Global Anti-Semitism: Proactively Promoting Tolerance

Hannah Rosenthal
Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism 
Jewish Council for Public Affairs Plenum
Dallas, Texas
February 22, 2010

This is a homecoming for me! I want to begin by thanking my friends and former colleagues at the Jewish Council for Public Affairs for convening this important gathering and asking me to address the crucial issue of global Anti-Semitism. I’m thrilled to be here and to see so many familiar faces in the room. Few things top being in a room full of people devoted to social justice and inter-religious tolerance! As the President’s Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, I have a new platform and a nice office in Washington, but the issues remain the same, as does my approach: inter-faith and inter-group engagement, coupled with community relations and civil society outreach.

As a child of a Holocaust survivor, anti-Semitism is something very personal to me. When I was old enough to somewhat understand what my father went through as the only member of his family to survive, I asked him how he handled his guilt and kept his sanity. He didn’t miss a beat and said: “I survived to have you, Hannele!” – so took that guilt off his shoulders and put it squarely on mine – and I have dedicated my life to eradicating anti-Semitism and intolerance with a sense of urgency and passion that only Dad could give me.

That path led me on January 27th of last month to walk -- voluntarily -- through the gates of Auschwitz – under the infamous ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ sign (recently stolen by a Neo-Nazi and now recovered). I went to Auschwitz as a member of the official U.S. delegation to mark an anniversary we all wish never had any reason to exist – the 65th anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz. As President Obama said in his televised remarks at the commemoration, the survivors of Auschwitz “are living memorials. Living memorials to the spirit we must strive to uphold in our time—not simply to bear witness, but to bear a burden. The burden of seeing our common humanity; of resisting anti-Semitism and ignorance in all its forms; of refusing to become bystanders to evil, whenever and wherever it rears its ugly face.”

The goal of fighting anti-Semitism is a high priority for the Obama Administration, and my office has an increasingly visible role. My office has moved into the main Department of State building and is on the same floor as Secretary of State Clinton’s office. I work closely with the Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Michael Posner to harmonize our priorities and our messages in a way that reflects our commitment to combating anti-Semitism and promoting tolerance.

Importance of Combating Anti-Semitism for the Obama Administration

We must all join together to actively combat anti-Semitism in all its forms, including Holocaust denial and Holocaust revisionism, and the prevention of future genocides. I am honored and humbled to serve as the United States’ new Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism. The word “combat” strongly underscores the commitment of the United States to fight anti-Semitism wherever it is found.

What steps will I pursue in addressing this challenge? I hope to both respond to anti-Semitism whenever and wherever it appears, and to work actively against intolerance through education and the promotion of inter-faith understanding. Anti-Semitism must finally be consigned to the dark annals of the past.

-- Monitoring - My title says so much. We will maintain vigilance in monitoring anti-Semitic acts and discourse. I will work with all regional bureaus within the Department of State, with the Bureau that manages our efforts at the UN and other international organizations, and with our diplomatic missions abroad to ensure timely and accurate reporting. I will forge partnerships with key offices across the U.S. government, including the National Security Council. And I will build on the powerful partnerships we have with so many of your organizations and NGOs that are active on this critical issue. As Secretary Clinton said in December in her Georgetown University speech on the Department of State’s human rights agenda, “to be successful, we need to work bottom up.” We seek to forge strong partnerships with you to help us document abuses and we welcome your insights and ideas on how most effectively to work to end them.

-- Diplomacy - We will maintain as a top priority the raising of anti-Semitism in the context of our relationships with other countries. We will encourage other governments to condemn anti-Semitism and take steps against anti-Semitic manifestations within their own societies. We will encourage appropriate outreach by governments to members of Jewish communities. We will also encourage governments to partner with us in international institutions such as the UN and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to those same ends. 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 that don’t.

Through our bilateral and our multilateral diplomacy, and through our assistance programs, we are working with other responsible governments to reverse disturbing anti-Semitic trends. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, with its path- breaking Berlin Declaration of 2004, has been a global pioneer in combating anti-Semitism, and is a major focus of our multilateral efforts. We play a leading role at the annual OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting, which addresses anti-Semitism and other forms of intolerance, as well as at special meetings of the OSCE devoted to the subject. And we strongly support the work of the OSCE Special Representative on Combating Anti-Semitism Rabbi Andrew Baker. This year, Kazakhstan chairs the OSCE and in June, I will travel to Astana to attend the OSCE Conference on Tolerance and Non-Discrimination.

Advancing civil discourse - We will especially promote public discussion on the nature of new forms of anti-Semitism – how to recognize it and ways to combat it, working with NGOs and civil society groups to ensure thoughtful and problem-solving discussions.

  • We won’t just call out intolerance, we will actively promote tolerance.
  • We will advance education to opinion leaders and policy makers about the level of anti-Semitism and how it is becoming more widespread, working its way insidiously into mainstream media and public settings.

