Connecting state and local government leaders
In a plan released last month, the Biden administration is calling for all hands on deck in countering antisemitism and has laid out steps that states and cities can take to stop discrimination in their communities.
Earlier this year in January, plastic bags filled with antisemitic messages were thrown onto front lawns throughout Oklahoma City. The act of hate continued into the spring, with the bags being dropped out of cars as they sped by. And last month, those same flyers started showing up in people’s mailboxes.
Oklahoma City is far from alone, however. In just the past two weeks, antisemitic fliers have been found in other communities, including Sacramento, California, and a township in Delaware County, Pennsylvania.
“It is something that we've always heard about occurring elsewhere in the nation,” said Rachel Johnson, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Oklahoma. “It's just that it hits so differently once it's in your driveway and at your front door. We've also had antisemitic stickers placed around the outer edges of our college campuses. We have had a swastika carved into a student's dorm room door.”
Antisemitic incidents like these have been growing in recent years. In 2022, the Anti-Defamation League identified more than 3,600 incidents of antisemitism, a 36% increase over the previous year and the highest number since it began tracking hate crimes 40 years ago.
In response, the Biden administration last month announced a plan to counter growing antisemitism, including anti-discrimination training for federal workers, researching how well students are being taught about the Holocaust and making more kosher food available through federal food programs.
Key to the administration’s strategy is a request to cities and towns to do more, a message Douglas Emhoff, the husband of Vice President Kamala Harris, repeated during a speech to the U.S. Conference of Mayors earlier this month.
“This strategy alone will not solve the scourge of this hatred, this antisemitism,” Emhoff, the first Jewish spouse of a U.S. president or vice president, told the mayors. “A plan is just a plan. We need action to implement this plan. It's going to take all of us in this room, all of us around the country.”
Biden’s plan labels its request to state and local governments as a “whole of society” call to action, and assigns governments’ several tasks.
Start Tracking Antisemitic Incidents
One of those assignments is for local governments to keep better track of antisemitic incidents.
“We call on law enforcement and local jurisdictions to report all hate crimes,” the plan says. “Dozens of cities with populations greater than 100,000 reported zero or did not report hate crimes to the [National Incident-Based Reporting System database] in 2021. … Simply put, they need to do better.”
Jews make up only 2.4% of the U.S. population, according to the Biden administration. But they were the victims of 63% of reported religiously motivated hate crimes in 2022.
“Antisemitism rises, for many reasons,” said Dan Granot, director of government relations at the Anti-Defamation League. “There's no silver bullet to solving it.”
But one area where the cities can improve, he said, is to work with Jewish organizations to encourage the reporting of hate crimes.
Law enforcement agencies, for instance, should appoint senior officials, Granot said, to “be central points of contact for local Jewish communities, so that people who are Jewish feel like antisemitic incidents will be taken seriously. It's really all about working with the local community to ensure that Jews feel safe in reporting antisemitic hate incidents and crimes when they occur.”
It is also incumbent on local jurisdictions to then report these crimes to the National Incident-Based Reporting System database, which captures detailed data about characteristics of criminal incidents for a broad array of offenses.
Implement Proven Anti-Discrimination Policies in the Workplace
The plan also calls on employers, including states and cities, to review office policies to make sure they incorporate best practices in preventing religious discrimination.
An example that the administration points to on how to implement anti-discrimination policies are police reforms that Cleveland announced last year. The reforms were made after city officials discovered antisemitic comments a former police officer of the year had made on social media before joining the force. The officer, among other things, posted a picture of Adolf Hitler with the caption, “LET ME SALUTE TO HITLER THE GREAT.”
In a statement last August, Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb and Police Chief Wayne Drummond said they were “frustrated and disappointed” that they couldn’t discipline the officer because his actions happened before he was hired. They went on to say that, “Antisemitism and bigotry are reprehensible and have no place in our community or our police department.”
Bibb and Drummond announced a number of reforms including monitoring officers’ social media, requiring cultural competency training for officers, and working with the Anti-Defamation League to better investigate hate crimes and improve the department’s hiring practices.
Promote Religious Communities’ Equitable Access to Government Programs
Another call to action in Biden’s plan is to provide low-income people who rely on food programs with kosher foods. Specifically, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is tasked with ensuring “equal access “ to “religious dietary needs, including kosher and halal.”
“That is oftentimes overlooked when thinking about the Jewish experience in this country,” Granot said. “But it creates an environment where observant Jews are able to be their true authentic selves.”
People can use food stamps through the USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program on kosher and halal foods. But the department is exploring how to increase the amount of the foods they purchase on behalf of state programs that distribute free foods under the Emergency Food Assistance Program, said USDA spokesperson Jalil Isa.
School meal programs are not required to take religious requirements into account, but the department “strongly encourages” the programs to “accommodate children’s ethnic or religious needs.”
Make the Holocaust a Part of Public Education
For Granot, another issue that needs to be addressed is the surprising lack of knowledge about the Holocaust, at a time when conspiracy theorists are spreading misinformation that the genocide of millions of Jews was a hoax.
A 2020 50-state survey of millennials and Generation Z, for instance, found that 63% did not know that 6 million Jews were murdered during the Holocaust, with more than half thinking that the death toll was less than 2 million. Nearly half could not name Auschwitz, Dachau or any Nazi concentration camps, and 11% said they thought Jews caused the Holocaust.
The survey by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany found that those in Alaska, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi and New York have the least knowledge about the Holocaust.
Most schools in Oklahoma do teach students about the Holocaust, said Johnson of the Jewish Federation of Greater Oklahoma. Still, she was heartened when Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt signed a bill last year requiring schools to teach students about the genocide.
Publicly Condemn Antisemitism
To Emhoff’s point in his speech to the U.S. Conference of Mayors earlier this month, it is important for community leaders to show support for Jews in the community, as Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt did earlier this year in response to the antisemitic incidents in his town.
Appearing at a town hall this year at a synagogue organized by Jewish groups, Holt said the city had their backs.
“We've got to see each other as human beings and treat each other with respect and understand that we have so much more in common than we don't,” Holt said.
In an interview, Holt said he felt a responsibility to tell Jews in his community that they had the city’s support.
“I think the first task of a leader in a community or a mayor is to not ignore what's happening—to use the platform that you have to make sure that the Jewish community understands how welcome they are,” he said.
Taking the stance reminded him of the “soft power of a mayoral office,” he continued. “There are things that may seem symbolic, but absolutely have an effect on people's mental health, in their strength and their ability to get through trying times like this.”
Johnson said Holt’s support was meaningful to Jews at a time when they felt under attack. “It's always great to know that you've got support from just about everybody,” she said.
Johnson noted that the state declared May Jewish Heritage Month and institutions throughout the city celebrated Jewish contributions in various ways, which, she says, shows the support of the community.
Kery Murakami is a senior reporter for Route Fifty, covering Congress and federal policy. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @Kery_Murakami