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Second gentleman Emhoff says antisemitism has become an epidemic

Second gentleman Doug Emhoff, husband of Vice President Harris, delivers remarks during a roundtable about the rise of antisemitism.
Chip Somodevilla
Getty Images
Second gentleman Doug Emhoff, husband of Vice President Harris, delivers remarks during a roundtable about the rise of antisemitism.

Updated December 7, 2022 at 1:09 PM ET

The second gentleman, Doug Emhoff, hosted a roundtable at the White House Wednesday on the rise of antisemitism in the United States, saying there is an "epidemic of hate facing our country."

"Words matter," Emhoff said. "People are no longer saying the quiet parts out loud, they are screaming them."

The husband of Vice President Harris was joined by a dozen leaders from the Jewish community, including representatives of Hillel, the Anti-Defamation League and Orthodox Union.

The meeting comes amid a surge of anti-Jewish comments and actions from prominent people.

The rapper Ye, formerly known as Kanye West, has expressed admiration for Adolf Hitler, among other remarks; and former President Donald Trump recently had dinner with Ye and Holocaust-denier Nick Fuentes.

Ambassador Deborah Lipstadt, Biden's special envoy who monitors antisemitism around the world, told the roundtable that many people have not taken antisemitism seriously enough.

"For too long, Jew-hatred has been belittled or discounted because Jews have erroneously been considered white and privileged. This is a very real threat to Jews, and that alone would make it worth fighting with all our soul and with all our might," Lipstadt said.

The White House asked participants for their ideas on how the administration could address the rising tide of antisemitism at home — insights that were shared during a private portion of the meeting closed to reporters.

It's personal for the second gentleman

Wednesday's meeting was the first high-profile policy issue that Emhoff — the first Jewish spouse of a president or vice president — has led at the White House.

"We cannot normalize this," Emhoff said. "We all have an obligation to condemn these vile acts. We must not stay silent. There is no either/or. There are no two sides. Everyone must be against this."

He talked about growing up in Brooklyn and New Jersey in a typical Jewish family, going to synagogue and celebrating his bar mitzvah.

"What's happening now is just it's visceral, it's real. And that's why this is so personal to me," he said.

He said one of the reasons he went on to become a lawyer was to fight inequality.

Antisemitism is becoming a national crisis, the ADL says

The Anti-Defamation League, which tracks antisemitism, has reported more anti-Jewish attacks last year than it has in any year since it started tracking in the 1970s. Jewish people are very concerned, said Jonathan Greenblatt, the CEO of the group.

"I don't think it's an understatement to assert that we are reaching a point where this is becoming a national crisis," Greenblatt said. "We have celebrities repeating antisemitic tropes. We have the former president breaking bread with bigots, including white supremacists. We have athletes normalizing Holocaust denialism."

President Biden raised his own concerns on Twitter last week when he called out "political leaders" for not strongly denouncing antisemitism.

"I just want to make a few things clear: The Holocaust happened. Hitler was a demonic figure. And instead of giving it a platform, our political leaders should be calling out and rejecting antisemitism wherever it hides. Silence is complicity," the president wrote.

The rhetoric is changing and so is the response

In the past, politicians have raised concerns about giving extremists more oxygen by paying attention to their views, but leaders say it's a different time.

Ian Russell, a Democratic strategist, says that was a view before the election of Trump, whose blunt rhetoric and aversion to political correctness angered detractors and fueled supporters.

"There was a unspoken tacit understanding between the two major parties that there were some things you just didn't say," said Russell, a former deputy executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

"Some dog whistles you didn't send and some things we just kept out of mainstream political dialogue in the United States because we all believe in never again. Instead, Trump said the quiet part out loud. He turned the dog whistle into a megaphone."

But this type of talk is now part of the mainstream political dialogue. He said the White House is right to call it out.

Social media has helped normalize hate speech, said Rabbi Noah Farkas, president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, describing the surge as "open talk of maybe what was always said in private, but now is being said in public."

"Someone once told me you're never weird online," he told NPR. "You'll always find, 'your people.' And while that might be true for people who love to roller skate or people who love kittens, it's also true for people who hold the deeply hateful feelings, thoughts and actions in their hearts. And the truth is, is that social media thrives on these kinds of viral, emotional in-group feelings."

It's not just Democrats who are concerned, though some Republicans have been careful not to attack Trump directly.

A number of Republicans, including Sens. John Cornyn of Texas, Tim Scott of South Carolina and James Lankford of Oklahoma, signed onto a bipartisan letter, led by Sen. Jacky Rosen, D-N.V., calling on Biden to develop a national strategy against antisemitism.

"Rising antisemitism puts Jews both in the United States and around the world at risk," the lawmakers wrote. "Antisemitic voices, inciting hateful and violent action, are finding new audiences, with anti-Jewish conspiracies gaining traction across the globe and through social media."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Franco Ordoñez is a White House Correspondent for NPR's Washington Desk. Before he came to NPR in 2019, Ordoñez covered the White House for McClatchy. He has also written about diplomatic affairs, foreign policy and immigration, and has been a correspondent in Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and Haiti.