Building strong relationships across ethnic lines and with persons of other faith traditions is crucial to our success. As with any form of prejudice, 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 increased dialogue, there is less room for stereotypes to grow and flourish.

  • Here is one example of the power of dialogue: the U.S. government’s International Visitor Leadership Program brings to this country every year thousands of foreign experts from all over the world to meet and confer with their professional counterparts and to experience America firsthand. Through this prestigious program, some imams’ views of Jews have been transformed, having their negative stereotype replaced by a positive view as American families hosted them on their visit. One recent visitor on a program about inter-faith dialogue commented, “There is freedom in the U.S. and now I am more tolerant. First comes tolerance, and then comes freedom.” After his experience in the U.S., an imam from North Africa remarked, “Regarding religion in the U. S., from the East Coast to the West Coast and much in between, the link between peoples in these vast separated areas is love of country. Volunteerism was impressive. I am an Imam, but I saw in the churches models which would serve as examples for all of us.”

Anti-Semitism: Changing face, More Insidious and Subtle

  • Traditional forms of anti-Semitism continue to plague societies across the globe. We are all familiar with ongoing hostile acts such as defacing of property, desecration of cemeteries, and even physical assaults. Conspiracy theories continue to flourish, such as supposed Jewish control of the U.S. media and the world banking system, or that Jewish persons were involved in the September 11 attacks.

Last December, we saw several disturbing acts of anti-Semitism in Europe. A representative of the Swiss Christian Democratic People’s Party, a party viewed as centrist in the governing coalition, stated that there should be no more separate Jewish or Muslim cemeteries. Later he apologized for his anti-Semitic and Islamophobic comments. In Vienna, at the annual menorah lighting ceremony, the Chabad Rabbi lost a finger in an attack by a mentally-ill Palestinian asylum applicant. In Moldova’s capital, a priest led a mob in dismantling a menorah in front of an Orthodox church and removing the menorah to a site in front of the Jewish cemetery. Last month, Moldovan prosecutors —concluding that no violent crime had been committed -- fined the priest the maximum amount permitted under the law – just under fifty dollars. The Ministry of Justice has closely reviewed this case. It has committed to continue to monitor the situation and may seek to apply hate crimes legislation if such incidents occur again in the future.

In the early morning hours of December 18, thieves stole the ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ sign from above the entrance of the Auschwitz death camp site. The sign was found on December 20, cut into three pieces. Polish police have arrested five suspects. The alleged ringleader, Swedish neo-Nazi Anders Hogstrom, intended to sell the sign to raise funds for neo-Nazi political activities. Polish officials have issued a Europe-wide arrest warrant, and are seeking his extradition from Sweden for prosecution. Hogstrom was arrested in Stockholm on February 11, and will be questioned by Swedish authorities before an extradition determination is made.

In Greece, two recent arson attacks have struck the Etz-Hayyim Synagogue, a historic synagogue that is the last Jewish monument on the island of Crete. The first attack on January 5 caused damage to the exterior of the synagogue, and a bar of soap was hurled against the synagogue walls as a provocation (evoking threats to ‘turn Jews into bars of soap’). The second attack on January 16 caused severe damage to the synagogue, destroying nearly 2,000 books and severely damaging its wooden roof, floor and offices.

Government ministers and public figures in Greece have widely condemned the attacks. Our Ambassador is working with the Greek government and religious leaders to encourage greater understanding and to combat hatred. The Greek Prime Minister issued an open letter of apology to the Jewish community, the first time a prime minister has sent such a letter to the Greek Jewish community condemning an anti-Semitic incident. He stated, “The government, myself, and also the Greek people condemn in the strongest way the attacks and we are taking action to bring the perpetrators to justice…. Anti-Semitism and racism do not have any place in Greek society.” But I must note that among those arrested was an American citizen, a chilling reminder that anti-Semitism is still a problem in our society.

  • We also see troubling new trends in anti-Semitic rhetoric.

The brazen call by Iranian President Ahmadinejad that Israel should be wiped off of the world map is more than anti-Israeli rhetoric. After all, it is not land that would be driven into the sea, but Jewish people. The world community has been uncomfortably quiet on this issue, with a few notable exceptions like Chancellor Merkel of Germany. As Chancellor Merkel said in her speech before the Knesset in Jerusalem in March 2008, “…the threats directed against Israel and the Jewish people by the Iranian President are without doubt a particular cause for concern. His repeated vilifications and Iran’s nuclear program are a danger to peace and security. If Iran ever acquires nuclear weapons, the consequences will be disastrous – first and foremost for the security and existence of Israel, secondly for the entire region and ultimately, far beyond that, for all of us in Europe and the world, for all who cherish the values of freedom, democracy and human dignity. This must be prevented.”

