Opinion |

Biden's Good News for the Jews: A President Who Will Fight America's Antisemites, Not Flatter Them

The number of antisemitic incidents, which skyrocketed under Trump, won't plummet overnight. But Biden's response will be starkly different from his predecessor's equivocation and selective blindness to far right hate

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"Yes, but is it good for the Jews?" – the sardonic and perennial question about how a specific event will impact the Jewish community – is being posed once again, after a hard-fought presidential election. This time it takes the form of: Is Joe Biden’s election good for the Jews?

I believe the answer is yes. But it’s not as simple as you might think.

It doesn't mean that the day after Joe Biden’s inauguration we will awake in a country that has, overnight, restored its norms and returned to more elevated discourse; or that neo-Nazi groups will surrender their swastika flags and begin raising money to plant trees in Israel. 

Donald Trump’s authoritarian impulses have left America wounded, and it will take time to bind those wounds.

Biden inherits a population intoxicated by a dangerous brew of anger and absolutism. As a result of partisan tribalization, bias-confirming news outlets and social media incitement, we are not just mad at each other, we have come to treat our own opinions as undeniable truths and counterarguments, even when based on a shared and agreed basis of facts, as pernicious lies.

US President Donald Trump arrives to deliver remarks on the stock market during an unscheduled appearance in the Brady Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, DC on November 24, 2020Credit: MANDEL NGAN - AFP

A recent poll revealed that 20 percent of Democrats and 16 percent of Republicans agreed that the country would be better off if large numbers of the opposition actually died. In another poll, 50 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents supported the premise that "the traditional American way of life is disappearing so fast that we may have to use force to save it." 

Civil discourse has turned into toxic, unrelenting warfare that extends to decisions that should not be political, like wearing a mask during a pandemic. (I can already sense the blood boiling among some readers.)

The hatred has been directed toward many groups in America, and American Jews have felt particular pain. Antisemitic incidents are at their highest level since the Anti-Defamation League began recording them. "Screw your optics, I'm going in," was part of the antisemitic tirade posted by the shooter before killing 11 Jews in the attack on a Pittsburgh synagogue. Swastikas have been displayed at rallies. Neo-Nazis marched past a synagogue in Charlottesville chanting, "Jews will not replace us."

Trump isn’t going away and neither will his hardcore supporters. His campaign to convince them of a conspiracy to overturn the election will further deepen resentments and incite hatred. The armed white supremacist groups, the far-right militias, the expressions of antisemitism, the display of swastikas at right-wing protests – none of these will disappear overnight.

People wearing shirts with Proud Boys insignia on them join supporters of President Donald Trump in a march on Nov. 14, 2020, in WashingtonCredit: Jacquelyn Martin,AP

But, beginning on Biden’s first night as president, the response to these crimes will change. That change will be stark both in style, and in substance.

The Trump administration’s approach to antisemitism was confined to two activities: opposing BDS and signing a December 2019 executive order making Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act apply to antisemitic acts.

Supporters of U.S. President Trump cheer as white nationalist Nicholas Fuentes of "America First" arrives at a day of rallies in support of the president in Washington, U.S. November 14, 2020Credit: LEAH MILLIS/ REUTERS

But it dawdled on appointing a State Department Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, coddled dictators who brazenly peddle antisemitic calumnies, refused to condemn the display of swastikas at rallies and infamously claimed there were "fine people on both sides" at the Charlottesville neo-Nazi rally. (His supporters insist that he clarified his statement; but really, some statements should never require clarification.)

Biden will be different. He will seek to restore funding that Trump cut for addressing domestic extremism. He will appoint leadership at the Department of Justice that will prioritize the prosecution of hate crimes. He has committed to working for a domestic terrorism law that respects free speech, while rooting out domestic terrorism. He will call hate by its proper name irrespective of whom it’s aimed at. And he will continue to fight efforts to delegitimize Israel.

I can’t say that the number of antisemitic incidents, which has skyrocketed under Trump, will quickly plummet.

I can say that we will have a president who proclaims his opposition to those crimes rather than equivocating on them and cutting budgets meant to prosecute them; a president with the moral clarity to galvanize Americans against antisemitism because he will also fight bigotry directed at any American.

That is not only good for the Jews, but good for all Americans.

Steve Israel was a Member of Congress for 16 years and served as House Democrats chief political strategist and Chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. A writer, he heads the non-partisan Cornell University Institute of Politics and Global Affairs. Twitter: @repsteveisrael

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