Hannah Rosenthal, the State Department’s anti-Semitism envoy, must defend Israel from delegitimization while confronting a growing wave of anti-Jewish rhetoric among European elites
Anti-Semitism is alive and well in Europe, in some countries, particularly among elites, U.S. State Department official Hannah Rosenthal told Tablet Magazine on Monday. Rosenthal, the State Department’s special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism, said that Holocaust denial is a growing phenomenon around the world and that anti-Semitism “is increasing on every continent.” She reserved particularly harsh criticism for the rise of neo-Nazi and anti-immigrant parties throughout Europe and the delegitimizing criticism of Israel in Western countries like Spain.
Rosenthal also condemned state-sponsored anti-Semitism in the Muslim world, citing by name Sheikh Yussuf al-Qaradawi, a popular television personality and spiritual adviser to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. She accused Qaradawi of whipping up genocidal fervor against the Jews in the Middle East, pointing to his appearances on Al Jazeera in which, she said, he “calls for a new Holocaust, Allah willing, let us be the perpetrators to finish the job.”
Rosenthal spoke to Tablet Magazine at the State Department in Washington following a lecture on the Eichmann trial by the Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt, whose The Eichmann Trial was released by Nextbook Press March 15. The event was attended by nearly 200 State staffers, guests, and diplomats, including representatives from Turkey, Morocco, Lithuania, and Israel.
Rosenthal had much to say on the Middle East, from Saudi textbooks (“They’re still teaching children that Jews and Christians are children of apes and pigs”) to Iranian human rights abuses. She also accused the United Nations of a “complete obsession with Israel.” However—as in November 2009, when she first took the State Department job—Rosenthal seemed most passionate about anti-Semitism in its historic breeding ground and the site of its greatest crime: Europe. “I have been amazed—almost paralyzed—by the degree to which I hear anti-Semitic statements like blood libel in Spain, or blood libel morphing—instead of Jews killing Christian children to use their blood for baking matzoh, Jews kidnapping children to steal their organs—in Ukraine, or Sweden,” she said.
As an example both of the prevalence of extreme views on Israel in Europe and how her office addresses them, Rosenthal talked at length about Spain—once, she noted, a site of fruitful co-existence that included Jews. “Our ambassador to Spain, Alan Solomont—a great guy, a proud and activist Jew—said to me, ‘I’m not concerned about rank-and-file, I’m not concerned about graffiti, I’m concerned about the elite—the editorial writers and the public artists, and the insensitivity they have,’ ” she said.
Rosenthal is only the second special envoy on anti-Semitism—the post was created in 2004—and so is still in a position to shape the job. During a recent trip to Spain, Rosenthal and Solomont organized several roundtables, including one that brought together Jewish leaders and editors of major news outlets. “For the first time, they talked to each other,” she remembered, sounding optimistic. “While I do not believe that, for instance, El País will change its editorial view of Israel and the wrongs they believe Israel is doing to Palestinians, do I think they’ll have more sensitivity in their cartoons and in some of the language they use? Absolutely,” she said.
Rosenthal is a vivacious woman who seemed most at home hugging and glad-handing her guests; she wore a flowing tunic that happily contrasted with the trim gray suits that clung to several official-looking men sitting in the front row. But Rosenthal turned bulldog-serious when discussing European anti-Semitism in the emptied-out George C. Marshall Auditorium. She said she sees Holocaust denial in Europe as only one manifestation of a larger trend that disturbingly recalls a time the world should hardly wish to revisit. “One is Holocaust glorification,” she said. “Just last week, there was a parade in downtown Riga, in Latvia, for the Waffen SS—they proudly marched.” She linked such pro-Nazi and neo-Nazi movements to the rise of more mainstream anti-immigrant politics throughout Europe. “I think that the rise of the neo-Nazi parties that we’re seeing throughout Europe, and frankly the hatred of the other, the anti-immigrant stuff that is happening throughout Europe, should catch our attention, and does,” she said. “Because, one, whenever there is hatred of the other, it is not good for the Jews; and secondly, the fact that we have political parties running on hatred, and winning, and gaining seats in parliaments, is something extremely disturbing—it can be Hungary, it can be the Netherlands, it’s out there.”
Rosenthal’s office condemns anti-Semitism every chance it gets, she said, and recorded some of the most worrisome instances in a human rights report released last week. She praised the Obama Administration and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for raising the profile of Rosenthal’s position by moving the anti-Semitism office from a satellite building to State headquarters and integrating its findings into the department’s annual human rights report. “I’m an activist, not a career diplomat,” she said. “They brought in somebody who has a lot of experience dealing with the Jewish community and organizing advocacy, and I think that’s a statement.”
Though careful to preserve substantial space to question Israel, Rosenthal seemed to define criticism of specific Israeli policies that meets, and leads to, anti-Zionism as unacceptable. “To come to the conclusion that because Israel is doing X, Y, and Z, therefore it shouldn’t exist—I know of no other country on the globe, and we’ve got human rights abusers like you couldn’t believe, from Burma to Sri Lanka to Vietnam to China, and it goes on, where the conclusion is the country shouldn’t exist,” she said. “[Israel is] the only country where that is the policy of some governments and certainly the rhetoric of more. And that’s the ultimate delegitimization.” Rosenthal estimated that she spends about a third of her time on Israel-related issues.
Which is not to say her office polices all criticism of the Jewish state. “Israel is an imperfect country—I don’t know of a perfect country,” she noted. “When rabbis told the Israelis not to rent their apartments to Muslims, we condemned it.” And she was very careful to note that “criticism of the state of Israel, it does not make someone an anti-Semite.”
A Knesset committee recently held hearings into whether certain groups, most prominently J Street, the Washington-based lobby, are sufficiently pro-Israel. Rosenthal, a former J Street board member, provoked controversy within her first two months in her State Department job when she chided Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren for his criticism of the “pro-peace, pro-Israel” organization, which has a knack for igniting arguments and instinctively attracting Jews to a pro or con position. (Oren later apologized.) When asked about the group, Rosenthal bridled—mainly, one sensed, because she considers the topic inside baseball, and minor league at that (she had, after all, been discussing Holocaust denial and Sheikh al-Qaradawi). But she stood her ground. “We have diverse groups in this country, I think that’s what makes us strong,” she said. “And an organization that is pro-Israel and pro-peace should be welcomed by all tables.”
Israel, anyway, was an obvious subject. Introducing Lipstadt Monday, Rosenthal talked of watching the historic event on television as a 10-year-old girl with her father, a German-born survivor of Buchenwald. “I can almost smell his cigar smoke,” she’d reminisced in that introduction. Later, she argued, “I don’t appreciate dueling victimhood and dueling atrocities—it’s not helpful. But never before and never since the Holocaust have we seen a government use its creative and high-educated assets to build efficient killing factories.”
“The Holocaust has to continually represent the possible,” she added.
For an unrepentant news junkie, the Seder plate’s symbolism can turn topical, transforming the usual boiled eggs and parsley into delicacies like Qaddafi charoset and bitter Boehner herb
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