“The venom and violence of antisemitism will not be the story of our time,” said President Joe Biden at the White House Jewish American Heritage Month reception./WHITE HOUSE PHOTOS

With Joe Biden, Jewish Americans have a strong ally in the White House



With Joe Biden, Jewish Americans have a strong ally in the White House

“The venom and violence of antisemitism will not be the story of our time,” said President Joe Biden at the White House Jewish American Heritage Month reception./WHITE HOUSE PHOTOS

For the past 66 years, the federal government has produced bound editions bearing the title “Public Papers of the Presidents.” Hardly anyone ever opens these books; I have spent a lifetime covering and studying presidents, and even I seldom pierce them. But there is reason to hope that, sometime in the future, someone might open up the 2023 volume and stumble upon the remarks Joe and Jill Biden delivered recently at the White House Jewish American Heritage Month reception.

That future scholar, journalist, or commentator will happen upon a set of remarkable speeches that the Bidens made at a time of a troubling rise in antisemitic sentiments. That curious browser, to be sure, will see some boilerplate rhetoric about the contribution Jews have made to the United States, and then there will appear the customary reference to Emma Lazarus. And there, staring out from the page, will be passages like this from Jill Biden, building on the words of Lazarus’ “The New Colossus” poem at the base of the Statue of Liberty:

It’s a declaration that Jewish Americans – your wisdom your hope, your light, and your love – are a part of this country’s foundation and its future. The history lives on in all of you. And as you share it, the world becomes stronger and more beautiful: When you fight for your community and stand against injustice, following the legacy of this freedom and the freedom fighters who came before. When you share memories of your parents and grandparents, each story coming to life with more details than a picture could ever convey. When you make your favorite recipe with exacting care, savoring the taste of traditions passed from mother to daughter, father to son.

And as you forge your futures, these legacies guide your path with meaning and love, creating something new and bold and bright.

That’s pretty nice stuff, as comments that are heard by only a few hundred people go. Speechwriters hate these ceremonial remarks, sometime three or more of them a day. But this was pitch-perfect. And what is just as important as Jill Biden’s remarks is what the President later said.

Some of it is astonishing: That his father used to complain that the United States didn’t bomb the Nazi concentration camps during the Second World War. That when each of his children turned 14 he took them on their first major trip: the camp at Dachau outside Munich. That he took his grandchildren there, too. That he “wanted them to bear witness to the periods of indifference.” And that – here goes, and the meaning of this could have been lost on none of those gathered in the White House – “security for the Jewish people isn’t just an issue abroad.”

You know what came next: A verbal presidential attack against the attacks on Jews. Accounts of antisemitic chants and episodes, stories of synagogues requiring security, tales of students harassed on campus. Followed by remarks that these incidents are “unconscionable” and “almost unbelievable” and “despicable” – and are a “stain on the soul of America.”

President Biden has undertaken an offensive against antisemitism, and he outlined the precepts that evening: Increasing “awareness and understanding of both antisemitism and Jewish American heritage;” improving security for Jewish communities and institutions; reversing what he called “the normalization” of antisemitism; and building “coalitions all across communities to fight the hate.

In order “to bear witness,” President Joe Biden has taken all of his children and grandchildren to view the Dachau concentration camp./WHITE HOUSE PHOTOS

“We’re sending a clear and forceful message: In America, evil will not win. Hate will not prevail. The venom and violence of antisemitism will not be the story of our time.”

Previous presidents have made strong statements of support for Jews. George Washington saluted Jews in Newport, R.I., in 1790, saying, “May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants.” William Howard Taft visited Rodef Shalom Congregation in Pittsburgh in 1909 and asserted, “Never in the history of the country, never under any circumstances or in a crisis have the Jewish people failed to live up to the highest standard of citizenship and patriotism.” Bill Clinton, speaking at the 1995 funeral of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, spoke of the Jewish tradition of finding “a just leader … to protect [their] people and show them the way to safety.” George W. Bush, in a 2001 speech to the American Jewish Committee, said, “I am a Christian. But I believe, with the Psalmist, that the Lord God of Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps.”

Biden seems determined to create his own place in the story of the Jews and American presidents. He played host to the first ever High Holy Days reception in the White House. All three of the Biden children married Jews. Vice President Kamala Harris is married to a Jew, Douglas Emhoff, who in his own remarks at the event reflected on “how proud our ancestors would be to see us all here today, after many fled persecution, including my own ancestors, to live their dreams in the United States of America.”

But that was not the only highlight of Jewish American Heritage Month. Visit C-Span and you will hear a 14-minute examination of how 14 different members of Congress – none of them Jewish – have employed the word “chutzpah” on Capitol Hill over the years. Do not miss the pronunciations from former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Senate Majority Leaders Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell, and Senator Ted Cruz.

The White House event included a performance by Ben Platt and Micaela Diamond, 2023 Tony Award nominees in the cast of the musical “Parade,” which examines the life and famous death of Leo Frank, whose conviction, kidnapping, and lynching reflected a chilling early 20th century burst of American antisemitism in Georgia. The food, produced by the Israeli chef Michael Solomonov, known for his Zahav restaurant in Philadelphia, included his Moroccan chicken cigar rolls and stuffed eggplant with lentil and harissa. And really, what’s a celebration of Jewish history and Jewish values without smoked sable on challah? Check that off for the Bidens, too. Before they said goodnight, they presided over a very good night. Θ

David M. Shribman, who won a Pulitzer Prize as Washington bureau chief of the Boston Globe, is executive editor emeritus of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and teaches at Carnegie Mellon University and McGill University.

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