The Biden Turn against Israel

And the mishandling of the problem of anti-Semitism.

Joe Biden delivers a statement upon arrival at Israel's Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, Israel, on July 13, 2022. (Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images)
Joe Biden delivers a statement upon arrival at Israel's Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, Israel, on July 13, 2022. (Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images)

President Biden has often made reference to his close relationship with Israel and Israeli leaders over the last half century as a way of proving his bona fides on matters relating to the Jewish state. The Obama administration had badly strained those relationships, but when Biden was elected in 2020, many hoped and some predicted that his would be an administration far friendlier to Israel. And on the surface it has been; the steady current of hostility that emanated from Obama’s White House has not been present in Biden’s. Still, more than halfway through the 46th president’s term, the facts are these: At almost every turn, the Biden administration has pursued policies that undermine Israel, imperil its security, and empower its enemies here and abroad. That record merits review, as well as an exploration of the ideological dogmas that explain it.

The trouble began only three weeks after Inauguration Day, when the administration announced plans to rejoin the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC). The Council has made Israel-bashing a primary focus, racking up over 100 condemnations of that one country in 17 years—roughly the same number as for all other countries combined. Had the administration found this disturbing and in need of repair, it could have negotiated conditions for our return. For example, it might have demanded that “item 7,” which mandates a discussion of Israel at every session, be stricken from UNHRC meeting agendas. No such conditions were levied. The Council then took its obsession to a new level by establishing an open-ended “Commission of Inquiry” to investigate Israel. Here again, no U.S. demand for change was issued. The Biden administration merely pressed forward and rejoined the body, thereby implicitly endorsing its conduct.

Two months after taking office, in its annual human-rights report, the Biden State Department re-introduced the term “occupied territories” to refer to Judea, Samaria, and even parts of Jerusalem. However one envisions the contours of a final settlement to the territorial disputes in the area, branding Israel a foreign occupier of land to which it has no claim is factually false and legally misguided. The Jewish people have been indigenous to those territories beginning some 3,000 years ago and have maintained a presence there for millennia. Prior to Israel’s capture of the areas in 1967, they had been deeded to no other sovereign nation. Labeling Israel an “occupier” also undermines Israel–Palestinian negotiations, as it is impossible to reach agreements when the claims of one side are denied. Moreover, such terminology offers cover to those using anti-Semitic tropes to portray the Jewish state as a malevolent usurper.

One month later still, the president restored funding to the Palestinians, committing more than $230 million in aid. This was the case even though the Palestinian Authority (PA) maintains a “martyr’s fund” through which it pays more than $300 million per year to terrorists (or next of kin) who have murdered Israelis. This “pay for slay” policy makes it illegal for U.S. aid to go to directly to the PA. And so the administration distributed the money through other channels. The largest recipient was the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). In January 2021, just before restoration of U.S. funding, a report by the curriculum watchdog IMPACT-se documented the horrific contents of UNRWA textbooks used in Palestinian schools, including the glorification of jihad, violence, and death. Subsequent reports show no improvement in UNRWA’s school materials, and in some respects a worsening of the content. Unfazed, the Biden team delivered additional tranches of money, in effect subsidizing the anti-Semitic indoctrination of school children.

Also during his first year in office, President Biden attempted to reopen a diplomatic mission to the Palestinian Authority in Jerusalem. Locating the post in Jerusalem rather than the PA-based Ramallah would have undermined Israel’s sovereignty over its capital and bolstered those attempting to deny the Jewish people’s claim to the city. The government of then–Prime Minister Naftali Bennett—which included left-of-center and Arab parties—blocked the measure, with Bennett asserting, “The government under my leadership has repeatedly clarified its position that there is no place for a Palestinian consulate in Jerusalem. Jerusalem is the capital of one state, the State of Israel, period.” A full year later, in December 2022, the administration continued to insist that it would open the mission.

In March 2023, President Biden publicly snubbed Benjamin Netanyahu, newly returned to office, and announced that the prime minister would not be receiving an invitation to Washington “in the near term.” The reason given for this rare insult of a close ally is the Netanyahu government’s controversial reforms to Israel’s judicial system. But this explanation was itself an insult, given that the snub came the day after Prime Minister Netanyahu announced the temporary suspension of the legislation.

