Anti-Jewish attitudes can 'impact rest of world'

Ira Forman, the US State Department’s new anti-Semitism czar, tells the ‘Post’ he has a lot to learn.

June 2, 2013 23:58
4 minute read.
Ira Forman

Ira Forman370. (photo credit: Sam Sokol)

Ira Forman, newly appointed State Department Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, says he has “a lot to learn.”

Having only been appointed to his position around a week before speaking with The Jerusalem Post last Wednesday in Jerusalem at the Foreign Ministry’s Global Forum for Combating Anti- Semitism, Forman said that he was focused on seeking out “advice from a lot of folks” in attendance who have been involved in the fight against anti- Semitism.

“I’ve been on the job one week and I really think it’s really important [that I am here] to listen and learn,” he said.

The State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism was created in 2004 with the passing of the Global Anti-Semitism Review Act, and Forman – former director of the National Jewish Democratic Council – is now the third official to head it.

Forman’s appointment comes on the heels of a State Department report describing “a continued global increase in anti-Semitism” and the rise of the far Right in several European nations.

Asked where he would focus his efforts, Forman said that he was still assessing the current global situation.

“My job right now is to listen and with my staff – we have a very competent staff back in Washington – really sit and make priorities. No matter how much we are the superpower in the world,” he said, resources are not unlimited, “so its very important for us to prioritize.

“I’ll be able to answer a lot better in coming months,” he said.

One guiding principal for his work, Forman elaborated, is determining “where can we relieve people the most effectively?” Forman said that he has been kept busy by his new position, flying out to visit Auschwitz with several Islamic religious leaders only hours after being appointed. “Since then I’ve been oversees,” he said.

Upon his return to Washington, he told the Post, he intended to take a serious look at issues of anti-Semitism around the globe, taking into account the needs of American diplomacy.

“Congress clearly made [battling anti- Semitism] a priority when it created this position,” he said. However, while he explained that “in a general terms I can say we will have serious influence” on foreign policy, “there will be all kinds of other bilateral and multilateral issues confronting us.

“That’s going to be part of the whole mix with all of these other factors. It’s a classic social science environment where it’s not the natural sciences where you can have a controlled experiment.

You have almost an infinite number of variables that you are looking at.”

Forman told the Post that a large part of his job “is to give our foreign service officers help [for] them [to] understand the phenomena” of anti-Semitism.

“You take a country like Hungary as your example,” he said. “This is a sizable Jewish community for Europe. That’s one guiding principle.” However, “for any given country, there will be all kinds of other bilateral and multilateral issues confronting us,” he said.

Asked about Israeli government officials who have accused to the Palestinian Authority of inciting anti-Semitism in their official media and the relation of his work to the peace process, Forman replied that he was “going to be very careful to really compartmentalize” and not to mix in directly with the peace process.

“Obviously we talk with lots of other people about their priorities but we’ve got to be careful we don’t mix those missions,” he said.

Despite much of the world’s focus on anti-Semitism in countries such as Hungary and France, with their sizable Jewish communities, Forman said that he was also interested in combating hate in “countries with minimal or actually no Jewish populations that have problems with anti-Semitism.”

You cannot say that combating anti- Semitism in countries without a Jewish presence is “irrelevant,” he said, because such attitudes can “impact the rest of the world.” Forman sees his task as a “crusade,” he said, apologizing for using such a “loaded term.”

However, he indicated, such an appellation may be appropriate, given the emotion this “tough issue” stirs up and that way it is “affecting people’s lives.”

Forman expressed gratitude to many of the international Jewish leaders who attended the forum organized by the Israeli Foreign Ministry, saying that he is “going to need some of that energy from people who are already involved in this” field.

Calling himself something of “an amateur historian when it comes to Jewish history and anti-Semitism,” Forman said that he intends to use history as a guide to understanding the present, even if events never repeat themselves exactly.

Forman recalled a colleague who once told him that using using history as a guide to the past is like trying to drive a car with the front windshield taped over.

“I agreed with him immediately and said that’s absolutely true, but trying to understand the future without history is like having that front windshield taped over but also the side windows and the back windows. With history, at least I have the side windows and the back windows.

“We have a whole historical record of the twentieth century where the Great Depression helped give rise to these fascists movements in Europe and for me, I’m interested in what we can learn from that and what we are seeing in right-wing nationalist xenophobic movements in Europe that are generating, in some cases, anti-Semitism,” he said.

JTA contributed to this report.

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