Tillerson Says We May Not Need an Anti-Semitism Envoy. He’s Wrong.

July 13, 2017

The Washington Post

By Ira Forman, Hannah Rosenthal and Jonathan Greenblatt

Ira Forman and Hannah Rosenthal each served as the State Department’s special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism. Jonathan Greenblatt is chief executive and national director of the Anti-Defamation League.

Since the beginning of the Trump administration, the State Department post of special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism has remained vacant. Judging by recent remarks from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the administration is still vacillating on whether it is important enough — or enough of a priority — to continue the office. When testifying before Congress in June, Tillerson said that, even as he has considered making the appointment, he has been vexed by the concern that anti-Semitism could actually get less attention if the special envoy position continued to function. The secretary stated: “One of the things we are considering — and we understand why (the envoys) were created and the good intentions behind why they were created — but one of the things we want to understand is, by doing that, did we weaken our attention to those issues? Because the expertise in a lot of these areas lies within the bureaus, and now we’ve stripped it out of the bureaus.”

We couldn’t disagree more. Two of us are former special envoys on anti-Semitism, and the other is the leader of an organization that works daily to combat anti-Semitism and bigotry of all forms, and we submit that the problem of global anti-Semitism is getting renewed awareness and attention around the world precisely because of the existence of this office.

Founded in 2004 to ensure that the United States had a permanent diplomat applying pressure on foreign governments and to alert the president and members of Congress when anti-Semitism reared its ugly head, the envoy’s office has existed for 13 years and under three presidents. In that time, the United States has taken a unique leadership position in the world in the struggle to push back against anti-Semitism. The special envoy has enhanced the work of our embassies, consulates and regional bureaus in combating anti-Semitism.

We have made significant progress. In the years before the office existed, global platforms such as a 2001 U.N. world conference on racism held in South Africa were turned into anti-Israel and anti-Semitic hate-fests. That same year, an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory that Jews were responsible for the 9/11 terrorist attacks spread like wildfire, especially in parts of the Muslim world. In the next few years we witnessed a surge of anti-Semitic violence in France and elsewhere in Europe that raised concerns for the continuing viability of certain European Jewish communities.

These and other manifestations led to the Global Anti-Semitism Review Act of 2004, which was signed into law by President George W. Bush and mandated the creation of a new envoy in the State Department to monitor, report and raise awareness of anti-Semitism. Since that time there have been many occasions when action by the special envoy’s office — working closely with other State Department offices, the White House, Congress, our democratic allies abroad and nongovernmental organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League — helped protect Jewish communities abroad and, at times, spurred governments and presidents to modify problematic policies. The special envoy traveled to the Baltics to protest the inclusion of the Waffen-SS in an independence parade in Latvia. In 2012, the State Department produced a study of anti-Semitism in Saudi textbooks, and we put pressure on the government to remove the anti-Jewish and anti-Christian themes being taught in Saudi schools.

Perhaps most importantly, the special envoy’s office successfully urged our democratic allies and other nations to adopt a working definition of anti-Semitism. Significantly, the definition singled out as anti-Semitic the demonization of Israel and creating a double standard for Israel with the expectations of behavior not demanded of other democracies. The United States has also pressed other nations to create diplomatic envoys to fight anti-Semitism.

It is not only the American Jewish community supporting the continuation of the special envoy’s office. Tillerson need only talk to Democrats and Republicans in Congress, to nongovernmental organizations such as Human Rights First, to our democratic allies in France, Germany and Britain, and to our professional diplomats who have served in dozens of countries where anti-Semitism has surfaced. If he were to do so, he would find essentially unanimous support for the strengthening of this office.

Threats to Jews have not diminished: Witness recent events in France, Belgium, Hungary, Venezuela and Turkey, the terrorist attacks around the world inspired by anti-Semitic propaganda on the Internet and the spread of anti-Semitism virally on social media. America’s voice in the fight to counter anti-Semitism is desperately needed — now more than ever.