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Youngkin commission looks to fight antisemitism, but critics disagree on strategy

Former Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen speaks at a 2020 press conference in Washington
Olivier Douliery/AP
Pool AFP
Former Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen speaks at a 2020 press conference in Washington about opioid trafficking. Rosen now leads the Commission to Combat Antisemitism in Virginia. (File photo: Olivier Douliery/The Associated Press)

Last month’s meeting of the Commission to Combat Antisemitism in Virginia began with a visitor from Hollywood. Actor Noa Tishby joined Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s panel remotely, her face projected onto a screen above a conference room in downtown Richmond.

The technology had its limits.

“It's a shame that I can't see anybody,” she said. “I can literally see myself.”

The Israeli actor has appeared on shows ranging from “NCIS” to “Big Love,” but was speaking at the commission’s first in-person meeting in her role as the Israeli government’s Special Envoy for Combating Antisemitism and the Delegitimization of Israel.

Tishby told the commission they needed to be alert to a new form of antisemitism: “The extreme and fanatical demonization of Israel.”

Created by an executive order issued by Youngkin on his first day in office, the commission is working to address not just antisemitism as it’s traditionally been defined — hostility to or prejudice against Jewish people — but what Tishby described as the “antisemitism 2.0,” where people are “demonizing Israel, calling it a genocide state.”

Members of the commission have discussed potential legislation or executive orders that would ban academic boycotts of Israel, prohibit an undefined “political or ideological indoctrination” in K-12 classrooms and add a new definition of antisemitism to K-12 history curricula that critics contend is designed to stamp out criticism of Israel. They’ve also discussed creating a system for law enforcement to report and track incidents of antisemitism, updating training for officers and curtailing the influence of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement that seeks to economically isolate Israel.

It’s unclear which proposals will make it into the commission’s formal recommendations, set to be delivered to Youngkin by Dec. 1. Some related ideas have failed to clear the legislature over objections they violated the U.S. Constitution, including a bill this year that sought to prohibit the state from contracting with firms that “engage in a boycott of Israel.”

Youngkin’s commission is led by Jeffrey Rosen, who served as former President Donald Trump’s deputy attorney general beginning in May 2019 and briefly served as acting attorney general from December 2021 through January. During that time, he reportedly resisted Trump’s attempts to overturn the 2020 presidential election.

Other members of the panel include Julie Strauss Levin, a lawyer who is married to conservative commentator Mark Levin, and Samuel Asher, executive director of the Virginia Holocaust Museum. T. March Bell, a special advisor in the Youngkin administration who previously led a controversial Congressional investigation into Planned Parenthood, is one of several staffers working with the group but is not a member.

A controversial focus on Israel

Some critics who’ve followed the commission told VPM News they support the overarching goal of fighting antisemitism, but they disagree with how the group is framing the issue.

Nancy Wein and Jim Metz, both members of the Richmonders for Peace in Israel-Palestine, argued that the commission seemed preoccupied with stamping out criticism of the Israeli government. The country has been condemned by some countries and human rights groups for its treatment of Palestinians, as well as the continuing development of settlements and the occupation of Palestinian territories.

“They have a First Amendment right to defend Israel,” Metz said. “They don't have a First Amendment right to silence people who are critical of Israel.”

In an interview, Rosen said the commission would seek to strike a balance between fighting antisemitism and preserving First Amendment protections.

“I myself am a strong supporter of the First Amendment,” Rosen said. “So, I think the commission is going to be sensitive to that set of concerns. And at the same time, we're looking to come up with mechanisms and solutions that make Virginia a leader in the combating of antisemitic actions — and I'm saying actions as distinct from free speech.”

Virginia’s connection with Israel isn't new. In 1986, state lawmakers created the unique Virginia Israel Advisory Board to solidify relationships among businesses, universities and the two governments. In its 2021  annual report, the board said Israeli ventures it supported created an economic impact of more than $6 billion since 2010. But progressive groups have criticized the board, saying it rewards Israel-connected businesses with state grants and networking opportunities.

The connections are bipartisan. Former Gov. Ralph Northam met with members of the Israeli Ministry of Defense on a visit to the country, according to the annual report. And Attorney General Jason Miyares is set to join a bipartisan group of attorneys general for a trip to Israel next year, according to his office.

Spike in hate crimes

Youngkin’s executive order creating the Commission to Combat Anti-Semitism came amid a spike in antisemitic incidents nationally and in Virginia, according to data collected by the Anti-Defamation League.

Some of the recent incidents have reverberated nationally.

White nationalists who descended on Charlottesville in 2017 chanted “Jews will not replace us.” Two members of The Base — an antisemitic, white nationalist group — were arrested days ahead of a Richmond gun rally in January 2020 after discussing assassinating then-Speaker of the House Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax), the first Jewish person to hold that role. This summer, residents of Richmond, Lynchburg and Virginia Beach reported finding antisemitic flyers scattered around some neighborhoods.

Kristopher “Goad” Gatsby, an activist who has closely monitored white nationalist groups and attended the commission’s meeting, said antisemitism differs from other forms of bigotry because of its focus on false claims of a global, overarching conspiracy orchestrated by Jews. He argued the commission needed to focus on conservative politicians and commentators like Tucker Carlson who have openly espoused the great replacement theory — a far-right conspiracy theory promoted by antisemitic, white nationalist groups. It falsely claims that nonwhite individuals are being brought into the U.S. to “replace” white voters and, in some instances, accuses Jews or “globalists” of orchestrating demographic changes.

“All of this boils down to the Fox News crowd putting entry-level antisemitism onto their programming,” Gatsby said.

Rosen said the commission is “focused on antisemitism from any source of any kind from any place.”

“The commission is interested in all of it and not looking to give a free pass to anybody,” he said.

The commission is set to meet again on Oct. 20, when subcommittees will present recommendations on what policies should be included in the group’s final report.


Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.