Politics / March 6, 2024

Why Does Biden Keep Making the Same Dangerous Comment About Jews?

Over and over again, Biden has said that no Jew in the world would be safe without Israel. What is he talking about?

Sophie Hurwitz
Joe Biden in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, US, on Friday, March 1, 2024.

Joe Biden in the Oval Office on Friday, March 1, 2024.

(Chris Kleponis / CNP / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Over the past few months, President Joe Biden has repeatedly shared a very specific opinion that he holds about Jews and Israel.

On October 12, five days after Hamas attacked Israel, the president held a White House meeting on antisemitism. “Were there no Israel, no Jew in the world would be ultimately safe,” Biden said. “It’s the only ultimate guarantee.” On December 11, at a Hanukkah reception, he said, “Folks, were there no Israel, there wouldn’t be a Jew in the world who was safe—were there no Israel. I make no bones about it.” And on February 27, Biden could again be found reciting his favorite line, this time on national television. Appearing on Late Night with Seth Meyers, he said, “Were there no Israel, there’s not a Jew in the world who will be safe.”

The exact wording of the sentence varies, but the sentiment does not. Biden clearly believes that the existence of the state of Israel is the only thing preventing the annihilation of the world’s 15 million Jews. If you take the slogan at face value, Biden also seems to believe that, were Israel to disappear, he would be powerless to protect the 6 million Jews living in the United States—the country whose government he currently leads. Apparently, it’s a foreign nation’s job to ensure the safety of American Jews, not Joe Biden’s.

This wasn’t always exactly how Biden used to talk about Israel, its military, and the safety of American Jews within his own country. For a long time, he was more likely to describe Israel as something that America needed, rather than something the Jews needed.

In 1986, Biden said, “Were there not an Israel, the United States of America would have to invent an Israel to protect her interests in the region.” He didn’t speak of Jewish security at all, but of American interests. That’s what drove his passionate support of the Jewish state–as he pushed through an aid package to Israel, he called it “the best $3 billion investment” the United States could make.

This was four years after Biden’s meeting with Israeli politician Menachem Begin, a man whom Albert Einstein, among others, called a fascist. In that meeting, the young senator’s enthusiasm for Israeli military violence shocked even Begin, who had by then helped lead the Deir Yassin massacre and more indirectly orchestrated the deaths of tens of thousands of Palestinians. As Pankaj Mishra recently noted in the London Review of Books, “The senator commended the Israeli war effort and boasted that he would have gone further, even if it meant killing women and children.” At this, even Begin blanched. Killing women and children, he told Biden, would be beyond “the yardstick of civilization.” (By that count, we’re now 25,000 or so yardsticks beyond anything recognizably human.)

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But, 40 years later, Joe Biden is still here and still repeating the same old chestnut. My own brief search turned up about a dozen near-identical recitations. The message is always the same: If there were no Israel, the United States would require some other occupying power in the region between the river and the sea as its enforcer. In 2013, for instance, Biden told an American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference, “Lonny’s brother used to say, if there were no Israel, we’d have to invent one.” (Lonny is Lionel Kaplan, then-head of AIPAC. It’s unclear which of Kaplan’s two lesser-known brothers dropped the bon mot Biden then picked up.)

In September 2014, though, Biden upped the rhetorical stakes at a Rosh Hashana gathering at the White House, combining the idea that America needs Israel with the idea that for Jews to be safe, even Jews in America, Israel must exist. As The Atlantic reported in March 2015:

“I’ll never forget talking to [Golda Meir] in her office with her assistant—a guy named Rabin—about the Six-Day War,” [Biden] said. “The end of the meeting, we get up and walk out, the doors are open, and … the press is taking photos … She looked straight ahead and said, ‘Senator, don’t look so sad … Don’t worry. We Jews have a secret weapon.’”

He said he asked her what that secret weapon was.

“I thought she was going to tell me something about a nuclear program,” Biden continued. “She looked straight ahead and she said, ‘We have no place else to go.’” He paused, and repeated: “‘We have no place else to go.’”

“Folks,” he continued, “there is no place else to go, and you understand that in your bones. You understand in your bones that no matter how hospitable, no matter how consequential, no matter how engaged, no matter how deeply involved you are in the United States … there’s only one guarantee. There is really only one absolute guarantee, and that’s the state of Israel.”

It’s hard to read Biden’s words as signifying anything beyond a total dereliction of his responsibility for American-Jewish safety.

There was, at the time, some acknowledgment that Biden’s casting off of responsibility for his Jewish constituents was strange. “No one has remarked upon the fact of a sitting vice president telling a portion of the American citizenry that they cannot count on the United States government as the ultimate guarantor of their freedom and safety,” writer Corey Robin said.

The criticism apparently got back to Biden, because he mentioned it during a speech at a celebration for the 67th anniversary of Israel’s declaration of independence:

I was criticized in the national press a couple weeks ago when I said that, in fact, every Jew in the world needs there to be an Israel. And it was characterized by some of the conservative press as saying that I was implying Jews weren’t safe in America. They don’t get it. They don’t get it. Israel, Israel is absolutely essential—absolutely essential—[to the] security of Jews around the world.

