The Next Big Battle in U.S. Jewish Politics: Who Will Be Biden's Antisemitism Envoy

In a letter to the 46th president, left-wing Jewish leaders and activists urged him to pick an envoy for combatting antisemitism who will fight anti-Jewish bigotry within the context of other progressive issues

Ben Samuels
Ben Samuels
Members of IfNotNow and Rabbinical school students protesting Trump's U.S. Embassy move to Jerusalem in Washington, D.C., 2018.
Members of IfNotNow and Rabbinical school students protesting Trump's U.S. Embassy move to Jerusalem in Washington, D.C., 2018.Credit: Gili Getz
Ben Samuels
Ben Samuels

WASHINGTON – The internal battle within the Jewish community concerning the Biden administration's appointment of the next Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism is heating up – particularly between an increasingly emboldened left-wing camp and more traditional establishment figures.

The antisemitism envoy is the highest-ranking public official in the country tasked with combatting anti-Jewish prejudice. The role was elevated to an ambassadorial-level position in December, adding weight to its mission of combating antisemitism at a global level, and the prospective envoy will have to be confirmed by the Senate prior to assuming the position.

On Wednesday, more than 40 progressive Jewish political figures and movement leaders wrote a letter urging U.S. President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken to appoint an envoy who treats the matter as part of a fight for a just multiracial democracy. This may be the most significant unified action on the matter to date.

The letter, organized by the Jewish anti-occupation IfNotNow Movement, is signed by key figures on the left who hold close ties with the Biden administration, although the signatories do not work exclusively on Jewish-related matters. It portends a growing, unified consensus among the progressive left concerning how to approach the fight against antisemitism – and particularly how that struggle relates to other progressive causes.

Among those who signed the letter are Medicare for All advocate Ady Barkan, former Executive Director of MoveOn Political Action Ilya Sheyman, Indivisible co-Founders Leah Greenberg and Ezra Levin, and comedian and activist Ilana Glazer. Others are leaders from significant progressive movements such as Sunrise, Working Families Party, and Caring Across Generations, as well as grassroots activists confronting growing, active far-right movements in their states.

"At this pivotal moment, our society is reckoning with centuries of white supremacy and with new, globally networked right-wing extremist movements – problems we will only be able to face if we understand antisemitism's role in white supremacist and ethonationalist ideologies," the letter reads. "We feel compelled to raise our voices because we see our fights at stake, too, in the question of how the U.S. government will define and pursue the fight against antisemitism in America and around the world."

Central to the envoy's portfolio will be whether the appointee embraces the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance's working definition of antisemitism and its attached examples. Establishment figures are hopeful that the envoy will rely on the definition in some form, especially after Blinken has said the administration "enthusiastically embraces" this definition, despite widespread concerns among progressives that it conflates criticism of Israel with antisemitism.

Willaim Daroff, CEO of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, has lauded the administration's stance on the definition, "which recognizes ‘new antisemitism,’ where anti-Israel activity is often a proxy for antisemitic activity," while reflecting its broad support within the Jewish community and worldwide. This is demonstrated, he said, by the definitions adoption by 30 countries and hundreds of other governments and NGOs.

Democratic Majority for Israel, a pro-Israel Democratic organization led by that seeks to increase and ensure support for Israel within the Democratic Party, has called IHRA's critics "simply wrong on the facts." The organization argues that the definition "does not in any way preclude criticism of Israel" and that it "explicitly says 'criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.’"

The letter organized by IfNotNow, meanwhile, links antisemitism to issues of significant progressive interest, such as racial justice, economic justice, climate change, immigration and feminism. The letter calls for an envoy who understands how antisemitism and white supremacy reinforce one another; who is prepared to counter antisemitism as part of the fight for a more just, inclusive economy; who understands "the threat of eco-fascism and the role antisemitism often plays in eco-fascist ideology"; and who is committed to dismantling antisemitism and misogyny together.

The letter also calls for the next envoy to "transcend the shallow framing of 'left and right.'” It reads, "for too long, antisemitism has been used as a justification for Islamophobic policies and for the targeting of advocates for Palestinian rights, here in the U.S. and around the world."

It continues, “Too often, the same people deploying anti-Jewish conspiracy theories wield accusations of antisemitism as a weapon against progressives," they write, "especially Black and Palestinian progressives who criticize the Israeli government."

Candidates for the position reportedly include former Anti-Defamation League National Director Abraham Foxman, historian Deborah Lipstadt and ADL Senior Vice President for International Affairs Sharon Nazarian – the latter of whom has an increasing profile amongst American-Jewish figures due to her global approach. Progressives have been outspoken on their dissatisfaction with these candidates, claiming that they are disproportionately focused on criticism of Israel and false equivalencies between far-right extremists and left-wing opponents of Israeli policy.

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