marxist thinking has mutated in many ways, yet Marxist revolutionary movements have consistently resented Jewish particularity and identified it as a problem to be overcome, one way or another.

Today, Marxism has yielded to Palestinianism as the latest iteration of revolutionary idealism. But if the goal has changed, the obstacle has not. As Marx wrote, “We recognize in Judaism, therefore, a general anti-social element of the present time.” Swap out Judaism for Zionism, which has become protesters’ dog-whistling euphemism, and you could repeat Marx’s vituperation almost word for word at any campus encampment and get applause from your audience.

Those are the people who also seek, in effect, to swap out Biden for Trump in November. When Biden speaks against them, he is speaking not only for and in defense of American Jews. He is speaking for and in defense of himself and the ideals to which he has devoted his public career.


This article originally stated that President Biden’s speech would be on Sunday, May 5. In fact, it is scheduled for Tuesday, May 7.



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