In June, the Biden administration ended U.S. scientific and technological cooperation with Israeli entities in the West Bank, the Golan Heights, and parts of Jerusalem. Calling those territories “occupied” is bad enough; boycotting them is another matter. Economic boycotts of Jewish communities, an age-old anti-Semitic tactic, find new expression in the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction movement, or BDS. President Biden claims to oppose BDS and, in a joint declaration with then–Prime Minister Yair Lapid in July 2022, pledged to “work together to combat all efforts to boycott or delegitimize Israel.” Less than a year later, President Biden reinstated such a boycott, thereby legitimizing the malignant BDS campaign.

Remarkably, even President Biden’s recently released “National Strategy to Counter Antisemitism” delivers gut punches to Israel. In the rollout of the strategy, the Biden White House identified the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) as a “stakeholder” in the effort. The only stake held by CAIR is one it seeks to drive through the heart of Israel and Zionism. It recently called the Jewish state “racist” and accused it of “apartheid” and “war crimes.” Its founder and current chief executive, Nihad Awad, expressed support for Hamas and advocated for “resistance” against Israel. CAIR was named an unindicted co-conspirator in a 2007 federal indictment relating to Islamist terrorism financing. In 2015, the United Arab Emirates designated CAIR a terrorist organization based on its links to the Muslim Brotherhood.

The other gut punch emerges from the contents of the anti-Semitism strategy. Although many of its hundred prescriptions are commendable, on the critical issue of our country’s commitment to the globally embraced definition of anti-Semitism put forth by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance—the so-called IHRA definition—the strategy undermines consensus and endorses competing definitions harmful to Israel.

America has been using the IHRA standard since the Obama administration, along with 35 other countries, the European Union, and over 1,000 other entities worldwide. By contrast, the Biden strategy refers to “several definitions” that can serve as “valuable tools.” And despite conceding that the United States “has embraced” the IHRA definition, the strategy announces that “the Administration welcomes and appreciates the Nexus Document and notes other such efforts.” Oh? The Nexus Document mentioned in the strategy holds that expressions of “intense hostility” toward pro-Israel Jews are anti-Semitic only when violence is provoked, and it states that “paying disproportionate attention to Israel and treating Israel differently than other countries is not prima facie proof of antisemitism.”

All of these painful examples pale in comparison with the most dangerous Biden policy affecting Israel, which is his tilt toward the rogue regime in Iran. The Islamic Republic is the world’s chief state sponsor of both terrorism and anti-Semitism, and for years it has been bent on developing nuclear weapons and delivery capabilities that present an existential threat to Israel and our Gulf allies.

The Biden administration has bent over backward to resurrect some new version of the Obama-era Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which gave Iran billions of dollars in sanctions relief in exchange for woefully inadequate restrictions. Iran has been rebuffing the Biden overtures, making clear that it will not agree to any significant limitations to its behavior, nuclear or otherwise. Unable to obtain a comprehensive agreement, and seeking to circumvent congressional review, the administration reduced itself to seeking an “informal” arrangement, also in exchange for sanctions relief.

As unwise as we believe this to be, the greater outrage is that the Biden team has been rewarding Iran all this time without having concluded any agreement, formal or informal. The administration has been reversing the “maximum pressure” sanctions campaign we had helped to impose during the previous administration—and has received nothing in return. Because of Biden’s softness, the regime today has far more money and influence with which to work its mischief at home and abroad, including by massacring its own people, arming deadly terrorist networks such as Hezbollah and Hamas, and supplying thousands of attack and surveillance drones to Russia for use against Ukraine. The Biden team has also coddled the regime in other ways, even advocating that the United Kingdom not designate the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organization.

Israel’s governing coalition does not often agree with its famously vocal opposition, especially now—yet both sides of that sharp divide, together with our Arab allies in the Gulf, share the view that Biden’s appeasement of Iran deeply threatens their security.

What to make of all this? We take the president at his word when he professes affection for the Jewish state. But that only makes plain how his anti-Israel track record flows from the ideological biases that affect his decision-making.

