Fight against anti-Semitism should come first
After 10 months in office, the Obama administration finally (and quietly) appointed a replacement for Gregg Rickman as the State Department’s special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism. Hannah Rosenthal began her new appointment on Monday.
Rosenthal, a dropout from rabbinic school and the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, comes to the job from a career of leadership positions inside and outside the Jewish community.
She worked in the Department of Health and Human Services for the Clinton White House. From 2000 to 2005, she was executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. Most recently she worked for a nonprofit insurance company in Madison, Wis.
But Rosenthal also sits on the advisory council of J Street and J Street PAC, meaning she is part of a larger debate about how Americans and American Jews talk about Israel.
This debate already came to a head once for Rosenthal.
In April 2008, in an article in The Jewish Week, she wrote “the progressive voice in our community has been far too quiet on Israel for far too long.” The column referred to the lineup of speakers at a 2002 National Israel Solidarity Rally in Washington, D.C.
“How did we arrive at a place where pro-Israel events had come to be dominated by narrow, ultraconservative views of what it means to be pro-Israel?” Rosenthal wrote.
In response, Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League wrote Rosenthal a mostly tame open letter, presenting snippets from some of the speeches, and asking, “Why are our perceptions of that historic outpouring of support for Israel so jarringly dissimilar?”
That encounter, though, is being taken by some as a sign of Rosenthal’s unworthiness for the post, and, by extension, Obama’s ineptitude in choosing her for the position.
Ed Lasky of the American Thinker wrote that Rosenthal “does not care much for Israel — the home of half the world’s Jews, with plenty of anti-Semites (three hundred million or so) surrounding it.” Michael Goldfarb of the Weekly Standard wrote, “Does this administration still feel it needs to prove its anti-Israel bona fides?” and said the envoy position “could be the most irrelevant post in the entire federal government.”
Let’s hope not. The past successes and future challenges are too great.
Rosenthal’s predecessor Gregg Rickman was the White House point man for efforts to secretly fly hundreds of Yemeni Jews to America and Israel to avoid persecution, a move that — while sad in its motivations — likely resulted in numerous Jewish lives being saved.
In the American Thinker, Rickman recently highlighted the problem in Europe by describing his conversation with a Muslim community leader in France.
“He told me about real societal discrimination against Muslims in employment, religious observance, and in general daily life — not at all the responsibility of the Jewish community,” Rickman wrote. “Yet despite their perception of their status, it is the support Jews in southern France exhibit toward Israel that they claim as the real reason for their present situation.”
Meanwhile, in this country, the FBI recently released data showing that religious hate crimes in the United States hit a seven-year high in 2008. Of the 1,519 incidents on record, 1,013 — or 66 percent — were directed against Jews and Jewish institutions.
While criticism of Israel and Zionism is used around the world as a cover for anti-Semitism, the problem of anti-Semitism is larger than Israel. It involves deep-seated religious and cultural biases, lack of education, discrimination and economic conditions.
The debates over the relationship between America and Israel and over Obama’s strategy in the Middle East are important and worth having. But for the sake of this appointment, it is more important that those debates don’t overshadow the hard work needed to make sure Jews are living safely and peacefully in whatever country they choose to reside.