Hannah Rosenthal and U.S. efforts to combat anti-Semitism
The Obama administration initially ignored human rights and now has given nice speeches but taken little action. After Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's speech this week on democracy in the Middle East, there was considerable doubt that this represented a real change in policy. One Capitol advisor told me: "The Obama administration is devoting more rhetorical energy to the issue, which is an improvement, since rhetoric counts for a lot. But is there any evidence that they are really committed on this, or thinking seriously about what a serious democracy/human rights/governance strategy in the Middle East would look like? I don't see it."
With that question in mind, I interviewed Hannah Rosenthal, the State Department's special envoy to combat anti-Semitism. She is the child of a Holocaust survivor and is passionate about her work. Less clear is how seriously the administration takes her work and whether her hiring merely allowed the administration to "check the box."
I began with a simple question: What are the consequences for countries in Europe, South America and the Middle East that spew anti-Semitic rhetoric or condone and encourage anti-Semitism? In a lengthy interview, I never quite got an answer. She responded that her own hiring is more than "a baby step." She said that it is important that she has a "seat at the table" and has "made major observations" in her year on the job. She touted her ability to spur non-Jewish leaders to speak out about anti-Semitism. That is all very commendable, but what are the consequences for those who persist in peddling anti-Semitism?
The State Department employs Natan Sharansky's methodology for distinguishing anti-Israel criticism from anti-Semitism. Namely, language or conduct that demonizes, delegitimizes or imposes a double-standard on the Jewish state is anti-Semitism. Rosenthal enthusiastically described internal training for State Department officials to help them understand the distinction.
Is a Time magazine cover story that asserts Jews in Israel only care about money or another article that analogizes the current climate in Israel to fascism in the 1930's over the line? She said without hesitation, "That is absolutely over the line." Those types of assertions, she said, "are made by people who do not know history or misread history."
What about during the flotilla incident when the UN Human Rights Council, European governments and Israel-bashing groups asserted that Israel was not competent to investigate its own conduct? Again, she was blunt: "I think when you hold Israel to a different standard, it is over the line."
Why do we remain in the UN Human Rights Council, which is arguably the most anti-Semitic body in on the planet? She insisted that "every time," we forcefully rebut such "hateful and disgusting" sentiments. (In practice, our UN advocates are less than thorough.) She revealed that the U.S. is working "slowly, slowly" toward repeal of Article 7 of the UNHRC's charter that singles Israel out for specific condemnation. But what is the consequence if the UNHRC says it won't? That response "would have consequences," she said. What kind? She said she is "not going to negotiate through the media." Fair enough, but if we have already staked out the position that we must be there to respond to the anti-Semitic outbursts, it is hard to see what consequences would flow. Perhaps congressional oversight on this point would be helpful.
We then turned to the issue of Saudi textbooks. She said that she had just come from a meeting with the Gulf Institute. The institute published a report last summer documenting that, despite a promise from the king of Saudi Arabia to President George W. Bush, the king had delivered on his promise to scrub textbooks of anti-Semitic content. Rosenthal said that this issue will be one of her top priorities in 2011. She wants to do a complete evaluation of all the textbooks, go to Riyadh, and tell the Saudis that this is unacceptable. What if there is no change? She said there will be "a whole list of 'if/then,'' but she wouldn't go into particulars. Has the issue been raised with the king by the president or secretary of state? She said she doesn't know. (One would hope that she would ask that it be raised and get a read out.) She said she knows that they do talk generally about human rights. Would it be beneficial for the president to go to the Middle East and talk about anti-Semitism? She said wistfully, "We hope someday." She then insisted that "it is always under discussion."
Anti-Semitism is on the rise in South America and Europe, so I asked what the consequences are for those countries if they perpetuate anti-Semitism. Rosenthal vividly described her visit last fall to Venezuela, noting that violence and kidnapping are so pervasive that young people want to leave. She also described a meeting with four members of the national assembly in which she urged them to talk to President Hugo Chavez about his rhetoric sounding increasingly like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's. As for consequences, she said it is very "complicated," because Chavez has rejected our ambassador. Nothing apparently is in the works at Foggy Bottom, either.
We moved on to Europe. Rosenthal said that she finds it "particularly painful" that throughout Europe incidents are multiplying. She said she sees Holocaust denial, neo-Nazi groups, and incidents such as one in which bricks were thrown at a Jewish dancer. What are do we say to allies? She confessed, "I don't know until we come up with a plan" for countries to implement. She acknowledged that Germany is replete with official efforts (museums, school trips to Holocaust camps, etc.), but still the problem persists. She cited as a positive notes Lithuania's designation of 2011 as a year to commemorate the Holocaust. She is enthusiastic about "a whole year of programing."
