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Jack Kemp, who passed away on May 1, will be widely remembered as a prominent voice of conservatism who shaped the tax-cut policies of the Reagan administration. But he also deserves to be remembered for his willingness to cross party lines to challenge a Republican administration on the issue of anti-Semitism.
Throughout his life, Kemp defied the old stereotype of conservatives who were indifferent to the concerns of racial or religious minorities.
As an American Football League star in 1965, he pressured the league to move its all-star game out of New Orleans because African-American players were excluded from the city's nightclubs. As secretary of housing and urban development from 1988 to 1992, he promoted projects to help disadvantaged inner-city residents. And in 2004, he played a leading role in a crucial fight against the rising tide of global anti-Semitism.
That year, US Rep. Tom Lantos, Democrat of California, introduced legislation requiring the US government to create an office to monitor anti-Semitism around the world and devise ways to combat it. In view of the proliferation of anti-Semitic violence in many European countries and government-sponsored anti-Semitic propaganda in the Muslim world, US action was overdue.
The Lantos bill ran into opposition from the Bush administration. The State Department claimed it was unfair to show "favoritism" to Jews by "extending exclusive status to one religious or ethnic group." This, despite the fact that the State Department already had offices that extend "exclusive status" to various other groups or issues of concern, among them human rights in Tibet, human trafficking and women's rights. The State Department seemed unwilling to acknowledge that anti-Semites were singling out Jews, which is why the fight against anti-Semitism deserved specific and focused attention.
The State Department's position called to mind its moral failures during the Hitler era, when it blocked opportunities to rescue Jews and did its best to downplay the Jewish identity of Hitler's victims. Even though the Nazi regime had clearly singled out Jews for annihilation, statements by US officials about Nazi atrocities rarely mentioned the Jews by name, thus diverting public attention from the ongoing annihilation of millions of Jews.
TO BREAK the logjam of opposition to the Lantos bill, the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies began organizing a bipartisan letter by prominent Americans to demonstrate the broad range of public support for the legislation. Former congressman Stephen Solarz became the lead Democrat on the letter. But which Republicans would have the political courage to publicly challenge a Republican administration on this issue?
Jack Kemp was one of the first to do so. (Others included former US ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick and former senator Rudy Boschwitz.) His participation helped lift the issue of combating anti-Semitism above the partisan fray.
From the other side of the aisle, signatories included the Clinton administration's CIA director, R. James Woolsey, national security adviser Anthony Lake and the special US envoy for Holocaust matters, Stuart Eizenstat. Ultimately, more than 100 prominent political figures, diplomats, theologians, writers, artists and entertainers from across the political and religious spectrum joined.
A coalition this broad could not be ignored. The Bush administration soon dropped its opposition. The bill was adopted by Congress and signed into law by the president in October 2004. Congressman Lantos publicly credited the protest letter for making the difference.
It was not long before the initiative showed results. The bill's first requirement was a report by the State Department on anti-Semitism around the world. Issued in early 2005, the report presented the first official US government definition of anti-Semitism and, significantly, it stated that "the demonization of Israel or vilification of Israeli leaders, sometimes through comparisons with Nazi leaders, and through the use of Nazi symbols to caricature them, indicates an anti-Semitic bias rather than a valid criticism of policy concerning a controversial issue."
Equally important was that the report specifically included instances of Holocaust-denial in various countries as examples of anti-Semitism. There was no pretending that denying the Holocaust is just another interpretation of history.
Such achievements are more than merely symbolic, because it is the United States which sets the standard for the international community on such issues. Turning the tide against the haters requires firm American leadership on the battlefield of ideas. The creation of the US office for monitoring anti-Semitism was an important first step in that process, and Jack Kemp played an important role in its creation.
Whether one agrees or disagrees with the positions he took on specific issues, Kemp will be remembered as a man of integrity, who would not allow partisan political considerations to interfere with his principles - including the principle of combating anti-Semitism.
The writer is director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies. www.WymanInstitute.org