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Politics

At a Holocaust remembrance event, Biden to mark the history of antisemitism

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

President Biden delivers a speech today about antisemitism. The formal occasion is the annual Days of Remembrance ceremony marking the Holocaust. But a speech like this in May of 2024 is not solely about the past. Here's NPR senior White House correspondent Tamara Keith.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: There's been a huge spike in antisemitic incidents in the U.S. in the past year, especially since the Hamas attacks in Israel on October 7 and the war in Gaza that followed. Pro-Palestinian protests are roiling college campuses, and some protesters have targeted students for being Jewish. Meanwhile, polls show young voters turning their backs on President Biden because of his support for Israel. To say the politics of this moment are challenging would be an understatement. Sarada Peri was a speechwriter in the Obama White House.

SARADA PERI: If your goal is to deal with all these cross-pressures and make everyone happy, it's not going to happen.

KEITH: She doesn't expect these remarks to address all the concerns of young protesters or Biden's Republican critics, who want him to crack down on them.

PERI: But on the issue specifically of antisemitism, President Biden has always spoken so forcefully on this issue, and I think it's because it is something he genuinely feels.

KEITH: The 2017 White supremacist march in Charlottesville, Va. - with chants of, Jews will not replace us - played a big role in Biden's decision to run for president in 2019. He talks about it all the time, including last month at a campaign event in Pittsburgh.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Carrying Nazi banners, singing the same garbage that they sang in Hitler streets in Germany in the '30s, carrying torches, you know, accompanied by the Ku Klux Klan. And a young woman was killed. I decided that I had to run.

KEITH: Biden also often describes his father at the dinner table, teaching the family about the horrors of the Holocaust. The lesson? That silence is complicity. Biden took his own children and grandchildren to the Dachau concentration camp in Germany to make sure they learned that same lesson. And his administration has been working to combat antisemitism, even before October 7 added accelerant.

SARAH HURWITZ: I think he really perceived something very old and very ugly coming back to haunt us.

KEITH: Sarah Hurwitz was the head speechwriter for Michelle Obama and is author of a book about Judaism. She says today's ceremony is all about remembering the horrors of the Holocaust.

HURWITZ: It's about this horrific, horrific nightmarish event that took place in history, and it's also about what we're seeing right now, which is something very old, very ugly from history coming back in our present. And I think he is uniquely positioned to make a very strong case for why we should be thinking about this and caring about this.

KEITH: Biden last week delivered remarks condemning the chaos on college campuses. And today's speech at the Capitol likely isn't the kind of two-way conversation about Israel and Gaza that many young voters are asking for in this moment, either. Ro Khanna, a Democratic congressman from California, says this international crisis is causing a rift Biden can't ignore.

RO KHANNA: We were already a divided nation, and this has, like, further divided us.

KEITH: He hopes Biden does address the protesters and brings his trademark empathy to their concerns.

KHANNA: You know, that's the type of thing that could start to heal us. We're looking for some kind of way forward.

KEITH: The stakes are even higher because this is all unfolding in an election year where Biden can't afford to lose the support of large numbers of young people. Tamara Keith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Politics
Tamara Keith
Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. In that time, she has chronicled the final years of the Obama administration, covered Hillary Clinton's failed bid for president from start to finish and threw herself into documenting the Trump administration, from policy made by tweet to the president's COVID diagnosis and January 6th. In the final year of the Trump administration and the first year of the Biden administration, she focused her reporting on the White House response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Her reporting often highlights small observations that tell a larger story about the president and the changing presidency.