Metro Views: Obama, don't sling more 'pork' at the State Department

The 'special envoy on anti-Semitism' position is superfluous.

By MARILYN HENRY
August 8, 2009 21:50
3 minute read.
Metro Views: Obama, don't sling more 'pork' at the State Department

Obama 248.88. (photo credit: AP)

I cringe to refer to pork, Jews and anti-Semitism in the same sentence, but there you have it. From day one, the US State Department office on anti-Semitism was pork-barrel politics. In a waste of federal dollars, Congress in 2004 passed an election-season sop intended to curry favor with Jews who thought they would be safer if the US government employed someone with a title to monitor anti-Semitism. At the time I thought it was a superfluous addition to the State Department, which already had its anti-anti-Semitism cogs in gear. The State Department also didn't want it; the office was seen as a nuisance in an agency that already publishes reports on international religious freedom as well as human rights abuses, including incidents of anti-Semitism. (Jews may not think the Department does enough, but when I was a Jerusalem Post reporter in Central and Eastern Europe in the 1990s, I found the staff of American embassies vigilant in monitoring anti-Semitism and various forms of racism.) When the time came for President Barack Obama to staff the State Department, I for one thought he should leave the position of special envoy for monitoring and combating anti-Semitism vacant. True, the office had been created and authorized by Congress, but that's no special reason to fill it. No one believes that congressional (or Knesset, for that matter) action routinely springs from the finest of motives. (Otherwise, Americans would not be smarting from Alaska's "Bridge to Nowhere" - a plan to spend $400 million on a bridge to replace a ferry linking the town of Ketchikan with an island that had 50 residents and an airport.) IN THE Obama administration, many federal positions have yet to be filled. This special anti-Semitism envoy is one of them, a fact that apparently has harmed no one, but offends Dr. Rafael Medoff, founding director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies. In a monograph due to be published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, Medoff writes that "foot-dragging on the selection sends a message that anti-Semitism is not of great importance to the United States." (The Wyman Institute, by the way, actively promoted the creation of the office.) In Medoff's view, "America's response to anti-Semitism in some ways echoes the controversies of the 1930s and 1940s, when president Franklin Roosevelt and the State Department were likewise reluctant to take action against anti-Semitism abroad. Government officials today should take note of the terrible consequences of America's silence." Further, in The Politics of the American Response to Global Anti-Semitism, Medoff is concerned that the State Department's opposition to a special office for anti-Semitism, based on "singling out" the Jews for special attention, "echoed a troubling chapter in America's past." HIS JUXTAPOSITION of Roosevelt and Obama in this instance is jarring and seems to serve little purpose other than to provide an opportunity for Medoff to remind the world that during the Nazi era the US government failed to act. But he does so by taking a cudgel to the Obama administration for failure to staff an obscure sinecure in the State Department, as if this constitutes "the abandonment of the Jews" redux, to borrow Wyman's famous book title. This is unfair and distorted. One must read some 2,000 words, or half of Medoff's monograph, to be told that was then (FDR's era), and this is now (Obama's). "Today's anti-Semitic violence in Europe and anti-Semitic propaganda in the Arab media cannot be compared to the annihilation of 6 million Jews by the Nazis. Nor will the actions of today's State Department regarding anti-Semitism result in consequences similar to those suffered by Jews because of State Department during the Holocaust." No kidding. And anyone still concerned about bias at Foggy Bottom - the nickname of the State Department neighborhood - should recall that it was the department that cajoled, browbeat and jawboned more than 40 nations to meet last June in Prague to discuss the restoration of Nazi-confiscated Jewish properties. It also pressured the Prague international conference to approve a declaration that recognized the rise of anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial, and called on the international community to be stronger in monitoring and responding to such incidents. Anti-Semitism and racism are real, but people concerned with bigotry and Holocaust-era grievances with FDR should not expect to solve them by having Obama sling more pork at the State Department.


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