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A Restaurant in Tel Aviv and Hannah Rosenthal

January 4th 2010

Jewish Topics - Hannah Rosenthal
Hannah Rosenthal

In December, in a Tel Aviv restaurant, while I sat casually discussing my successor at the State Department with my dinner companions, I mentioned Hannah Rosenthal's J-Street affiliation, suggesting that this affiliation concerned me. Nearby sat a former US Foreign Service officer who upon the conclusion of her meal took it upon herself to—quite rudely—interrupt our meal to inform me in front of several other people, that in her opinion, J-Street was “a friend of Israel, not an enemy.” She then ran off out of the restaurant in a huff, shooting me a dirty look as she left. As publicly offensive as this woman proved to be, her rude declaration seemed to suggest a bothersome arrogance. Worse was the very public repetition of this effrontery by Ms. Rosenthal, the U.S. Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism when she publicly criticized and insulted Israel's Ambassador to the United States for purely political reasons.

Ms. Rosenthal suggested that Ambassador Oren “could have learned something” by attending the recent J-Street conference, which he refused to attend due to his differences over policy with the group. She attacked him in an Israeli newspaper in her official capacity, a position which dictates that she fights anti-Semitism, not breed it by openly picking a fight with Israel's Ambassador to the United States, thereby aiding and abetting anti-Semites around the world.

This episode only reinforced my early fears about her views. Her failure to see that today's anti-Semitism is so heavily dominated by anti-Zionism or anti-Israelism. Ms. Rosenthal entirely misses the point that by attacking Israel's Ambassador, for such reasons, suggests that criticism of Israel as the “Jew among the nations,” or as the collective Jew, is not off limits. If the U.S. Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism can do it, then why can't anyone else?

In my term as the Special Envoy, I found the issue of Israel overwhelming in nearly every meeting. Wherever I went, denials of anti-Semitism were abundant from those I encountered. Yet, these same parties were all too willing to easily slide into denunciations of Israel to my face and then proceed to blame Jews collectively for Israel's actions next. For example, in 2008 in Jakarta, Indonesia, I met with several members of the Ulama (Muslim religious council). My hosts immediately denounced Israel and for good measure, mocked the Torah, calling it “illegitimate.” They then asked that “no more Jews come to Indonesia.” In Egypt, a journalist admitted to me Egyptians see all Jews as Israelis as did Muslim leaders in Argentina, France, Holland, the UAE, and professors and my translator in Saudi Arabia. In Venezuela, I met with members of the Jewish community who expressed great fears of Hugo Chavez's and his Foreign Minister's anti-Zionist declarations of “Israeli genocide” and of the existence in Venezuela of a “Zionist lobby” as well as claims that Jews were “Christ-killers.” In short, I found anti-Zionism to be the new anti-Semitism.

To this point, I recommend that Ms. Rosenthal read the 2008 State Department report on “Contemporary Global Anti-Semitism,” (PDF) which explains the relationship between Israel and anti-Semitism very well. The 2004 EUMC Working Definition of Anti-Semitism was included, thereby enshrining it US policy. Examples of the ways in which anti-Semitism manifests itself with regard to the state of Israel taking into account the overall context could include:

  • Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination.
  • Applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.
  • Using the symbols and images associated with classic anti-Semitism (e.g., claims of Jews killing Jesus or blood libel) to characterize Israel or Israelis.
  • Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.
  • Holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel.

Ms. Rosenthal would do well to study these points to gain an understanding of the problem that will predominate her portfolio. Today, individual Jews around the world are blamed for Israel's actions and Israel is denounced for genocide and Nazi-like actions. There is hounding by the UN system, which cynically and routinely subjects Israel to double standards of criticism and denunciation to the near absolute exclusion of serial human rights offenders such as Sudan, China, and others; and there are calls for boycott and divestment on university campuses around the world by Muslim student groups who also harass and attack Jewish students, blaming them for supporting Israel's actions.

Ms. Rosenthal's criticisms of Ambassador Oren strike a chord particularly because this is not her policy portfolio to advocate. She is supposed to fight anti-Semitism, not defend J-Street, an organization on whose Advisory Board she formally sat before her appointment to the State Department.

Ms. Rosenthal and that unnamed former Foreign Service Officer share something in common: a public effrontery that was both inexcusable and unfortunate. I fear that that former official I met in Tel Aviv is beyond help. Equally I fear that Ms. Rosenthal will now be colored by her remarks and has done irreparable damage to her position fighting anti-Semitism. She will be compromised before those she seeks to persuade to curb anti-Semitism. If Ms. Rosenthal cannot figure out the borders and limits of her portfolio, perhaps then she should seek another position to avoid further embarrassment.

Cutting Edge commentator Gregg J. Rickman served as the first U.S. Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism from 2006–2009. He is a Senior Fellow for the Study and Combat of Anti-Semitism at the Institute on Religion and Policy in Washington, DC; a Visiting Fellow at The Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Antisemitism at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut; and a Research Scholar at the Initiative on Anti-Semitism and Anti-Israelism of the Institute for Jewish & Community Research in San Francisco.


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