In the days following President Joe Biden’s inauguration, several leading members of Phoenix’s Jewish community are cautiously optimistic about the likelihood of big improvements when it comes to dealing with COVID-19, anti-Semitism and immigration. But there remains skepticism about what the future holds in terms of the U.S.-Israel relationship.
After more than 400,000 Americans have died from COVID-19 in the past year, Heather Ross, a clinical assistant professor at Arizona State University’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society and Edson College of Nursing and Health Innovation, is hoping the incoming administration will be able to improve the vaccination process and implement protective measures against the virus.
Ross expects to see a “significant difference” in the local distribution of COVID-19 vaccines with Biden at the helm.
“The residents of Arizona, and here in the Greater Phoenix area, have been led to believe for many, many months that when it came time to get vaccinated, that would be orchestrated by Maricopa County. And when the Arizona Department of Health Services swept in and started setting up separate vaccination pods and locations and rules — it’s been extremely confusing for our community members,” she said. “I hear it every single day: ‘What am I supposed to do? What are the rules?’”
Hours after being inaugurated Jan. 20, Biden signed an executive order implementing a mask mandate on federal property. The following day he mandated mask wearing in airports and on public transportation.
Ross, who is also an adviser to Mayor Kate Gallego, said she is “absolutely thrilled to see a commitment to masking,” and is eager to see additional funding and resources for testing and vaccine delivery.
She is also happy to see more help go to local governments. “Cities know their communities absolutely the best,” she said. “Cities are in the best position to know how to get vaccines into those vulnerable neighborhoods.”
Although unsure when things will get less confusing on the ground, she noted Biden’s goal to vaccinate 100 million people in his first 100 days in office, will require “a massive effort very quickly.”
Paul Rockower, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Phoenix, anticipates change on a different issue.
“There’s been a growing concern about rising anti-Semitism here in Arizona and across the country,” Rockower said. “It’s a matter of the national tone, and I think we can expect to see some change.”
Biden’s swearing in came fast on the heels of a violent protest at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. One man wore a “Camp Auschwitz” T-shirt that day, putting an exclamation mark on Rockower’s concern. He also highlighted local anti-Semitic incidents last year, including a banner with the words “Hitler was right” hung on an overpass, a Nazi flag unfurled at a Bernie Sanders rally and threats against a journalist from a Jewish publication as evidence of the problem.
“The fact that extremism is a real issue in this country,” Rockower said, is something that community and law enforcement partners are taking increasingly seriously. But he acknowledged there is much work that remains.
That work, in part, brought Rockower to Phoenix in 2019, after spending seven years in international diplomacy.
“It was Charlottesville, and seeing the Nazis marching through Charlottesville, and the shooting at the Pittsburgh synagogue that made me leave my international work behind and come get involved in a domestic context,” he said.
He is optimistic, however, that the new Biden administration will “take a very proactive stance” in addressing domestic extremism.
Immigration is another front where local leaders expect to see big changes.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz, founder of Arizona Jews for Justice, is excited about Biden’s commitment to reunite migrant families, but he’s also preparing for a new kind of border crisis. A substantial portion of AJJ’s work involves assisting asylum seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border. But since January 2019, when Donald Trump’s administration instituted the “Remain in Mexico” policy to deter asylum seekers from entering the U.S. on the southern border, there haven’t been many to assist. Biden has pledged to do away with the program, which means Phoenix and its Jewish community need to be prepared to help and welcome newcomers, Yanklowitz said.He anticipates up to 300 asylum seekers per day will need immediate assistance.
“We are right now calling for volunteers in the community,” he said, adding the group is in need of lawyers, medical professionals and people to contribute supplies and donations to cover costs. Fundraising over the past year has been a challenge, he added, and the effort is around $100,000 short of “where we need to be” within the next three months.
Still, he remains hopeful about the change in the White House. “This country was founded on inclusivity and was built by immigrants.”
Change is also likely in policies regarding Israel.
Jay Bycer, co-president of Arizona Friends of Magen David Adom, hopes the new administration’s first priority when it comes to Israel will be addressing the threat posed by Iran. Biden intends to rejoin the 2015 nuclear accord, from which the U.S. withdrew in May 2018, provided Tehran resumes compliance. Bycer is not necessarily opposed to re-entering the accord.
“If you re-enter the right way, it can be helpful,” he said.
He is eager for the new administration to continue the Abraham Accords and what he sees as its “great approach” to pursuing peace.
“When you think about Israel, and if you really know what Israel produces in terms of scientific, health and other kinds of opportunities and things to the world,” he said, “if there’s a good relationship among all of these countries, Israel and the world will thrive.”
In terms of Israel’s domestic affairs, including settlements, Bycer hopes the Biden administration won’t “mess with” them. Israel is its own country, he said, and should be able to address settlements how it sees fit. “If I was my own country, I wouldn’t want somebody else telling me what to do, like a big brother,” he said. JN