Biden calls antisemitism 'a stain on the soul of America' during remarks at Jewish American Heritage Month event

Biden called the reported rise in antisemitic incidents "unconscionable."

May 16, 2023, 8:57 PM

President Joe Biden and second gentleman Doug Emhoff called for both celebrating Jewish American history, and tackling antisemitism head on, during an event marking Jewish American Heritage Month at the White House Tuesday afternoon.

"I want to thank all of you for joining us as we celebrate Jewish Americans whose values, culture, and contributions have shaped who we are as a nation, and that's not hyperbole. Over generations, a story of resilience, hope, faith of the Jewish people… and the promise of a better tomorrow has inspired people everywhere, everywhere around the world," Biden said.

Retelling his story about how he decided to run for president after the "Unite the Right" march in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017, where white supremacists chanted "Jews will not replace us," Biden called for people to speak up about hatred and antisemitism.

President Joe Biden during his remarks at a Jewish American Heritage Month celebration at the White House in Washington, May 16, 2023.
Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters

Speaking about the reported rise in antisemitic incidents in America, Biden said, "It's unconscionable. It's almost unbelievable. It's despicable. These attacks are a threat to other minority communities as well, but more importantly, it's literally a stain on the soul of America. Let's be clear... silence is complicity."

The Anti-Defamation League released a report in March that found reported antisemitic incidents reached an all-time high in 2022.

"The Talmud says, quote, it's not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it," Biden said, quoting a line from the corpus of Jewish legal thought. "You know, the American story depends on not any one of us, not on some of us, but on all of us."

The president pointed to initiatives he has taken and plans regarding antisemitism, including an upcoming plan to release a strategy on broadening awareness of Jewish American history and antisemitism, and reversing what he called the "normalization" of antisemitism. He also called for the release of Jewish journalist Evan Gershkovich, as well as detained former marine Paul Whelan, both detained in Russia.

Emhoff, a lawyer by trade and the first Jewish spouse of any U.S. president or vice president, spoke to the long arc of Jewish American history and his own Jewish heritage.

President Joe Biden is introduced by second gentleman Doug Emhoff during a celebration marking Jewish American Heritage Month in the East Room of the White House on May 16, 2023 in Washington, DC.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

"And that history goes all the way back to our founding, when Jewish American patriots fought to help secure independence, and later help save our union during the Civil War, and have fought so valiantly in all subsequent wars. And throughout the eras there have been outstanding Jewish Americans who have achieved so much in their fields," Emhoff said.

Emhoff said it was his wife, Vice President Kamala Harris, who encouraged him to lead in combating antisemitism: "My wife, the Vice President, encouraged me… to lean into this fight... she said this issue found you, now lean into it."

Antisemitism is part of an "epidemic of hate" worldwide, Emhoff said, "but I know that I'm doing everything I can to fight back," Emhoff said to applause. "Fighting lies with truth. Educating others about the truth of the Holocaust and who we are as Jews. And building coalitions, 'cause we can't do this alone."

In December, Emhoff hosted a roundtable at the White House on antisemitism, which was attended by Jewish leaders and dignitaries.

Ben Platt and Micaela Diamond, stars of the musical Parade, perform during a celebration for Jewish American Heritage Month at the White House in Washington, May 16, 2023.
Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters

The packed event in the White House's East Room, attended by Jewish leaders, Congress members, and members of the administration, also featured a musical performance by Jewish actors Ben Platt and Micaela Diamond.

Platt and Diamond currently star in the Broadway revival of "Parade," a musical telling the story of Leo Frank, a Jewish man in Georgia in the early 1910s who was accused of murder and later lynched. The show faced antisemitic protests during its first preview.

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