Biden has stuck to versions of this line ever since. In September 2023, during a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he once again wove together the American political and economic need for Israel with American-Jewish safety: “Were there no Israel, we’d have to invent one, and I mean it. I think without Israel, there’s not a Jew in the world who’s secure.”

October 7, and the subsequent Israeli war on Gaza, came just weeks later.

It is politically advantageous to enmesh ideas of Jewish safety with the continuation of Western power. In 1986, the year Biden began to speak of Israel’s necessity with such passion, historian (and self-proclaimed Zionist) David Biale published Power and Powerlessness in Jewish History, a tome that in large part analyzes what it meant for the Jewish people to acquire the power of a state so immediately after the abject political powerlessness of Jewish communities during the Holocaust.

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“Just as the Zionists hoped that sovereignty would revolutionize the Jew internally, so they expected that a Jewish state would radically change how the nations treated the Jews,” Biale wrote. Theodor Herzl, in particular, hoped that if the Jews could just establish a European-enough state, antisemitism would be solved. “Precisely because the Jews established a state like all the European states, they would be accepted as equals in the family of nations. If they could not assimilate as individuals in Europe, their state could assimilate in a world of states.” (If there is anything the 19th and 20th centuries have taught us, it is that regimes of genocidal violence undergird European-style states.)

Back in the 1980s, Biden was glad to talk about Israel in the supposedly neutral language of foreign relations. Between then and now, though, he’s spent more and more time telling his Jewish constituents that supporting a faraway, genocidal regime isn’t about international politics but the safety of individual Jews everywhere.

Biden’s comments collapse American Jews into nothing more than an Israel-lobby group with a religion attached. The idea that Jews are not, in fact, a monolith—that, for instance, there are Jews who think that the existence of a violently enforced Jewish ethno-state might make them less, not more, safe in the world—does not appear to have occurred to him. But that reforging of Jewish individual and communal safety into an American political weapon is part of what makes so many anti-Zionist Jews determined to confront him.

The group that’s gotten closest to him since his campaign began systematically evading protesters is probably Jewish Voice for Peace. At the end of February, the organization received a tip that Biden would be filming at 30 Rockefeller Center.

They made it to within 100 feet of Biden, according to spokesperson Jay Saper. The protesters chanted for a free Palestine, carried banners updated to read “LASTING” above “CEASEFIRE,” and threatened to withhold their votes from Biden. Counterterrorism police yanked their banners out of their hands and handcuffed them as Biden filmed with Seth Meyers, casually dangling the idea of a cease-fire while munching a mint-chip ice cream cone.

It’s not clear whether Biden was at all interested in the 51 Jewish Voice for Peace protesters arrested in the lobby. But as he reiterated his favorite line in his Meyers interview, he told those Jews that without American support for Israel they’d be unsafe. They told him, instead, that protecting them is his job, not Benjamin Netanyahu’s.

To the extent that the White House is picking up on the popular rage around the indiscriminate killing in Gaza, it has responded by trotting out a version of Biden’s chosen framework around Israel. Speaking to NPR after the success of the “uncommitted” campaign in the Michigan primaries, Biden’s campaign director, Mitch Landrieu, implied that were there not a Joe Biden, Muslim and Arab Americans would not be safe.

“We’re going to…ask [Michigan voters] to think about the choices and what the consequences are about electing somebody who wants to have a Muslim ban, electing somebody who is going to be much, much worse than the difficult circumstances that we have right now,” Landrieu said.

American Jews are being told they will never be safe at home unless the Israeli military’s violence remains well-funded abroad. American Muslims are being told that they will only be safe at home if Muslims are not safe abroad. In this equation, neither community wins. It’s no wonder that many are refusing these terms.

It’s clear that those protesting for a cease-fire and a free Palestine through civil disobedience, through uncommitted votes, through fundraisers to evacuate Palestinian families—even, in the case of Aaron Bushnell, through the sacrifice of their own life—are far more clear in their purpose and strategy than Joe Biden. So far, Biden’s only been able to offer his constituents catchphrases, theoretical, temporary pauses in the violence instead of a real cease-fire, and, most gallingly, verbal posturing about the supposed safety Israel provides rather than a movement to save real, human lives that Israel is obliterating.

Jewish and Muslim Americans alike deserve, and demand, more than slogans. Gaza deserves seriousness. Those mobilizing for Palestinian rights here in the US—from Girl Scouts in Missouri to grandmothers in New York—deserve that, too. Biden would be well-advised not to take their votes for granted. And he ought to stop acting as if Jewish Americans are Israel’s problem—and, even more importantly, stop using Jews as cover for his ongoing support of genocide.

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Sophie Hurwitz

Sophie Hurwitz is a Brooklyn-based reporter and fact-checker.

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