Remarks by Homeland Security Advisor Dr. Liz Sherwood-Randall to the Anti-Defamation League
As Prepared For Delivery:
Good morning. It’s my honor to be here with each of you today. When Jonathan asked if I would give keynote remarks at this gathering, I eagerly agreed – because of the vital mission of this organization, the partnership that we have built in the Biden Administration, and the urgent issues facing our community.
Jonathan’s vision and innovation are defining what it means to lead an international civil rights organization in these very challenging times.
As President Biden’s Homeland Security Advisor – a West Wing role created just after 9/11 –it’s my job to deal with the threat to our homeland that antisemitism represents. But for me, it’s also personal.
My great-grandparents fled oppression in Eastern Europe to build a new life in America where they could practice their faith without fear and seek opportunities denied to them in their homelands because they were Jewish.
Still, my mother was chased home from elementary school in Omaha as a little Jewish girl. Her family moved West to seek a more open-minded and tolerant place. She met my father in high school in Los Angeles, where they subsequently married at Wilshire Boulevard Temple.
At that time, my father was considering entry level job offers from several law firms after finishing Harvard Law School and a Supreme Court clerkship. One offer was from the most esteemed, blue-chip firm in the community, which had no track record of making Jews partners.
Another was from a firm established by Jewish leaders that welcomed young lawyers of Jewish faith into very successful practices. When my father was trying to choose between the two, his peers at the Jewish firm reached out and implored him not to accept their offer and instead go to the place where he would blaze a new trail for others to follow.
That story was told to me to emphasize the need to build bridges rather than walls to the greatest degree possible – to be integrated rather than segregated, to know the other and to have the other know us – across faiths and races.
My father experienced anti-Semitic discrimination long into adulthood. But he chose repeatedly, just like with his choice of a law firm, to build bridges from the Jewish community to other groups confronting discrimination and hate, including the Black and Asian communities in Southern California and beyond.
As Martin Luther King said, “The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people — but the silence over that by the good people.”
Or, as we say in our faith, it is our obligation to do “tikkun olam”. We must use our lives to heal a broken world.
I take that imperative seriously. I know you do, too. And every day, I see how what is broken seems even more jagged than it used to be.
Ethnic and religious hatred is being normalized in our melting pot. Antisemitism is being normalized – its more mainstream, it’s out in the open. And, most disturbingly, violence against Jews is being normalized.
Jews are being targeted in their neighborhoods, synagogues, schools, homes, and online. By whatever measure you choose to employ, we have not seen this level of hatred towards Jews since Europe before the second world war.
For example, last month the ADL’s annual audit reported that 2022 represented a 34% increase in antisemitic incidents in the U.S. over the previous year—the highest number recorded since ADL began tracking these incidents in 1979.
To say this is concerning is a profound understatement.
So it was with urgency that President Biden charged us with crafting this country’s first-ever National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism. We started this work on literally the first day of the Administration. Then, as part of that larger effort, we embarked on the first National Strategy to Counter Antisemitism specifically.
We expect to complete this work by the end of May. The White House Domestic Policy Council Director Susan Rice, my co-chair in in this vital work, will speak more about the strategy later today.
Among its many initiatives is the one that to me is most urgently needed—the restoration of safety for Jews in our country.
And that goal means working in partnership with you, to address three pressing issues simultaneously.
First, we will continue to improve the security of synagogues and Jewish institutions.
The Biden Administration has expanded security assistance for houses of worship and religious institutions – for example, increasing the funds to improve physical security of buildings from 180 million dollars two years ago to 305 million dollars today. And we have asked Congress to continue to increase these funds.
We’re also sharing more information with law enforcement and community allies, creating partnerships between them, and training congregations to confront threats.
We saw how this work can make a difference in January of 2022 in Colleyville, Texas, when a rabbi and four members of his congregation were taken hostage. Ahead of time, the synagogue had already mapped out its floor plan and submitted it to local officials and the FBI. They had installed security cameras so law enforcement could see what was happening in real-time. As a result, they could move quickly to mount a rescue operation. And when there was an opportunity to escape, the hostages relied on their active shooter training to take decisive action and flee safely.
Colleyville’s then-Rabbi, Charlie Cytron-Walker, said after the hostage crisis that – quote – “over the years, my congregation and I have participated in multiple security courses from the Colleyville Police Department, the FBI, the Anti-Defamation League, and Secure Community Network. We are alive today because of that education.”
Second, we need to reduce the threat itself and decrease hate-driven violence and harassment.
This brings me back to my father’s lesson – to build the bridges within our communities that make it hard for hate to flourish. That was the Administration’s aim last year when the President convened the United We Stand summit.
The summit mobilized Federal agencies in new and renewed ways. For example, the Justice Department has improved the reporting of hate crime incidents, to address the problem of underreporting by victims, witnesses, and law enforcement agencies.
