WASHINGTON (JTA) — Speaking after dozens of synagogues were targeted by false bombs threats, President Joe Biden offered rabbis assurances ahead of the High Holidays that he is committed to Jewish security.
“This month, as you attend a shul for the High Holidays, I know you’re concerned about security,” Biden told 1,200 rabbis from all major denominations who signed on for a traditional pre-holiday phone call Thursday evening, a day before the start of Rosh Hashanah. “As your president, I want to make clear to you and to all your congregations: I have your back. I am committed to the safety of the Jewish people.”
Approximately 50 synagogues have been targeted in recent months by fake bomb threats that trigger a police response, often at times when the congregations are streaming services online. Security experts are concerned that calls on the holidays, when sanctuaries are packed, could lead to panic.
The pre-holiday call, a tradition dating to at least the George W. Bush administration, was organized by rabbinical umbrella groups representing the Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist denominations. It lasted more than an hour, although Biden did not stay for questions, of which four were asked, each by a rabbi of a different denomination.
For the first time on such a call, Biden and a top White House official, Neera Tanden, the director of the Domestic Policy Council, gave a progress report on the strategy to combat antisemitism that Biden unveiled in May.
“My administration has already started aggressively implementing,” he said. “We published security guides for synagogues across the country. We launched a national campaign to combat antisemitism at school colleges and universities. We delivered trainings on religious workplace accommodations and so much more.”
Tanden, speaking later in the call, added detail. Agencies have a May 2024 deadline to complete their assigned tasks, she said. “More than two dozen agencies are producing deliverables,” she said.
She mentioned as examples:
- A letter from Department of Housing and Urban Development “to 200 federally funded housing programs asking them to identify any antisemitism in housing.”
- Research and projects on antisemitism solicited by the National Endowment for the Humanities.
- The resource guides for houses of worship, published by the Department of Justice and Homeland Security.
- Letters from the Department of Education to schools and universities reminding them of their obligation under the 1964 civil rights act to address discrimination claims, with references to more recent enhancements under Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump that extend the protections to Jews.
“There’s been a rising concern on campus [about] antisemitism and the strategy really propels passion on the part of the Department of Ed’s Office of Civil Rights to really be aggressive, as aggressive on antisemitism as we are when we look at and investigate other issues of discrimination,” she said.
Tanden appeared to be addressing concerns that the Biden administration would focus particularly on right-wing antisemitism; a number of Jewish organizations have said that the alleged harassment of Jewish students on campuses, which they say often comes from left wing and pro-Palestinian groups, should also be a priority.
Biden took no questions, but his remarks were redolent of a 2024 reelection campaign likely against his predecessor, Donald Trump.
Biden once again said he was prompted to run for president because of the 2017 white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia, and Trump’s failure to unequivocally condemn it. He also referred to controversies over the effort by conservative groups and parents to remove books from schools and libraries that they deem inappropriate, including some books about the Holocaust and racism.
“Books are being banned, if you can believe that in the United States of America, books are being banned in our schools and history is being erased,” he said.
He mentioned his nomination earlier this month of Jack Lew, a former Treasury secretary, to be ambassador to Israel. “I’m so proud to continue our support [of Israel] by nominating Jack Lew, an Orthodox Jew, to be ambassador,” he said.
Biden included a pledge of support for Israel in the call and did not mention his tense relationship with the current government over its efforts to overhaul Israel’s court system and over its expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
“I want to reaffirm America’s unshakeable commitment to Israel’s security and its right to exist as an independent Jewish state,” he said. “My support for Israel’s security remains long standing and unwavering, including its right to defend itself against attacks.”