May 8, 2024 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

Biden is saying what liberals and Democrats (and even some leftists) want him to say, but they might not be hearing him

They’re hearing what other people said he said.

Courtesy of CSPAN, via screenshot.
Courtesy of CSPAN, via screenshot.

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It’s not that the news was wrong. 

It’s that it wasn’t quite right either. 

And because it wasn’t quite right, lots of liberals and Democrats (and even some leftists) are not really hearing what the president is saying. That’s too bad. What he’s saying is what they want him to say

Joe Biden gave brief remarks at a ceremony commemorating victims of the Holocaust. The AP’s lede is representative of coverage elsewhere: 

President Joe Biden on Tuesday decried a “ferocious surge” in antisemitism on college campuses and around the globe in the months since Hamas attacked Israel and triggered a war in Gaza, using a ceremony to remember victims of the Holocaust to also denounce new waves of violence and hateful rhetoric toward Jews.

That’s right.

But it’s wrong, too. 

It’s right in that’s what the president said. It’s also right in that’s the immediate context for understanding his remarks. In recent weeks, there have been scores of demonstrations on college campuses protesting Israel’s killing of about 35,000 Palestinians. Some of the protesters have expressed what looks like – or, in fact, is – antisemitism. Protests have emerged amid a rise in antisemitism worldwide, though they play a tiny part in the global phenomenon.

But it’s wrong, too, in that the context is larger than that. It’s wrong in that Biden himself outlined its size. He was very clear that hatreds, all hatreds, are bad for everyone, and that if they are allowed to fester, as they have been allowed to fester, bad things can happen, for instance, the very catastrophe (or shoah) whose victims he commemorated.

“We have an obligation, an obligation to learn the lessons of history so we don’t surrender our future to the horrors of the past,” Biden said. “We must give hate no safe harbor against anyone. Anyone. From the very founding, our very founding, Jewish Americans represented only about 2 percent of the US population and helped lead the cause of freedom for everyone in our nation. From that experience, we know scapegoating and demonizing any minority is a threat to every minority and the very foundation of our democracy” (my italics throughout). 

Later, he said:

“I’m calling on all Americans to stand united against antisemitism and hate in all its forms. My dear friend, he became a friend, the late Elie Wiesel said, quote: ‘One person of integrity can make a difference.’”

In another passage, he addressed American Jews specifically. “I see your fear, your hurt, your pain. Let me reassure you, as your president, you’re not alone. You belong. You always have and you always will.”

In this, he was echoing past remarks to other minorities. 

Just days after the Hamas massacre, on October 7, 2023, Biden said the exact same thing to Arab-Americans and Muslims in the US. “We must, without equivocation, denounce antisemitism. We must also, without equivocation, denounce Islamophobia. To all of you hurting — those of you who are hurting, I want you to know: I see you. You belong. And I want to say this to you: You’re all America. You’re all America.”

Last month, on Transgender Day of Visibility, which happened to fall on Easter Sunday, the president said: “Today, we show millions of transgender and nonbinary Americans that we see them, they belong, and they should be treated with dignity and respect. Their courage has given countless others strength, but no one should have to be brave just to be themselves. Every American deserves that freedom.”

To Jews, he said: You belong. You are America.

To Muslims, he said: You belong. You are America.

To trans people, he said: You belong. You are America.

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This is the full story behind Tuesday’s news. Whenever Biden talks about one kind of hatred toward one kind of group, he’s never only talking about that one hatred or that one group. He’s talking about all the groups and all the hatreds toward them, because, while the details are consequential in ways peculiar to each group, the evil is the same. 

This is what liberals and Democrats (and even some leftists) want from Joe Biden. They want him to recognize the perils facing each minority group, even if, or especially if, the perils come from another minority group. And they want him to offer assurances that he, as the president, is going to defend them using the force of law. They want the leader of a democratic community of equals to treat everyone equally. They want him to honor and practice the idea of the universal human family.

In an American* context, they are getting what they want. 

But I’m afraid they are not hearing it. And I’m afraid they are not hearing it, because they are not listening to what Biden is saying. Instead, they are listening to what someone else said Biden said. 

If someone is against college campus protesters, because they believe college campus protests are the same thing as antisemitism, then they will find what they are looking for in Biden’s speech. That person can point, for instance, to the Associated Press report and say, look – the president denounced college campus protests. See? I was right. 

Biden did not denounce campus protests. He denounced hate speech against Jews credibly reported on college campuses. (He very clearly defended the right to “peaceful protest.”) Moreover, he denounced all hate speech against all minority groups. He even elevated it as one of the biggest threats not only to democracy but to civilization itself.

But if you’re only hearing what this person said Biden said, then you might not know any of that. You might even conclude that Biden is somehow sanctioning one kind of hate by way of whitewashing another. Liberals and Democrats (and even some leftists) don’t want that. Fortunately, Biden isn’t doing what they don’t want him to do.

*I’m talking about politics in America. While Israel is an ally, Biden can’t force its leader to quit looking like a war criminal. He can stop sending arms, though. We shall see. The AP reported Tuesday that the US paused a shipment of weapons as Israel prepared to invade Rafah.

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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