Metro Views: Needed: A single American Jewish address in the battle against anti-Semitism

Needed: A single US Jewish address in battle against anti-Semitism.

Durban 248.88 ap (photo credit: )
Durban 248.88 ap
(photo credit: )
While President-elect Barack Obama is busy naming key members of the incoming American administration, there is one office he can ignore for the next four years: the State Department's Special Envoy for Monitoring and Combating Anti-Semitism. This is not to suggest that anti-Semitism has declined around the world, as it has declined in the US. There is a lot of racism to be confronted, a task the Jewish community apparently does not do very well, despite a plethora of voluntary agencies devoted to the cause. But the State Department office, which was created by the Global Anti-Semitism Awareness/Review Act four years ago in the midst of the previous presidential election, is superfluous, at least within the State Department. It appeared to be a sop for Jewish voters. President George W. Bush had brought his re-election campaign to Florida - rich with Jewish voters - when he announced he had signed the law on global anti-Semitism awareness. Was there anyone who really wasn't aware of this evil before then? In 2005, the US issued its report on global anti-Semitism. State Department officials, at a press briefing, seemed to twist themselves into knots trying to define anti-Semitism, when some sentiments depended on the context. "Zionist," for instance, is a descriptive word that sounds menacing in the mouths of Iranians. But the department officials stumbled trying to distinguish anti-Semitism from anti-Israel attitudes, which were escalating. "It's kind of 'you know it when you see it.' You have to look at what the person saying it has - what are they trying to convey," said Michael Kozak, then acting assistant secretary for democracy, human rights and labor. (Years back, a friend showed me a political cartoon, from a European newspaper, castigating the policies of Ariel Sharon. In the cartoon, Sharon was wearing a yarmulke. Did that make it anti-Semitic? Would it be merely anti-Israel if Sharon had been bare-headed?) The State Department also seemed uneasy by the anti-Semitism awareness law's creation of another special office within the agency. IN THE case of anti-Semitism, that seemed to be a practical response. The department already monitors and documents anti-Semitism in two annual reports: on international religious freedom and on human rights. The department also has its Office of Holocaust Issues, which deals with the restitution of Nazi-era looted assets, as well as an international task force on Holocaust education. The new office appeared to be just another office that planned to do what others offices already were doing. It took more than a year for the State Department to appoint a "special envoy for monitoring and combating anti-Semitism." It was Gregg Rickman, who was best known in Jewish circles for his work on dormant Jewish accounts in Swiss banks for the former Republican senator from New York, Alphonse D'Amato. In a report issued earlier this year, Rickman, relying on data from Tel Aviv University's Stephen Roth Institute for the Study of Contemporary Anti-Semitism and Racism, reported that there were 593 major anti-Semitic incidents registered worldwide in 2006, compared to 406 in 2005. "The sharp increase included major attacks perpetrated with a weapon and intent to kill (19 compared to 15 in 2005) and serious incidents of violence and vandalism aimed at Jewish persons, property, and institutions (574 compared to 391 in 2005)," the report said. However unnerving for the Jewish community, this hardly warrants an office and a special envoy in the State Department. Further, other minorities often are more endangered than Jews. In the US, gays and lesbians are victims of more - and more serious - crimes than are Jews, according to the FBI's annual report on hate crimes. Because Rickman is a political appointee, and was not designated for his post from among the American foreign service corps, he (like other political appointees) is expected to leave when a new administration comes into office. There are those who would argue that the State Department's special envoy is essential because of the so-called "Durban II" conference in April in Geneva. The conference follows up the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, which was held in South Africa in 2001. Durban became an arena for such sustained anti-Israel and anti-Semitic agitation that the Israeli and the US delegations withdrew. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said Israel would not attend Durban II and called on the international community not to participate, saying the conference "seeks to legitimize hatred and racism." IT IS HARD TO imagine that the Jewish community needs a special envoy in the US government to alert the first African-American president about the dangers of racism or to test his commitment to fight anti-Semitism. There are so many entities, including universities and US embassies, on the lookout for anti-Semitism, so many devoted to combating it - through education, tolerance training and shaming - and yet it is still here. It's either intractable as an ideology or a malleable and useful political tool - or the Jewish community worldwide needs to find better means not simply to report it, but to help societies eradicate it. This is not to suggest that duplicative Jewish organizations should merge or close. That's for their donors to decide; they vote with their checkbooks. In the US, these organizations survive or thrive on voluntary contributions from corporations and individuals. But financial matters aside, in the run-up to Durban II, it is time for the anti-Semitism combatants to coordinate, not to compete. If they don't, they risk becoming irrelevant and useless to Israel and their own Jewish constituents as nations prepare for the most important international conference on racism in eight years - regardless of whether Israel attends. Statesmen and governments looking for the American Jewish address for aid and support in the battle against bias won't find it. There is no single address; there are many. Some foreign emissaries have been known to run from pillar to post, from East Coast to West, trying to cover all the appropriate Jewish organizational bases. It's an exhausting exercise that wastes time and squanders good will. Or they can avoid the irritation, and just ask the State Department, which today has four offices that know something of the topic.