NEW YORK — In the interest of full disclosure, I do not belong to J Street, the liberal, simultaneously pro-Israel and peace-oriented advocacy group. I am also not a member of either Chabad-Lubavich, the premier international ultra-Orthodox outreach movement, or the hawkish Zionist Organization of America.
I fully believe, however, that all three bodies are important constituencies of the organized American Jewish community, especially because they significantly expand the tent within which all elements of the Jewish people — observant and secular, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist, hawks and doves — can interact with one another.
I mention this because from the moment Hannah Rosenthal became the U.S. State Department’s Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, she has been unfairly pilloried by Jewish paleo-conservatives and right wing bloggers who proclaim themselves shocked to discover that President Obama has appointed a liberal who served on the J Street advisory board to his administration.
The fact is that Rosenthal is not only superbly qualified for her new position — she is a former executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs — but she brings a profound sensitivity to, and an intuitive understanding of, the concerns of the Jewish community to her position.
For Rosenthal, virulent hatred and persecution of Jews are not abstract concepts. Her father, Rabbi Franz Rosenthal, was arrested by the Gestapo in Mannheim, Germany, during the Kristallnacht pogrom of Nov. 9, 1938, and spent almost a year in the Buchenwald concentration camp. Released through the efforts of Pastor Hermann Maas, a German anti-Nazi Protestant minister, he arrived in the United States in December 1939.
Rabbi Rosenthal’s incarceration at Buchenwald and his experiences as a refugee in this country forged his daughter’s identity as a fighter for human rights and against anti-Semitism and all other forms of racism and bigotry. When President Obama visited Buchenwald last June and said that “this places teaches us that we must be ever vigilant about the spread of evil in our own time, that we must reject the false comfort that others’ suffering is not our problem and commit ourselves to resisting those who would subjugate others to serve their own interests,” his words reflected the very essence of Hannah Rosenthal’s life mission.
Her father once told her, “I survived to have you.” Ever since, she explains, “I have dedicated my life to eradicating anti-Semitism and intolerance, both domestically and globally, with a sense of urgency and passion that my father instilled within me.”
One of Rosenthal’s challenges is the integration of the fight against anti-Semitism into the process of international diplomacy.
“We are committed to raising any anti-Semitic incidents within the context of our bilateral relationships,” she says. “It is important for us to urge other governments to condemn anti-Semitism and take steps against anti-Semitic manifestations within their own societies. Governments can be part of the problem or part of the solution. We are ready to work with governments that want to be part of the solution, and call out those who don’t. We also must expose and challenge public figures who spread misinformation and lies about the Jewish people.”
She is especially concerned by the rise of new forms of anti-Semitism that require new and innovative responses. In particular, she advocates forming coalitions across ethnic and religious lines to counter what she terms the “insidious” spread of anti-Semitic rhetoric in the mainstream media and other public settings. “As with any form of prejudice,” she believes, “anti-Semitism is often based in ignorance and fear. It is easy to criticize and even demonize people you’ve never met. Building relationships among different ethnic and religious communities is central to tearing down walls of hostility. With dialogue, there is less room for stereotypes to grow and flourish.”
Among her priorities is calling attention to the increase and spread of Holocaust denial as a new form of anti-Semitism in popular culture, especially in parts of the Muslim world. “It is appalling,” she told me, “that books like the notorious ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion’ and Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf’ continue to have a considerable market in many countries, especially among teenagers and young adults. Along the same lines, we must make every effort to stop the inculcation of anti-Semitism in children through textbooks and children’s books. If we can’t get the next generation to be free of the anti-Semitic attitudes, we cannot meaningfully combat anti-Semitism.”
Rosenthal is also deeply troubled by the double standard with which the State of Israel is treated at the United Nations. She notes that between 2001 and 2007, there were more than 50 U.N. resolutions criticizing Israel’s human rights record, in contrast to only five targeting North Korea, and eight targeting Sudan. At the same time, she believes that “we must also seize on the few positive opportunities that the U.N. provides — including the 2007 resolution condemning Holocaust denial and the U.N.’s annual Holocaust commemoration — as potential educational tools in countries around the world.”
It is both symbolic and appropriate that the task of coordinating the official American response to the scourge of international anti-Semitism should have been entrusted to the daughter of a refugee from Nazi Germany. President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton must be commended for appointing Hannah Rosenthal to this sensitive and critically important position.