Biden warns of ‘ferocious surge in antisemitism’ amid continued campus protests over Israel-Hamas war

President says ‘despicable’ downplaying of 7 October attacks ‘must stop’

Andrew Feinberg
Washington DC
Tuesday 07 May 2024 18:20 BST
Joe Biden speaks at the Holocaust Memorial Museum's Annual Days of Remembrance ceremony
Joe Biden speaks at the Holocaust Memorial Museum's Annual Days of Remembrance ceremony (AP)

President Joe Biden on Tuesday forcefully condemned antisemitic demonstrations and downplaying of the 7 October terror attacks as echoes of Nazism. He assured Jewish Americans of their place in the country amid the continuing protests over Israel’s seven-month-old war against Hamas, telling them: “You’re not alone, you belong. You always have and you always will.”

In fiery remarks delivered at the United States Capitol to an audience that included multiple Holocaust survivors, Mr Biden recalled how his father had taught him and his siblings about “the horrors of the Shoa” around the dinner table as they grew up in Delaware, and said he has looked to impart the same lessons on his children and grandchildren, including by taking them to the site of the Dachau concentration camp “so they could see and bear witness to the perils of indifference, the complicity of silence in the face of evil”.

The president explicitly compared the motivations of the Nazis who perpetrated the mass murder of Europe’s Jews with the Hamas militants who committed the October 2023 attacks which constituted the worst slaughter of Jews since 1945.

He warned that the “ancient hatred of Jews” did not end with the fall of Nazi Germany, but “continues to lie deep in the hearts of too many people in the world”.

“That hatred was brought to life on 7 October 2023,” he said. “Now here we are, not 75 years later, but just seven and a half months later. And people are already forgetting or already forgetting that Hamas unleashed this terror”.

“It was Hamas that brutalised Israelis, it was Hamas that took and continues to hold hostages,” he continued. “I have not forgotten, nor have you, and we will not forget!”

The president also warned of a “ferocious surge of antisemitism in America and around the world” since that day, including on some college campuses where Jewish students, he said, have been kept from attending class by protesters. And he denounced the antisemitic slogans and chants used by some of the protesters, including those “calling for the annihilation of Israel, the world's own Jewish state” or “denying, downplaying, rationalising, ignoring the horrors of the Holocaust and 7 October”.

“It's absolutely despicable and it must stop,” he said.

Mr Biden’s remarks came just hours after the White House announced a series of new actions to combat the rising antisemitism he spoke of at the Capitol.

Republicans have accused the president of failing to denounce campus protests across the country that have, in some cases, involved police action and violence. His critics say that elements of the Democratic voter base are themselves antisemitic and that Mr Biden fears their reaction.

But Mr Biden came out forcefully against the violent and antisemitic elements of the pro-Palestinian protests in remarks from the White House last week. At the time, he said peaceful protest was “in the best tradition of how Americans respond to consequential issues” while stressing that the US is not a “lawless country”.

“We’re a civil society, and order must prevail,” he said. “Destroying property is not a peaceful protest – it’s against the law. Vandalism, trespassing, breaking windows, shutting down campuses, forcing the cancellation of classes and graduations – none of this is a peaceful protest; threatening people, intimidating people, instilling fear in people is not peaceful protest. It’s against the law.”

The president reiterated his call for protests to remain within the law at the Capitol on Tuesday, yet as the protests have persisted, so have accusations that the pro-Palestinian demonstrations are per se antisemitic. Concerns have also been raised over whether Jewish students are being denied the right to an education by the actions of some protesters – and the inaction of campus authorities.

To that end, the Department of Education has sent a “Dear Colleague” letter to higher education institutions to lay out guidance on what constitutes antisemitic discrimination that could lead to consequences. The letter uses as its guidance the portions of the Civil Rights Act which prohibit discrimination “based on actual or perceived shared ancestry or ethnic characteristics” in the form of a “hostile environment” or “different treatment”.

In addition, eight Biden administration cabinet departments have issued written guidance which makes clear that the Civil Rights Act “prohibits certain forms of antisemitic, Islamophobic, and related forms of discrimination in federally funded programs and activities”.

According to the White House, these policy rollouts are meant to build on the National Strategy to Counter Antisemitism which the Biden administration rolled out one year ago this month.

A fact sheet distributed to reporters ahead of the president’s remarks stated that the Biden administration’s strategy “includes over 100 actions the Biden-Harris Administration has taken, and continues to take, to address the rise of antisemitism in the United States, as well as over 100 calls to action for Congress, state and local governments, companies, technology platforms, students, educators, civil society, faith leaders, and others”.

Leaders of major Jewish organisations that weighed in on Mr Biden’s remarks and his administration’s work combatting antisemitism did so on positive terms.

Amy Spitalnick, CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, said in a statement that her organisation was “grateful for President Biden’s clear moral leadership confronting this threat, including through the historic US National Strategy to Counter Antisemitism”.

“We know that Jewish safety is inextricably linked to the safety of other communities and the health and vibrancy of our democracy. Rising antisemitic conspiracy theories and hate are a threat that undermines each and every American’s safety and our core democratic norms and values. Right now, antisemitism is being normalized in new and dangerous ways – used as a political weapon by those who seek to pit communities against one another and isolate Jews from the very coalitions we need to advance inclusive societies,” she said.

“We urge Congress to quickly move the Countering Antisemitism Act forward for a vote, support robust implementation of the National Strategy ... it’s time to make clear that just, inclusive societies are ones in which Jews and all communities are safe and free,” she added.

Jeremy Ben-Ami, the president of the progressive Jewish group J Street, also said his group was “grateful” to Mr Biden “for standing unequivocally against the sharp rise in antisemitism while also defending our First Amendment rights to speech and nonviolent protest”.

“We're also deeply appreciative that, on the 7-month anniversary of October 7, the President pledged that his administration will not rest until we bring the hostages home,” he added.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in