Commentary Magazine


Contentions

Do We Still Need a Special Envoy on Anti-Semitism?

Reading the remarks of Ira Forman, the State Department’s newly-appointed special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism, to a Washington D.C. gathering of the American Jewish Committee, I was seized by one heretical thought that was quickly followed by another. Are there any real benefits to be gained from the existence of this position? And does the special envoy help to clarify or obscure the reasons behind the persistence of anti-Semitism in our own time?

The position was created by the Global Anti-Semitism Review Act that was signed into law by President Bush in 2004. The act was authored by the late Democratic congressman Tom Lantos, a Holocaust survivor whose horror at the global upsurge in anti-Semitic beliefs and violence that accompanied the outbreak, in 2000, of the second Palestinian intifada led him to campaign for a dedicated State Department official to stay on top of the problem.

Bush was receptive because he regarded the fight against anti-Semitism as an essential component of promoting the values of liberty around the world. Announcing the act’s passage, Bush declared that “extending freedom also means confronting the evil of anti-Semitism.”

The first special envoy, Gregg Rickman, did an admirable job of setting the tone, particularly in explaining the intimate connections between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. That cannot have been an easy task, especially as Rickman’s main interlocutors were European diplomats, most of whom shudder at the idea that distaste for Israel can be motivated by distaste for Jews. When Rickman left government following President Obama’s election in 2008, the post remained vacant for more than a year before Hannah Rosenthal, a former Clinton administration official, was appointed.

With Rosenthal’s arrival, there was a notable shift in emphasis: whereas the Bush administration framed the fight against anti-Semitism as integral to the broader struggle for political liberty, under Obama it was repositioned as one of several components of a tolerance agenda. The excessive attention Rosenthal gave to prejudice against Muslims provoked her predecessor, Rickman, into advocating that she be rebranded as the “special envoy to monitor Islamophobia,” in order that “someone else who cares more about the fate and welfare of Jews” be appointed in her stead. 

It’s too early to predict whether Forman will attract the same controversy that Rosenthal did. Given his previous role as CEO of the National Jewish Democratic Council, expectations that he will stick his neck out on an issue that adds an unwelcome layer of complexity to the administration’s Middle East policies will be low to begin with. Nonetheless, several clues to his approach can be found in his Washington speech.

In broad terms, Forman made the right noises. His account of recent anti-Semitic outrages ­­from Hungary to Iran was certainly accurate, if pedestrian. But what was absent was any understanding of what makes anti-Semitism unique.

Charles Maurras, a notorious French anti-Semite of the 19th century, once observed that the great strength of Jew-hatred is that it “enables everything to be arranged, smoothed over, and simplified.” This, in turn, helps explain why anti-Semitism finds fertile ground in such culturally diverse locations as Venezuela and Egypt, as well as why it wins adherents on both left and right. Burying this distinctiveness in the name of a multi-ethnic coalition that regards all prejudices as equally toxic, as Rosenthal surely did during her time as special envoy, necessarily blunts an effective response.

A related criticism is that too much of the Special Envoy’s time is spent on commemorating past atrocities against Jews, at the expense of current problems.

In his speech to the AJC, Forman urged his audience “not to think that the picture is all bleak. There has been good news as well as bad.” However, the “good” news he related was exclusively concerned with Holocaust commemoration in Europe and the United States. What that ignores, of course, is the painful truth that it is much easier for a country like Belgium to commit itself to educating school kids about the Holocaust than it is to clamp down on the various Islamist groups agitating against Jews within its own borders.

A related passage of Forman’s speech was even more striking. He described a recent visit to Auschwitz with an unnamed “Palestinian imam” who left the extermination camp carrying the following conclusion:

Because the people here in Europe, with what they have faced in the past, they have overcome the discrimination, all the terrible things. And now they live with peace…with safety. This means we can, in the Holy Land, do the same thing. We can overcome our conflict, our wars, our people who were killed, and we can talk together to reach a peace.”

There is nothing wrong with talking about peace. But is gushing over the invocation of the Holocaust in a Palestinian appeal for peace in the “Holy Land” what a special envoy on anti-Semitism should be doing? Wouldn’t it be preferable to highlight the manner in which the hardwired anti-Semitism of groups like the Muslim Brotherhood both confounds the peace process and contributes to the insecurity of Diaspora Jewish communities? And if we are going to educate about the Holocaust, shouldn’t the stress be on how the mass genocide of the Jews was the culmination of centuries of anti-Semitism, rather than an abstract illustration of the inhumanity which human beings are capable of? Finally, isn’t the Holocaust the best illustration of just how exposed and vulnerable Jews are when they don’t have their own state?

It may be that articulating these arguments would push the special envoy into politically and diplomatically difficult terrain. If that’s the case, then arguably we’d better off if his position didn’t exist in the first place.