Under Biden, the real fight against antisemitism can resume

No envoy can effectively show the way to American and foreign diplomats if he or she is overburdened, misdirected, undermined by the president, and reduced to little more than a political operative.

US Special Envoy for Monitoring and Combating Antisemitism, Elan Carr, speaks during a news conference in Munich, Germany, October 29, 2019. (photo credit: ANDREAS GEBERT/REUTERS)
US Special Envoy for Monitoring and Combating Antisemitism, Elan Carr, speaks during a news conference in Munich, Germany, October 29, 2019.
The incoming Biden administration promises to restore credibility and impact to a full range of human rights priorities, including the international fight against antisemitism.
Given the troubling record of the past four years – ignoring or even promoting right-wing antisemitism, using spurious accusations of antisemitism to counter critics – and generally devaluing the principles of human rights and mutual respect at home and abroad – this task, though formidable, is eminently achievable.
In the early 2000s, my colleagues and I worked with Republicans and Democrats to build up an international mandate for monitoring and combating antisemitism, and together we crafted and steered the Global Antisemitism Review Act (GARA) of 2004 into law. Most potently, GARA created the post of US special envoy to monitor and combat Antisemitism (SEAS).
Until the Donald Trump’s presidency, each Democratic or Republican appointee focused on a wide range of antisemitic manifestations without becoming a prop for domestic political gain or diverted to Washington’s equally important – but distinct – support for Israel. These diverse individuals, along with their bosses in the State Department and the White House, appreciated that defending Jews from hate crimes and hateful speech overseas can be easily hampered if it’s narrowly framed as part of the pro-Israel agenda rather than as a straight-up appeal to human rights and civil society.
Past administrations cared enough about Israel and about the rights of Jews worldwide to avoid conflating both portfolios. They also refrained from using the SEAS for domestic goals or taking cheap political shots. Unfortunately, Trump and his team have shown no such hesitations.
Last summer, Trump’s SEAS envoy, Elan Carr, used his official Twitter account to accuse the progressive and US-based J Street of antisemitism because it opposes Israeli plans to annex the West Bank. Aside from the spurious and off-topic charge, State Department officials are supposed to be accountable to US citizens and not vice versa.
Echoing this central caveat, GARA specifically restricts the SEAS envoy to “monitoring and combating acts of antisemitism and antisemitic incitement that occur in foreign countries…” While there are many lessons from the American experience that the State Department can offer to foreign countries, it’s specifically not the job of the antisemitism envoy to raise concerns or take sides about what’s going on at home.
Aside from the legal restrictions on domestic and partisan entanglements, State Department resources and budgets are stretched very thin. There’s simply too much antisemitism – and too much reluctance by governments to deal with it – for the SEAS envoy to be the one sounding alarms about BDS on American college campuses. That’s neither useful nor appropriate.
The United States has multiple avenues for addressing Jewish concerns, and – while they can often overlap – each plays a distinct role. Domestically, numerous civil rights offices exist within federal agencies such as the Departments of Education and of Justice, in addition to the more independent US Commission on Civil Rights and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Comparable offices and commissions exist on the state level and in many cities.
Neither fighting antisemitism nor standing up for Israel needs to take precedence or come at the expense of the other. Foreign leaders and societies resorting to antisemitic tropes to win elections must be held to account regardless of how accommodating they have been to an Israeli government.
We can debate whether anti-Zionism should be treated the same as calling for attacks on Jewish schools and synagogues. But we can all agree that anti-Zionism is at least anti-Israel. And holding foreign governments accountable for discriminating against Israel is already part of the core mission of the US Mission to the UN.
The Commerce Department’s Office of Antiboycott Compliance is dedicated exclusively to countering the Arab League boycott of Israel, and accomplishes its assignment without accusing boycotters of antisemitism. No matter how certain we are that the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement is anti-Zionist or antisemitic, asserting as much doesn’t open any new doors for Israel or for fighting the kind of antisemitism that nearly all governments agree is unacceptable.
