The Anti-Anti-Semite

Hannah Rosenthal, the State Department’s new anti-Semitism envoy, discusses her plans, Israel, and Abe Foxman

Hannah Rosenthal
CREDIT: Courtesy of Hannah Rosenthal

Hannah Rosenthal, the former head of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, will start work Monday as the State Department’s Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism. The position was created by Congress in 2004. Rosenthal, the 58-year-old daughter of a rabbi who survived the Holocaust, is a former seminarian—in the 1970s, she dropped out of Hebrew Union College after two years, though she still runs “alternative” High Holiday services each year in her hometown of Madison, Wisconsin. After a career focused on women’s health issues, she joined the JCPA in 2000 after working in the first Clinton administration as the Midwest regional director for the Department of Health and Human Services.

Last year, Rosenthal—who sits on the advisory board of J Street, the left-leaning Israel lobby—published a controversial op-ed in New York’s Jewish Week, timed to coincide with Israel’s 60th anniversary, calling on progressives to make themselves heard on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: “Perhaps out of fear, perhaps out of timidity, we have failed to stand up to those who favor military solutions to political problems or oppose peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian and Arab-Israeli conflicts in the name of promoting Israel’s best interests.” The piece drew criticism from Anti-Defamation League chief Abraham Foxman, who responded with an open letter to Rosenthal disputing the claim that conservative voices dominate the Israel debate; this week, the right-leaning Brooklyn-based Jewish Press sharply criticized Rosenthal’s appointment in an editorial, while conservative blogs took it a step further, tarring Rosenthal as anti-Israel.

Rosenthal spoke to Tablet Magazine about her plans for her new job and about her critics.

Your predecessor, Gregg Rickman, was very involved in winning visas for Yemeni Jews and was also very critical of the United Nations for its approach to Israel. What are your top priorities?

I don’t know what the top agenda item is going to be, but when I look at newspapers and listen to people around the world who I know, I’m very troubled to see increases in anti-Semitic acts and attitudes in Europe. As the child of a Holocaust survivor, I thought Europe would be further along in the tolerance agenda than they are. I hate to hear about boycotts; I hate to hear about graves and cemeteries being defaced; I hate to hear about speeches tinged with stereotypes of Jews. These are things we thought would fade into distant memory.

So there will be a reactive part of my job, and a proactive part. The proactive part has me as an ambassador or an educator to various cultures on tolerance, on human rights, and on making sure that they recognize the importance of combating anti-Semitism on a human-rights agenda. There will also be a reactive piece of it, where we hear a speech being done by someone, or a cemetery being harmed, or even a public policy that may be introduced, where we will probably need to intervene to say, also in an educating way, that this is a fundamental human-rights issue. And I think the fact that President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton have put this appointment high on their list in the field of human rights shows that there’s a strong feeling that the public at large needs to be educated that combating anti-Semitism is a fundamental human-rights issue.

Does responding to criticism of Israel fall into your portfolio?

I don’t know the answer. It’s a very fuzzy line. I can’t answer your question because I don’t know yet how that will shake out, but it will certainly be involved. Middle East realities and politics and challenges will be part of this job but I really don’t know how much.

There is no question in my mind that some of the attacks in the media and in the public against Israel come from a place of anti-Semitism. That is the unfortunate reality of some of the bad statements and hurtful ones. But not all of them are. Criticizing a certain policy in Israel or a certain policy in the United States regarding Israel does not make someone an anti-Semite. It makes them, perhaps, a thoughtful analyst of what’s going on, recognizing we can’t keep doing things the way we’ve been doing them.

What about critics who accuse you, like they accuse J Street, of being anti-Israel because of your position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or on America’s relationship with Israel?

My entire adulthood has seen the same thing over and over and over. I love Israel. I have lived in Israel. I go back and visit every chance I can. I consider it part of my heart. And because I love it so much, I want to see it safe and secure and free and democratic and living safely, where children don’t have to learn where every bomb shelter is. That’s my vision of what the future is, and if we keep the current policies and the current strategies that will not happen.

I don’t think questioning any policy, foreign or domestic, makes somebody an anti-Semite or an anti-anything. It makes them someone who wants a thoughtful discussion. I think J Street needs to be at the table, and I think other organizations representing many strategies all need to be at the table, because the status quo in the Middle East is totally unacceptable. And the people who are doing name-calling, and apparently taking me on—I have made a point of not reading them. My sister said I would need a bodyguard. I said it’s just the blogosphere.

And Abe Foxman?

I understand that Abe Foxman wrote a public letter to me. The problem is that he did not send it to me. I just heard about it. But I have worked with Abe in the past and I consider Abe a friend of mine and I would be shocked if he thinks this is a bad appointment. He and I will have differences and he and I will agree on things. He and I will agree that the world needs to have more good people to stand up and fight injustice. He may look to certain groups of people to find good people to stand up next to him, and I may look in a different group, or a broader group, but mostly we agree.