By Eric Fusfield
When Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) issued an executive order establishing a Commission to Combat Anti-Semitism on his first day in office last January, he set in motion a number of significant developments.
The Virginia commission is the first statewide body devoted solely to confronting the world’s oldest social illness. Its 15 members, appointed by the governor, represented a cross section of experts in law, law enforcement, education, and government relations.
Of note is that the state’s attorney general and secretaries of education and homeland security served as ex officio members, which facilitates their engagement in carrying out the commission’s recommendations. Those 21 substantive proposals, issued in a recent report to the governor, reflect a pragmatic approach to addressing antisemitism in its various contemporary manifestations. The report suggests the creation of a task force in the attorney general’s office to help with implementation and coordinate efforts with other agencies.
By creating an antisemitism commission on Day One of his administration, Youngkin signaled the urgency of the problem and the importance of forming a coordinated policy strategy to combat it. At the same time, the commission’s work can raise crucial awareness at the grass roots level, with recommendations extending to state and local level figures such as legislators, educators, and police departments.
Also of note is the non-partisan tenor of the report, which acknowledges the presence of antisemitism on both ends of the political spectrum. For any strategic approach to antisemitism to be effective, it must begin by recognizing that antisemitism exists on the far right, the far left and among radical extremists. Public officials too often ride the tailwinds of political convenience rather than call out antisemitism wherever it appears.
Among the report’s recommendations is the prescription that Virginia adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism, including its illustrative “contemporary examples.” The report urges the General Assembly to codify the IHRA definition and use it as an educational tool to determine when antisemitism has taken place in Virginia schools and campuses.
Antisemitic incidents in Virginia have increased by 71 percent over last year, while anti-Jewish flyers have appeared in more than 100 towns and cities across the state. The commission’s recommendations on data collection and reporting speak to this present-day reality. When police departments better understand how to identify antisemitic incidents and can implement uniform reporting procedures, Virginia will be better able to document and address anti-Jewish hatred.
The commission’s report also speaks to the need for K-12 Holocaust education; instruction about the history of antisemitism; and recognition of Jewish American Heritage Month. With better curricula on these topics, Virginia can instill greater awareness in the students who will soon populate college campuses.
Last year, the Virginia Tech graduate student senate demanded a boycott of Israeli academics. he commission report calls for legislation that would prohibit boycotts based on nationality. Too often Israelis in academia or other fields are targeted for discrimination based solely on the fact that they are citizens of the Jewish state. This practice must stop.The Virginia commission serves as a model for other states. The national amplification of Virginia’s example can lead to growing awareness in states and localities where greater information and resources can be helpful in addressing a problem to which no jurisdiction is immune.
Five years ago, white supremacists marched through Charlottesville bearing tikki torches and chanting, “Jews will not replace us.” In 2022, Virginia signaled that it will not neglect the very real threats posed to its Jewish population; indeed, that it will work toward “ensuring a Commonwealth free from anti-Semitic harassment, violence, or discrimination in the lives of Jewish Virginians,” according to Youngkin’s January 2022 executive order.
Other states must follow Virginia’s example. ■
Rabbi Eric Fusfield, a member of the Virginia Commission to Combat Anti-Semitism, is B’nai B’rith International’s director of legislative affairs and deputy director of its International Center for Human Rights and Public Policy.