  • Anti-Israel expressions are increasingly the vehicle for anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism is often couched in demonstrations against the state of Israel. The legitimate role of democratic public expression criticizing government policy can quickly cross into hateful racial slurs and denunciations of the Jewish people themselves. This is unacceptable.

For example, when anti-Israel protesters gather outside a synagogue, a sacred place of worship for the Jewish faith, and then proceed to march to an Israeli Embassy, there is a dangerous blurring of lines between legitimate political expression and anti-Semitic opposition to the Jewish faith itself.

Criticism of Israel is not necessarily anti-Semitic, but it crosses the line when, for example, that criticism applies double standards, comparing a current policy of Israel to that of the Nazis, and holding all Jews collectively responsible for actions of the State of Israel. As Natan Sharansky has said, “It is anti-Semitic when Israel is demonized, held to different standards and delegitimized.”

United Nations’ bodies long have shown a bias toward condemning Israel at a rate much higher than any other country. We documented this in the Combating Global Anti-Semitism report, published in 2008. For example, we compared UN resolutions with negative country-specific references from 2001 to 2007. Israel was in nearly 170 resolutions, while North Korea was mentioned in fewer than 10. There were more than 50 resolutions criticizing Israel's human rights record, with only 5 targeting North Korea, and 8 targeting Sudan. (p. 51, Appendix A of CGAS report)

We continue to do all we can to see that Israel is treated fairly at the UN and other international organizations. Last year, the United States joined the UN’s Human Rights Council – the UN’s intergovernmental body responsible for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe. We will assertively exercise our presence on the Council to press the Council to live up to its mandate to address human rights violations and make recommendations on them – including against anti-Semitism.

The U.S. government has made the affirmative decision to re-engage actively in the Human Rights Council. We’re committed to advancing a strong human rights agenda, working with multiple partners from all regions of the world. We will support what the Council does well, but also will challenge those aspects of its work where we see the need for fundamental change. We will look for common ground, but we also will be ready to take a stand when we feel our principles and interests are at stake. Our engagement does not mean we consider the institution to be perfect, but the Council is important, and the United States must deploy its stature and moral authority to strengthen human rights and hold violators accountable. This is a long-term effort, but one that we are committed to seeing through to success. While we recognize that the Council has been a flawed body, we are working from within with a broad cross-section of member states to strengthen and reform it and enable it to be a more effective, more equitable forum for human rights and to live up to its full potential.

As part of this engagement with the international community on human rights implementation, in November 2010, the United States will take its turn to submit our report to the Human Rights Council through the Universal Periodic Review or UPR process. This is a comprehensive and collaborative process through which every member state of the United Nations – including the United States -- submits a reflection on its own human rights practices. The very act of presenting their records to an international forum has led some countries to take positive steps to ensure progress on human rights. We look forward to participating in the UPR process and hope to demonstrate how an open, orderly, and serious review can and should take place. We aim to seek input from the very active and effective non-governmental community in this country. We are holding public meetings in various parts of this country to allow these groups and community leaders to voice their concerns, and we will consult with other relevant U.S. agencies to coordinate outreach, report drafting, and approval.

As part of this process of examining our country’s human rights record, you should feel free to contact me directly about anti-Semitism in your communities. My email address is and I will ensure that your comments get to my colleagues at the Department of State who are engaged in the UPR process. Alternatively, you may submit your comments to the UPR inbox at

Education is important to promoting tolerance and combating anti-Semitism, both in the United States and abroad. Education can be a force for good, but it can also be misused. On a positive note, during my recent trip to Poland I attended a meeting in Krakow of education ministers from 29 countries. The conference focused on the preservation of Holocaust-related sites of memory and on tolerance education. The ministers represented countries that had pledged at the 60th anniversary commemoration of the liberation of Auschwitz in 2005 to undertake education and preservation projects to ensure that their countries’ youth understood the lessons of the Holocaust.

However, one element missing from the Education Ministers’ discussion was mention of the OSCE and how it can contribute to tolerance education. This struck me as odd given that OSCE’s democracy and human rights office – the Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights or ODIHR – is headquartered in Warsaw. ODIHR has a great deal to offer and through our mission to the OSCE in Vienna we encourage this body and its important work. I met with ODIHR officials while in Poland and can attest to their dedication.

Education can, unfortunately, be misused and perverted to encourage anti-Semitism rather than to promote tolerance. A children’s book in South Korea designed to teach about other countries included cartoons depicting Jewish conspiracies to control the U.S. media and cause the September 11 attacks. This book sold 10 million copies before the publisher pulled it from the market in 2007 (p. 21 of CGAS report).

"The Pineapple Show" is a recent play that was performed at the Ministry of Culture in Iran. It denies that the Holocaust occurred and uses a play on words to belittle the Holocaust. And of course we are all too familiar with the Iranian cartoon contest and conference to deny the Holocaust.

