Obama’s envoy on anti-Semitism speaks in Oakland, San Francisco

The United States government has a responsibility to speak out about anti-Semitism in other parts of the world, local Jewish leaders were told at a breakfast last week sponsored by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council.

“It’s really important what we in the administration do and say about this issue,” said Ira Forman, the U.S. Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism — a position created in 2004 that Forman has filled for two years.
Previously, Forman served as the Jewish outreach director during President Obama’s 2012 campaign, and before that he was the executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council for nearly 15 years.

To monitor and advise U.S. officials about global anti-Semitism, Forman is in regular contact with Jewish communities in Europe and other parts of the world. He shared some of his knowledge during a recent Western trip that included a talk at Temple Sinai in Oakland on the night of April 28 and a talk at the JCRC office in San Francisco on the morning of April 29 (followed by a private meeting with the JCRC’s working group on global anti-Semitism).

“Trends are bad,” Forman said in San Francisco of rising anti-Semitism in many European countries.

He pointed to France, where the far-right National Front party is strong and four Jews were killed in a kosher supermarket in January, shortly after the fatal attack on the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. During demonstrations to protest the war in Gaza over the summer, people shouted from the streets, “Jews: France doesn’t belong to you,” Forman said.

Though the French government is responsive to incidents of anti-Semitism and has provided military protection to Jewish organizations, casual anti-Semitism is still accepted in some parts of French society, Forman said. Members of France’s Jewish community told Forman that the climate may cause some French Jews to emigrate and others to quietly assimilate and stop living as Jews.

U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power has been a strong ally in the fight against anti-Semitism, Forman said. Last year, he noted, she was openly critical of the delegations that European countries sent to a big conference on anti-Semitism — noting that the delegations were composed of mainly Jewish organizations, whereas they should have included other groups and leaders that ought to be involved in the fight against anti-Semitism. Power called on other countries to establish their own special offices on anti-Semitism.

Above all, Forman said, his responsibility is to identify anti-Semitism where he sees it but to be cautious of overusing the term. When it comes to criticism of Israel, the U.S. government defines anti-Semitism as discourse that demonizes Israelis, delegitimizes the Israeli state and holds Israel to a double standard.

“Some people would argue BDS [the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement] is inherently anti-Semitic,” Forman said. “I think from talking to Jewish communal leaders, a number of them have said to me, ‘Listen to what the person says.’ If the person talks about Israelis harvesting organs, that’s defamation. It is patently false. [On other issues] you might vehemently disagree with their position, but be careful about using the term, because it’s a precious term. It’s like racism; you shouldn’t overuse those terms.”