A man wearing a kippah listens to speakers during an anti-Semitism protest at Berlin's Brandenburg Gate.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The US State Department’s post of special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism was established in 2004, during the presidency of George W. Bush.
Now, 13 years later, US President Donald Trump is seeking to do away with the position.
We urge him to reconsider. Antisemitism is an issue that should be taken seriously by the Trump administration. Allowing the position to stay vacant sends the misleading message that this administration does not take antisemitism seriously enough.
But a warm body is not enough. Filling the position is important. But no less important is choosing the right person. The ideal candidate should clarify, not obscure, the main forces behind contemporary antisemitism. There have been good and bad envoys in the past.
Gregg Rickman, the first envoy, was particularly adept at identifying and publicizing the fact that delegitimization of the Jewish state is in yet another strain of antisemitism.
Singling out Israel for special condemnation or denying Israel the right to exist, let alone defend itself, was often motivated by irrational hatred for Jews, Rickman noted. Therefore, no rational argument, appeal to reason or presentation of facts could convince the Israel-basher to disown his or her positions.
Much less effective was Rickman’s successor, Hannah Rosenthal, a former Clinton administration official, who became envoy more than a year after Rickman’s departure following Barack Obama’s election in 2008. Even before her appointment, Rosenthal, who served on the advisory board of J Street, had distinguished herself by being publicly called to order by the Anti-Defamation League.
Abe Foxman, former head of the ADL, wrote an open letter to Rosenthal after she attacked speakers at an Israel Solidarity Rally that included Jewish Agency head Natan Sharansky and former US Senate minority leader Harry Reid, for their “narrow, ultra-conservative views of what it means to be pro-Israel...” After she became envoy, Rosenthal devoted much of her airtime to denouncing Islamophobia, so much so that her predecessor, Rickman, suggested she be rebranded “special envoy to monitor Islamophobia.”
We do not suspect Trump is opposed to fighting antisemitism. The decision to ax the position is part of a policy to do away with special envoy posts to save taxpayers’ dollars.
It could be that Trump, unlike Bush, does not see the international fight against antisemitism as a means of using US power and influence to promote liberty around the world. He views it as a waste of money.
Speaking in “America first” mode, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told Congress last month that a special envoy in the State Department might actually hurt efforts to fight antisemitism on the US state level. State officials, suggested Tillerson, might be overly reliant on the federal level official to fight antisemitism and would not do enough locally.
However, the original rationale for appointing a special envoy still exists, provided the right person is chosen.
The driving force behind the 2004 Global Anti-Semitism Review Act that created the position, the small staff of aides and the modest budget was the late congressman Tom Lantos, a Holocaust survivor. The push to pass the bill, which began in the early 2000s, coincided with an uptick in antisemitic incidents, particularly in Europe.
The Second Intifada that broke out in 2000 triggered a new form of European antisemitism intimately connected to anti-Zionism. Attacks against Jews perpetrated by the far Right were outnumbered by attacks carried out by the masses of immigrants from Muslim countries and their offspring who were outraged by Israel’s efforts to defend itself against Palestinian suicide bombers and shooters. Adding fuel to the fire were elements on the progressive Left that depicted Israel as a colonialist occupier and conveniently ignored or justified the violence of Islamist terrorist groups.
The French Human Right Commission reported six times more antisemitic incidents in 2002 in France than in the previous year. If anything, the situation has only gotten worse in Europe since.
Lantos’s legacy must live on. But appointing a special envoy is not enough. The candidate should not shy away from identifying the sources of the newest and deadliest forms of violent antisemitism.