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(photo credit: AP)
The US State Department just added a set of teeth to its fledgling office monitoring anti-Semitism.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Wednesday named Gregg Rickman, a dogged investigator who has tracked the Swiss banks' role in the Holocaust, as the first special envoy for monitoring and combating anti-Semitism.
Jewish leaders unanimously agreed that the appointment would push the office monitoring anti-Semitism, in existence barely 18 months, to the department's front burner.
"It creates a strong point person that will be able to coordinate all the different parts of our government that deal with anti-Semitism," said Mark Levin, executive director of NCSJ, a group that advocates for Jews in the former Soviet Union and that lobbied for the position. "Without continued U.S. leadership, I'm not sure how much attention will be paid by our friends in Europe and elsewhere to anti-Semitism."
Congressional legislation sponsored by Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) and Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) created the office in late 2004 over the objection of State Department mandarins, who said it would just create an extra layer of bureaucracy and was unnecessary because the issue already was being addressed in the department's human rights monitoring.
So far the office, under the direction of Edward O'Donnell, special envoy for Holocaust issues, has produced just one report, in January 2005. Insiders said O'Donnell already was overworked in his capacity encouraging the rightful distribution of Holocaust assets, and the office sorely needed its own "boss."
Rickman's principal qualification for the job is his stint as a director on the Senate Banking Committee in the mid-1990s under the chairmanship of former Sen. Alfonse D'Amato (R-N.Y.), when it uncovered Swiss banks' role in hiding Nazi loot and keeping Jewish survivors from accessing their pre-Holocaust accounts. Rickman, who is Jewish, wrote an account of the investigation called "Swiss Banks and Jewish Souls."
"Gregg Rickman, working with Sen. D'Amato, is almost single-handedly the one who uncovered the corruption and the immorality of the Swiss banks," said William Daroff, vice president for public policy of the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella body of North American Jewish federations, and director of its Washington office.
Shai Franklin, executive director of the World Jewish Congress' American section, said Rickman understood all sides of the system.
"He's very familiar with how Capitol Hill works and he knows the Jewish community and he knows the Europeans, having opened up a lot of the channels in the Swiss gold issue," he said.
Together with NCSJ, Daroff led the effort for legislation creating the anti-Semitism office when he was congressional liaison for the Republican Jewish Coalition.
Rickman, who also was staff director for former Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (R-Ill.), succeeded Daroff at the RJC in 2004. The group reveled in the appointment of one of its own.
"It is very exciting to have an RJC alum serving in such an important position," said Matt Brooks, the group's executive director.
Rickman, 42, recently returned to the Hill, where he has directed the US House of Representatives subcommittee investigating the "oil for food" scandal implicating UN officials and others in receiving kickbacks from Saddam Hussein during the years Iraq was under sanction.
That kind of doggedness will serve him well in his new capacity, according to representatives of groups that liaise between Washington and small, vulnerable Jewish communities overseas.
"Putting someone in there who has the know-how and connections to do the job right at least gives the issue a fair shot," said Rabbi Levi Shemtov, who directs the Chabad-Lubavitch office in Washington.
Some Jewish groups had advocated for a scholar and someone with a less partisan background, but Rickman was the better choice, said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League.
"You don't need a scholar, you need a pragmatic civil servant who will be there, be articulate and be a liaison," he said.
Rickman's appointment will go a long way toward reassuring Jewish groups who were angered by the Bush administration's initial resistance to the Lantos-Voinovich legislation.
"We're very appreciative of the president and Secretary Rice making this appointment," said Nathan Diament, who directs the Orthodox Union's Washington office. "It's consistent with the work they've done to combat anti-Semitism throughout the Bush administration."
Rickman, who will be sworn in Monday, will not simply monitor anti-Semitism; he will inject the issue into every bilateral or multilateral arrangement where it's applicable.
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, cited as an example efforts to get the 55-member Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to encourage member nations to counter anti-Semitism.
"At a time when we're trying to get some governments to act through the OSCE, it'll be a full-time job," Hoenlein said. "We'll have someone who will privately and publicly express our concerns."
Daroff said Rickman's assignment will be twofold: dealing with official anti-Semitism and encouraging nations to combat anti-Semitism in their societies.
"This post empowers foreign policy and diplomacy," he said. "He can have a tremendous impact on combating anti-Semitism."