I had the great honor to serve as Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism in the U.S. State Department during President Obama’s first term. The creation of this position was the result of the United Nations hate fest that took place in September 2001, in Durban, South Africa.
Our country, and many European countries, walked out of the conference because of the vile anti-Semitism displayed at yet another U.N. gathering. Supposedly a conference that celebrated the end of apartheid and that condemned xenophobia, racism, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, it instead focused on the Israel-Palestinian conflict and displayed overt hatred of Jews. Our community and country would have focused on this disaster for years, but a couple of days after the conference ended, 9-11 happened and the world turned upside down.
A few of the members of Congress who had attended the Durban conference came back alarmed at the anti-Semitism shown so large at the conference. Rep. Tom Lantos (D-CA), the only Holocaust survivor ever to serve in the U.S. Congress, Representative Chris Smith (R-NJ) and many others got together and decided that in order to respond and confront anti-Semitism in the world, someone had to be dedicated to monitoring and combating anti-Semitism for the United States. And that resulted in the creation of legislation that included a special envoy to focus on anti-Semitism. It passed unanimously. I was honored to serve in that position for four years. It became a congressional mandate so that no matter who is president or secretary of state, the commitment to stand up to anti-Semitism would remain safe and strong.
The word is out now that the White House is seeking to eliminate this position. U.S. monitoring anti-Semitism around the world is now on the chopping block. What a tragedy, what a slap in the face – at a time when global anti-Semitism is growing bolder and more pronounced. Unless someone is tasked with following it and strongly condemning this incredible trend, it will continue to grow, perhaps unnoticed, and certainly unchallenged.
When I held the position, I never thought we could eliminate anti-Semitism, but hoped we could move the needle. We could build bridges with other marginalized and vulnerable communities abroad, and in a true community relations strategy, build a voice against anti-Semitism and hatred writ large. We publicly confronted 54 countries and many international forums about their unanswered incidents and/or rhetoric against Jews. We pressured countries to have a domestic monitor of anti-Semitism. We pushed leaders in some countries to condemn the behavior of other elected officials who spewed such hatred. I believe we moved the needle.
Now that pressure, now the importance of fighting hatred of Jews will not be a priority in the State Department. Now we will turn a blind eye. And at a time when we are seeing such an increase in acts of anti-Semitism in our country, it is unconscionable that such a tool in the US foreign policy arsenal will be gone.
Please let your representatives and senators know what a tragic mistake that cut will be.
Hannah Rosenthal is chief executive officer and president of Milwaukee Jewish Federation.