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US President Joe Biden. Picture: KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS
US President Joe Biden. Picture: KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS

Washington — When US President Joe Biden arrives at the US Capitol on Tuesday to honour the 6-million Jews killed eight decades ago, his message will be as much about the present as the past.

Biden will speak to the existential threats faced by Jewish people seven months to the day since the Palestinian militant group Hamas attacked Israel on October 7, killing 1,200 by Israeli tallies, in what Biden has called the deadliest day for Jews since the Holocaust.

His speech comes as Israel’s retaliation has allegedly killed 35,000 people in Gaza, which is controlled by Hamas, according to Gaza health authorities, left many of the area’s 2.3-million people on the brink of starvation and sparked protests in the US demanding that universities and the Biden administration withdraw support for Israel. On Monday, Israel vowed to press ahead with an offensive against Rafah in the south that threatens to unleash new misery for Palestinians.

Speaking at the Capitol, in a keynote address for the US Holocaust Memorial Museum’s annual National Commemoration of the Days of Remembrance, Biden will aim to cool an increasingly divided and divisive US debate about Jewish security, Zionism, free speech and support for Israel, in the country with the largest Jewish population after Israel.

Many Jewish Americans have been critical of Israel’s Gaza attacks, leading protests against actions of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government and condemning Netanyahu in Congress.

Law enforcement and advocacy groups, meanwhile, report a sharp rise in anti-Semitic attacks in the US since October 7, as well anti-Muslim attacks. Some Americans favour zero-tolerance policies defining anti-Semitism broadly; others see the threat of attacks against Jews being used to limit legitimate criticism of US support for Israel.

“Anti-Semitism is reaching crisis levels in our country,” said Carol Ann Schwartz, national president of Hadassah, a women’s Zionist organisation that has been consulted by the White House.

“Right now, we need our leaders to not only acknowledge the pain people are feeling, but also to actively confront the anti-Israel and anti-Zionist misinformation and lies being propagated on college campuses and beyond, which have made Jews a target.”

Biden, who has mostly avoided addressing campus demonstrations or protesters over his support for Israel that have dogged him for months, will speak about the subject for the second time in five days on Tuesday. He will condemn a rise in anti-Semitism while affirming support for free speech, his spokesperson, Karine Jean-Pierre, told reporters on Monday.

“Passions are high. The issue is being heavily politicised. There’s a lot of tension. So this is a very important moment for the president to step forward,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of liberal advocacy group J Street, who has also been consulted by the White House.

It’s also a key political moment for Biden, who is in a tight race with Republican rival Donald Trump. Biden may be losing crucial support from young and liberal Democrats over his support for Israel, Democrats say.

Biden pledged to unite the country and said he was inspired to run by Trump’s response to the 2017 Charlottesville, Virginia, white nationalist rally, where marchers chanted “Jews will not replace us.” Biden governs a country no less divided than when he took office in 2021, most statistics show.

The FBI reported a 36% increase in anti-Jewish hate crime incidents between 2021 and 2022, the latest year for which data is available, as well as a jump in crimes against black Americans and gay men.

The Secure Community Network (SCN), a US Jewish security organisation that monitors hate incidents, has referred more than 504 individuals to law enforcement to the end of March, faster than 2023’s pace, including threats at colleges.

“This is a scary time to be Jewish — it’s important for the president to rise to this challenge,” said SCN CEO Michael Masters.

Campus protest politics

Trump has sought to exploit Democratic divisions over Israel’s response and widening college protests to improve Republicans’ lot with Jewish voters, who traditionally vote Democratic.

Police crackdowns on some campuses have given ammunition to Trump’s long-running claim that US cities are under siege from violent crime, illegal migration and out-of-control leftist policies.

Trump and the Republican Party have argued that the protests are driven by anti-Semitism and that Biden has failed to protect Jewish students on campus.

“Jewish Americans are realising that the Democrat Party has turned into a full-blown anti-Israel, anti-Semitic, pro-terrorist cabal, and that’s why more and more Jewish Americans are supporting President Trump,” said Karoline Leavitt, a Trump campaign spokesperson.

About seven in 10 US Jewish voters support Democrats, while three in 10 are Republican-aligned, according to the Pew Research Center. Many political analysts say Jewish voters join other Americans in rarely voting, primarily on foreign policy issues.

Kenneth Stern, director of the Bard Center for the Study of Hate, who helped craft a modern “working definition of anti-Semitism”, said the word is being misused to stifle protected speech about Israel.

The US house of representatives passed a bill last week that would apply the definition Stern helped develop to enforce federal anti-discrimination laws on college campuses. Stern opposes the bill.

“I don’t think that you can combat hatred of any type effectively with weak democratic institutions,” said Stern.

“When we have a government that decides it’s going to stop certain things from being said, that creates an opportunity for totalitarianism [and] authoritarianism, and that’s never good for the Jews.” 


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