The antisemitism envoy’s limited time and small staff are much better spent in coordinating among more than 300 US missions around the world, visiting and reporting on trouble spots, coordinating with allies and advocating for robust measures against antisemitism occurring outside the United States.
Given the outgoing administration’s embrace of “America First” and other antisemitic narratives, along with much wider appeals to racism and xenophobia, US advocates for pluralism and human rights – including the next SEAS envoy – will need a good deal more humility when admonishing foreign governments on these issues. We may even realize more progress with less lecturing and with more commonality about xenophobic threats to which Americans have also proven susceptible.
Using the SEAS mandate as a magic button for canceling critics of American or Israeli practices – many of whom also happen to be fighting for the kinds of pluralistic societies that welcome rather than exclude Jews – undermines its very purpose.
In an ironic twist, Special Envoy Carr recently threatened to label Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and Oxfam as antisemitic. Whether or not we think they support BDS – and even though we don’t enjoy when they criticize Israeli practices – their work advances US interests in promoting freedom and democracy, and makes Jews and other minorities safer around the world and in the United States.
The founders of Human Rights Watch were specifically inspired by the atrocities of World War II (i.e., the Holocaust). Like HRW, Amnesty defends dissidents & human rights activists around the world. Oxfam spends 77% of its budget on development programs and disaster relief. If there are concerns about specific individuals or statements, the SEAS envoy should try working with these organizations before convicting them in absentia.
The GARA legislation specifically mandates the SEAS envoy to “consult with domestic and international nongovernmental organizations and multilateral organizations and institutions” in fulfilling the core mission of fighting antisemitism. Not only is it logically tenuous to brand major human rights organizations as antisemitic, it significantly hampers coordination in the fight against antisemitism and in defense of all human rights. The Anti-Defamation League said as much when reacting to this blacklisting attempt.
In launching his broadside, Carr relied on the so-called “working definition” of antisemitism, which the State Department and international agencies have adopted as a uniform standard for compiling data and tracking trends more consistently. While this definition offers Israel-related examples – such as denying Israel’s right to exist or calling it a racist state – it was never intended as a license to penalize or restrict the free speech rights of Israel’s critics.
If you’re fighting antisemitism by undermining the rights of others, then you are doing it wrong. The more that universal rights are recognized and upheld, the better for US interests and the safer for Jews. When we tear down these institutions and disparage or impede human rights advocates – and when the State Department stops training American diplomats to be more inclusive – we give antisemitism a free pass.
Even the most disciplined SEAS envoy cannot ask other countries to do more than the United States is willing to do itself. After the Trump administration’s 2017 budget proposal cut all funding to Homeland Security’s community-based CVE (Countering Violent Extremism) programs in the US, our efforts vis-à-vis foreign countries rang hollow.
This shameful retreat from the pluralism and protection agenda has been repeatedly underscored by a president who said there were “very fine people on both sides” in Charlottesville, told Jewish Republicans “I’m a negotiator like you folks,” used classic antisemitic tropes to demonize Jews, praised antisemitic QAnon conspiracy theories, and urged white nationalist Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by.” If Trump were any foreign leader, the SEAS envoy would have his hands full.
President-elect Joe Biden’s commitment to fighting antisemitism – rather than leveraging it for political gain – will return the White House to a tradition of defending Jewish rights, which dates back at least to Theodore Roosevelt. The SEAS envoy will again be empowered to focus on monitoring and combating antisemitism, reinforced by a renewed US championing of pluralism and human rights around the world.
No envoy can effectively show the way to American and foreign diplomats if he or she is overburdened, misdirected, undermined by the president, and reduced to little more than a political operative. Under our next president, we won’t have to worry. And we must ensure we never do again.
The writer, a senior fellow at The Dietrich Bonhoeffer Institute, is a consultant, lobbyist, and former executive director of the World Jewish Congress American Section. (Twitter: @shaifranklin)