Another takeaway from the summit was the benefit of community-based prevention efforts that see teachers, coaches, pastors and many others working together to steer individuals away from hate and violence – works that takes time and trust and seeing each other as human beings living in the same community – wherever possible.
And when these efforts are insufficient, we will rely on our law enforcement partners to prioritize the investigation and prosecution of those who harass, abuse, and harm Jews and Jewish communities.
On this point, strong partnerships between the government and diverse community groups can have a real impact. Let me give you an example.
Last November, the Community Security Initiative, a community-based security organization, detected a social media threat to – quote – “shoot up a synagogue” in New York City. They relied on their strong ties to law enforcement and reported the threat to the FBI and NYPD, who quickly determined the threat was credible and identified two men as suspects. That information was shared widely with local authorities and houses of worship, which resulted in the swift apprehension of the men — after a local transit worker recognized them in Penn Station and alerted the police.
The police arrested the suspects and found a handgun and a large capacity magazine in their possession. All this was possible because a community group had strong relationships in place with law enforcement.
So – whether you are working to strengthen ties within your community, or helping us address harassment, abuse, and threats, it matters. You are making a difference in the fight to end antisemitism.
Third, while we enhance protections in the short term… and expand prevention efforts to reduce the threat over time… we also need to address the creeping normalization of antisemitism in our everyday lives, especially through online media.
That includes tackling the ways in which antisemitic and other hateful views circulate online and mix with conspiracy theories and disinformation that can lead some people to undertake violence.
We need to ensure that those who spread lies and conspiracy theories remain outside the mainstream. And we have to do this in a way that protects not just members of the Jewish faith but members of all religious denominations. That is how we will build common cause against those who seek to divide us.
That means speaking out forcefully and clearly when we encounter expressions of hatred for Jews and other community groups, which is something President Biden has done throughout his presidency and his career in public service. Hate speech should never go unchallenged.
We as a Federal government are taking actions to address this. For example, the Departments of Commerce and Education are using model curricula and grant programs to help Americans recognize online hate speech and reduce its spread.
Through entities like the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism, we are sharing information with technology companies, to ensure they understand the threat of antisemitism and more effectively enforce their terms of service. This is critical given the algorithms that suck people into more sinister conversations that we know may lead to incitement of violence.
And two years ago, after the prior Administration refused to join, we announced our decision to join the Christchurch Call, an international partnership among 56 governments and 10 technology companies, including Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, to develop new solutions to eliminating terrorist content online while safeguarding free expression.
For example, when the perpetrator of the Buffalo supermarket murders last May tried to livestream his attack, the Christchurch Call and GIFCT worked swiftly to terminate the livestream. Then, they ensured it was neither posted online nor shared widely, which meant the content was far less widely circulated than we have seen in prior attacks, diminishing the prospects of incitement, motivation by example, or copy-catting.
We know we need to go much further than this, and we are working with Congress to do that. As the President called for earlier this year, we are looking to Congress to reform the laws to ensure technology companies are responsible for the malign content they spread and the algorithms they use.
As I hope all these examples illustrate – we cannot do this alone. We in government will do everything we can to improve the safety of Jews and other religions, races, and ethnic groups who face threats and discrimination. But we need to do this work with you all.
We need the public to understand antisemitism and rally against it in all its forms, while standing shoulder to shoulder with other communities targeted by hate.
We need community groups, law enforcement, schools, houses of worship, businesses and others to work together – both to rally against hate and to use all of their tools to prevent hate-driven violence.
We need leaders at the local and state levels to join us in speaking out and condemning antisemitism and hate whenever it arises.
And we need the Anti-Defamation League. And we will continue to work alongside you. Because whether it’s the ADL’s COMBAT plan to fight antisemitism in our communities… your REPAIR plan to address online hate… or many of the other remarkable initiatives you have underway…. we share the ADL’s comprehensive approach to end the defamation of the Jewish people and to secure justice and fair treatment to all.
Coming back to the lessons I learned from my family’s experience – fleeing hate and violence, starting new lives in a new land, making their way despite skepticism and sometimes outright hostility, and always looking for ways to lift up others and heal the world – I would leave you with this final thought: Turn understandable fear into empowering action.
Rabbi Marc Katz of Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, New Jersey recently put this best when he wrote that – quote – “There will always be bad actors, hateful people, bad agents. But they need not derail our lives. Every triumph, no matter how small, takes up the room in our psyche that was once full of our anxieties. We need to ask not what will happen tomorrow but what we can do today. Then, when tomorrow comes, we arrive, realizing we have been so busy fixing our broken world that we had no time to be afraid.”
Thank you for allowing me to join you this morning, and I look forward to doing tikkun olam together with you in the days, months and years ahead.