Op-Ed: New U.S. anti-Semitism envoy facing formidable task

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Hannah Rosenthal, President Obama’s nominee for the post of special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism, certainly has her work cut out for her.

According to the latest report from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, hate crimes remain “a serious problem” in the OSCE’s 56 member states. Yet, incredibly, only eight of the 56 governments provided the OSCE with data on recent anti-Semitic incidents in their countries. Clearly there are regimes that hope to preserve their country’s image by whitewashing local anti-Semitism. Confronting them will be one of Ms. Rosenthal’s many challenges.

There can be no doubt that anti-Semitism continues to manifest itself across the globe, and in a wide range of forms. In Sweden, a prominent newspaper recently accused Israelis of kidnapping Arabs in order to harvest their organs. In Honduras, political figures and pundits are blaming Jews for the country’s political crisis. In Hungary and Austria, far-right extremists are exploiting the democratic system to significantly increase their representation in parliament. And here at home, in Edison, N.J., a yeshiva student was assaulted by anti-Semitic thugs on Rosh Hashanah and a synagogue was daubed with swastikas on Yom Kippur.

The position of U.S. envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism was established in 2004 in response to the frightening proliferation of anti-Jewish hatred around the world. The late Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), later joined by Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) and Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), initiated the legislation that created the position. Lantos, a Holocaust survivor, saw echoes of a dark past in our own era, both in the spread of anti-Semitism worldwide and the failure of Western democracies to speak out against it.

Obviously there are vast differences between the Hitler period and our own era. At the same time, it is important to recognize today’s serious dangers.

When Iranian leaders threaten to annihilate Israel — and actively try to develop the weapons that would enable them to do that — they should be taken as seriously as anti-Semitic leaders in the 1930s should have been taken.

When Arab regimes teach their schoolchildren to hate Jews while glorifying violence and denying the Holocaust ever took place, they must be challenged — especially when the United States is in a position to use its aid and influence with those regimes as leverage.

When Holocaust deniers claim that the Nazis’ slaughter of 6 million Jews is a myth circulated by an international Jewish propaganda machine — that, too, must be recognized as anti-Semitism.

When extremists cynically manipulate United Nations forums to blame Israel and “Zionists” for all the ills of the world, they must be denounced.

When fanatics in any country try to mask their anti-Semitism as opposition to Israel or Zionism, they must be exposed. The U.S. position on this question, as articulated in last year’s report by the State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, is 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.”

Some of the governments that Ms. Rosenthal investigates surely will lean on her to go easy on them in her reports. She may find herself under pressure from U.S. government officials who believe that having friendly relations with a particular regime is more important than speaking out against anti-Semitism in that country.

We hope she resists these pressures and stands up for those who were denied such help during the darkest of period in human history, the Holocaust. If she does, she will have served her office well and upheld our nation’s noble humanitarian legacy.

(Gregg Rickman served as the first U.S. special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism, from 2006 to 2009. Rafael Medoff is director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies.)