We then discussed alleged "Islamaphobia" and how it compares to anti-Semitism in the U.S. (The latter, according to a recent F.B.I. report, is on the rise.) Rosenthal said that she stays away from the U.S., dealing with anti-Semitism as a foreign policy matter. Internationally, then, is the extent of Islamaphobia exaggerated at the expense of attention on more prevalent anti-Semitism? She said her approach is very "strategic," meaning that her goal is to get Muslims and other non-Jews to speak out against anti-Semitism. Likewise, she said she is gathering statements from Jewish groups condemning Islamaphobia. She described with great pride an international conference in which she and the State Department representative to Muslim communities, Farah Pandith, "traded scripts," with Pandith reading the statement on anti-Semitism and Rosenthal reading the one on Islamaphobia. That really woke them up at the meeting, she said. She diplomatically replied to my question as to whether anti-Semitism isn't a whole lot worse: "I respectfully disagree that [Islamaphobia] is non-existent." (I didn't ask if it was "nonexistent.") She continued, "It needs to be condemned." She contended that what's important is to get groups that are "hated" to condemn the haters and not each other. The price, it seems, for getting Muslim co-operation is to draw equivalence between Islamaphobia and anti-Semitism. And what do we do about Muslim groups that themselves are propagating anti-Semitism?
As for Israeli ambassador Michael Oren, Rosenthal said they enjoy a very collegial relationship. Any animosity between them, she said, "is not only behind me... but was made up." (Speculation arose when Rosenthal condemned Oren's decision not to attend the leftwing J Street conference.)
Will she advise administration figures not to attend (as former National Security Advisor James Jones did in 2009), this year's J Street conference if it features groups or individuals who go over the line into anti-Semitism? Rosenthal, a former board member of J Street, deflected the question, saying that her focus is outside the U.S. Besides, she said, she thinks she'll be in Vienna then. (I guess she is at least following the schedule.) But what, as part of her State Department training, would she tell top officials? She said that "if someone is planning to attend and asks 'what do you think'," she would see if there was a "red flag." She said that she has "no idea" if that will happen. It doesn't sound very pro-active. But pro-Israel groups concerned about administration attendance might help highlight the red flags for Rosenthal.
I asked how she is going to measure success. Well, it can't be the number of incidents, she explained, because she "is training people to do more reporting [of anti-Semitic] incidents." Success would be "if we got more groups and individuals to condemn anti-Semitism." At an upcoming international meeting, success would also be if the "people go back to insists" that governments and media not perpetuate anti-Semitism. Missing is any actual downturn in anti-Semitism or change in governments' behavior.
Is the job harder than she imagined? "It is different," she said. "I'm an advocate." In that mode she would be "shouting louder" and challenging "baby steps." But she has come to appreciate those baby steps and the ability to say "shame on you" to purveyors of anti-Semitism.
One can't help but wonder if she wouldn't be more valuable back in her advocacy role. Certainly, she'd be demanding results and decrying equivalence between Islamaphobia and anti-Semitism. I was struck by her passion, her energy and her travel schedule (rivaling George Mitchell in frequent flyer miles). And still, it seems the White House isn't terribly engaged on the issue. For if the president is not raising the issue with leaders, not giving speeches in the countries where problem exists, and not employing tangible carrots and sticks to impact the conduct of governments, the U.S. really has no effective policy to combat anti-Semitism.
Posted by: csw18 | January 16, 2011 4:41 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Renfro1 | January 17, 2011 2:58 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: Beniyyar | January 17, 2011 4:57 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: ericdondero | January 17, 2011 5:28 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: Inagua1 | January 17, 2011 8:18 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: Boils | January 17, 2011 1:46 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: freespeechlover | January 18, 2011 12:54 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: kindness1 | January 18, 2011 2:07 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Wellstone | January 18, 2011 2:14 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: kindness1 | January 18, 2011 3:38 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Shingo1 | January 18, 2011 4:01 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Shingo1 | January 18, 2011 4:06 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Shingo1 | January 18, 2011 4:17 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Shingo1 | January 18, 2011 4:22 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: hallam1 | January 19, 2011 9:53 AM | Report abuse