New U.S. Envoy on Antisemitism Faces Tough Task

by Dr. Rafael Medoff

In view of the rising tide of antisemitism around the world, the appointment of the first U.S. ambassador for monitoring and combating antisemitism is welcome news. But the new envoy, Dr. Gregg Rickman, will have his work cut out for him.

Dr. Rickman is both a scholar and an activist, who played a central role in the battle with Swiss banks to win restitution for Holocaust survivors. That activist spirit will be much needed as he not only confronts antisemites abroad, but also stands up to the government bureaucrats at home who fought bitterly against the legislation that created his post.

That legislation, introduced in 2004 by U.S. Congressman Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), required the U.S. government to monitor and report on antisemitism around the globe. And it mandated the appointment of an ambassador to focus on fighting antisemitism–the kind of specific, focused attention that this serious problem clearly requires.

But the bill ran into strong opposition from State Department officials. They claimed the legislation would show “favoritism” to Jews by “extending exclusive status to one religious or ethnic group.” The hollowness of that argument, however, was demonstrated by the fact that the State Department already has a number of offices that extend ‘exclusive status’ to groups or issues of concern, such as Tibet, human trafficking, and women’s rights.

The State Department’s position on the Lantos legislation carried troubling echoes of the past. During the Holocaust era, the State Department did its best to downplay the Jewish identity of Hitler’s victims–even though the Nazi regime had clearly singled out Jews for annihilation. Statements by U.S. officials about Nazi atrocities seldom mentioned the Jews.

Sixty years later, in 2004, State Department officials were hard at work stalling the Lantos bill and trying to dilute or bury it. They finally dropped their opposition only after a bipartisan group of more than 100 prominent Americans, mobilized by the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, publicly denounced the State Department’s obstruction. The signatories included former vice-presidential candidate Jack Kemp, former National Security Adviser Anthony Lake, former U.S. ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, and former CIA director R. James Woolsey.

Once the State Department backed down, the Lantos bill was adopted unanimously by Congress and signed into law by President Bush. That was in October 2004. Why it took more than eighteen months to appoint the envoy is unclear. In any event, as the law requires, the State Department last year issued its first-ever report on antisemitism. It was a mixed bag, and it illustrates the challenges that Ambassador Rickman will face.

In one respect, the report was a major step forward. It presented the first official U.S. government definition of antisemitism, and, significantly, it stated that “the demonization of Israel or vilification of Israeli leaders, sometimes through comparisons with Nazi leaders, and through the use of Nazi symbols to caricature them, indicates an anti-Semitic bias rather than a valid criticism of policy concerning a controversial issue.”

Equally important was that the report specifically included instances of Holocaust-denial in various countries as examples of antisemitism. There was no pretending that denying the Holocaust is just another interpretation of history.

But at the same time, the State Department’s report exhibited the kind of bias for which Foggy Bottom has earned a reputation over the years– by minimizing the antisemitism sponsored by some Arab regimes.

For example, the report’s section on Saudi Arabia, a major promoter of antisemitism, was just 182 words long. By contrast, Iceland was given 387 words, even though the report cited only one instance of antisemitic harassment and one hostile cartoon there. Only 86 words were devoted to the Palestinian Authority, despite the frequency of antisemitism in the PA’s newspapers and on its television and radio programs. Armenia (194 words), Brazil (149), and Azerbaijan (142), where there is no evidence of government-sponsored antisemitism, were given more space in the report than the Palestinian Authority.

Antisemitism must be vigorously combated–no matter its source, no matter which political agendas may be affected, and no matter whose toes may be stepped upon in the process. Gregg Rickman has demonstrated that he recognizes this important principle. Whether the State Department will fully embrace it, however, remains to be seen.

May 2006