Today’s leftist ideology embraces three paradigms relevant to Israel policy. The first is the concept of systemic oppression. According to this view, much of human affairs can be understood as the effort by those with privilege to weaken and subjugate those without. The universality of this dynamic means that those having privilege are necessarily perpetrators of oppression. People (and countries) are deemed oppressors not based on their actions but on their identity—not on what they do but on who they are. Being “oppressed” becomes status-based. And because these systems of oppression supposedly obtain in every part of society—from government to the economy, from education to the arts—those with privilege bear enormous moral blame for their usurpation, while very little can or should be expected from the underprivileged, from whom so much has been stolen.

Today’s left places a primacy on race in defining privilege, which is why “systemic racism” is presented as the prime example of systemic oppression. President Biden signaled his commitment to this worldview as early as his inaugural address, in which he identified “systemic racism” in America as one of the great challenges of our time. In this race-centric version of the Marxist paradigm, “white privilege” implies a pernicious form of subjugation. And because Jews are now considered white, and on average earn more and attain higher levels of education than the average white American, “Jewish white privilege” is seen as an especially noxious form of predation.

These unfortunate views live and breed in the academy, which is why many college campuses have become intolerable places for Jews. A 2021 survey of university students active in Jewish organizations found that 70 percent experienced or were familiar with an anti-Semitic attack over a four-month period, two-thirds felt unsafe on their campus, and half felt the need to conceal their Jewish identity or support for Israel.

The second paradigm relevant here is anti-nationalism—hostility to the idea that countries exist to give sovereignty to a particular ethno-national people. The left embraces internationalism, and it sees nationalism as inherently racist and colonialist. An allowance is made (of course) for nationalist movements among underprivileged populations, who are deemed entitled to such movements, even violent ones, by virtue of being systemically oppressed. But for Western, privileged populations, nationalism is viewed as indistinguishable from supremacism.

The third leftist paradigm holds that religion, specifically the Judeo-Christian heritage of the West, should be regarded with deep suspicion. If religions are understood to be the “opium of the masses,” then the Judeo-Christian beliefs upon which Western civilization was built are the very architecture of systemic oppression and Western colonialism.

Each of these paradigms, and certainly all of them together, dooms Israel to abuse. By virtue of its status as a Jewish, Western, “white-passing,” prosperous nation-state, Israel is for the left the very exemplar of a racist oppressor. And Zionism, the national movement for self-determination of the Jewish people, is for the left a form of racism. The fact that a majority of Israeli Jews are themselves either refugees from Arab or Muslim countries or the direct descendants of those refugees bears no relevance. And Israel’s robust democratic norms and protection of religious liberty, a free press, and gay rights do not allow it to escape the moral blame assigned to systemic oppressors.

The Palestinians, on the other hand, as marginalized people “of color,” are the archetypical victims of oppression, from whom little should be expected and to whom much is owed. Irrelevant to this calculus is the enormous wealth that the Palestinian leadership has stolen and hoarded in foreign bank accounts. And the Palestinian Authority’s tyranny over its own people, prohibition of Jewish land ownership, censorship, and persecution of gays confer upon it no stain.

Many reacted with revulsion when the leader of the House Progressive Caucus, Representative Pramila Jayapal, recently called Israel a “racist state.” But no one should be surprised by this. Nor should anyone be surprised when policymakers on the left, when too sophisticated to use such slurs, make policy under the assumption that Israel is a racist state.

It is through this lens that much of Biden’s Israel policy comes into focus. Why wouldn’t we be understanding when Third World countries bash Israel at the UN? Why shouldn’t we acknowledge Israel’s white privilege by calling it an “occupier”? Why wouldn’t we indulge Palestinian intransigence, or anti-Semitism, or violence, or fantasies about Jerusalem’s history? Why shouldn’t we adopt a definition of anti-Semitism that expressly allows Israel to be held to a double standard?

Alan Dershowitz and others have written that President Biden might prove to be the Democrat’s last putatively pro-Israel president. We pray that’s not the case, but unless leftist ideology is banished from future administrations, it may not make much of a difference.

Read in Commentary.