U.S. anti-Semitism office to be unstaffed

 

MILWAUKEE – Milwaukee Jewish Federation CEO and President Hannah Rosenthal, who once led a key office on anti-Semitism, said she is appalled to learn that it is to be emptied of workers.

The U.S. State Department’s office to monitor and combat anti-Semitism is to be unstaffed as of July 1. A source familiar with the office’s workings told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that its remaining two staffers, each working half-time or less, would be reassigned as of that date.

The Trump administration, which has yet to name an envoy to head the office, would not comment on the staffing change. At full staffing, the office employs a full-time envoy and the equivalent of three full-time staffers.

“The organized Jewish community worked hard to get this position mandated, with the help of bi-partisan support in Congress,” Rosenthal said. “When the bill creating the envoy position and office passed, it was unanimous.”

Rosenthal said she had the support of Republicans and Democrats when she was special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism at the U.S. State Department from 2009 to 2012. It allowed the department to ensure that anti-Semitism was not a partisan issue, she said.

“This is a shanda and a terrible loss to the Jews of the world who depend on US leadership in protecting them,” she said. “I am appalled at this decision.”

The State Department told JTA in a statement that it remained committed to combating anti-Semitism – and cited as evidence the tools, including the department’s annual reports on human rights and religious freedom, that existed before Congress mandated the creation of the envoy office in 2004.

“We want to ensure the Department is addressing anti-Semitism in the most effective and efficient method possible and will continue to endeavor to do so,” the statement said.

“The Department of State condemns attacks on Jewish communities and individuals. We consistently urge governments around the world to address and condemn anti-Semitism and work with vulnerable Jewish communities to assess and provide appropriate levels of security.”

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told Congress in testimony earlier this month that he believed special envoys were counterproductive because they provided an excuse to the rest of the department to ignore the specific issue addressed by the envoy.

The State Department maintains that it will still closely monitor global anti-Semitism and will report on it in its Country Reports on Human Rights Practices and International Religious Freedom Report, which documents global anti-Semitism in 199 countries. Refering to Tillerson, Rosenthal asked rhetorically, “How does he think those reports are written, how does he think the hate is identified and how does he think that countries will react when they are no longer being held accountable?”  

First Secretary of State John Kerry downgraded the position, moving it from the Office of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, answering to the Secretary, into the Office of Faith Based Initiative at the State Department, Rosenthal said.  “I tried to explain to people what a mistake that was – monitoring anti-Semitism is not about faith, it is about hate,” she said.

“And now Tillerson/Trump is eliminating the position and office entirely. I feel very proud of the work I did at State, and I believe due to my pushing the system and training people on what anti-Semitism is, we were able to move the needle a bit. Unless someone is tasked with monitoring anti-Semitism, and is tasked with recommending strategies to combat it, it will not happen.”

Congressional lawmakers from both parties have pressed the Trump administration, in letters and proposed bills, to name an envoy and to enhance the office’s status. They have noted that unlike other envoys, whose positions were created by Trump’s predecessors, the office of the envoy on anti-Semitism is a statute and requires filling.

“As the author of the amendment that created the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, I remain hopeful that these critical positions will be filled,” Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., who authorized the 2004 law, said in a statement to JTA.

Jewish groups have lobbied President Donald Trump to name an envoy, saying that despite Tillerson’s testimony, the position has been key to encouraging diplomats and officials throughout the department to focus on anti-Semitism. Rosenthal instituted department-wide training on identifying anti-Semitism.

“The idea of having a dedicated envoy who can travel around the world to raise awareness on this issue is critical,” the Anti-Defamation League CEO, Jonathan Greenblatt, told JTA in an interview.

“That doesn’t mean there isn’t value for all ambassadors and every embassy in addressing issues of anti-Semitism and bigotry in countries they operate,” he said. “But if the administration is truly committed” to combating anti-Semitism, “maintaining the special envoy for anti-Semitism seems like a no-brainer.”