In secondary school textbooks published in Saudi Arabia by the government, high school students are exposed to such intolerant statements as:

  • “The pride of the Jews (is their) thinking of themselves as above others, and their claim that they are the chosen people of God even though God has proven them wrong and struck them with misery and humiliation.”
  • “The Torah of the Jews today is distorted and perverted.”
  • "Jews' lives are ruled by materialism and usury consumes them."
  • Even Freemasonry is described in these high school textbooks as being in the service of Jewish world domination, “And the goal concealed behind (Freemasonry’s) slogans is serving the Jews and securing their control over the world; they delude people that they have the control of the entire world in their hands.”

[Note: These examples were taken from secondary school curriculum that was freely offered on the Internet (2007-2008 academic year textbooks, published in Saudi Arabia).]

No government should produce materials that are intolerant of other religious, racial, or ethnic groups, or teach such intolerance as part of its educational curriculum and the State Department continues to focus on this important issue and express our concern to the Saudi government.

We should acknowledge that Saudi leaders have taken some positive steps on their own. King Abdullah has led a series of international interfaith summits that included the participation of Jewish leaders. The King Faisal International Prize for Medicine in 2009 was awarded to Stanford University cancer expert Dr. Ronald Levy, reportedly the first American Jewish scholar to win such a prize in Saudi Arabia. Though modest, these are real opportunities to reach out to a society that is the symbolic core for Muslims around the world.

The horror of the Holocaust is even used and abused. We are all familiar with Iranian President Ahmedinajad’s statements denying the Holocaust. But some are now taking it to a shocking new level, by celebrating the Holocaust and even promoting a new Holocaust against Jews, one that would be carried out by Muslims. MEMRI (the Middle East Media Research Institute) recently translated two bone-chilling video clips of radical Islamist clerics on major international television networks in January 2009, lauding the Holocaust. One -- broadcast over the Al-Rahma television channel in Egypt -- shows footage of the victims in their suffering and stages of death, while the program’s host repeatedly approves of what he called “their humiliation.” The clerics went on to conclude: “Allah willing, the next time it will be at the hand of us believers.” Al-Rahma is a private, Islamist-oriented media outlet, but these horrific statements did not meet with a critical response or rebuttal by the Egyptian government.

Just as education can be used for good or ill, the Internet can be a tool of free speech or of hate speech. I commend to you Secretary Clinton’s January 21 speech at the Newseum in Washington in which she discussed internet freedom and some of the tensions this evolving technology has created. Holocaust denial and promotion are not the only forms of hate speech in cyberspace, of course. As Secretary Clinton stated, “Hate speech that targets individuals on the basis of their race, religion, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation is reprehensible.” Tempting though it might be to call for certain websites to be shut down or chat rooms closed, I believe in the old adage that the antidote to hate speech is more free speech.

  • The Pew Global Attitudes Project released some survey results last year on unfavorable views of Jews and Muslims.
  • The survey found that negative opinions about Jews are on the rise in many countries, including most European countries. For example, 46 percent of people in Spain surveyed held negative opinions about Jews in 2008, up from 20 percent in 2004.
  • The French government recently appointed a special coordinator to deal with anti-Semitism and other forms of racism after a huge increase in anti-Semitic incidents in 2009 – more than twice the number reported in 2008.
  • In Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon, more than 95 percent of people hold a negative opinion of Jews.
  • This underscores the prevalence of anti-Semitic thought in the world that can often lead to anti-Semitic actions.


  • We will continue to fight anti-Semitism on all fronts. This is a multi-tiered struggle that needs multiple methods—from reporting, to international diplomacy, law enforcement, education, and public engagement.
  • We will challenge public figures who spread misinformation about the Jewish people. When acts of violence occur, we will call upon governmental authorities to condemn them and investigate promptly (from A/S Posner Hill testimony talking points) and will help with training for judges and law enforcement to make sure there is accountability.
  • We will continue to expose in detail anti-Semitic behavior in our annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices and International Religious Freedom Reports.
  • And we’ll work harder than ever at outreach across ethnic and religious lines, building our coalition of partners who will join us in this cause.
  • When I attend senior staff meetings in the Department of State’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, I look around the room and see the rich diversity that is America. I am sobered by the thought that if this were Germany in 1939, many of us, including the Assistant Secretary and myself, would be wearing yellow stars, others would have pink triangles due to their sexual orientation or black triangles due to their disabilities. Still others might have red triangles for political views or Freemasonry, or purple triangles as Jehovah’s Witnesses.
  • But this is the United States in the 21st century, a country that promotes tolerance and inclusivity and recently passed enhanced anti-hate crime legislation. The Obama Administration as a whole, and the Department of State in particular, are strongly committed to partnering with Congress, the NGO community, religious groups, foreign governments and within international institutions to combat this virulent form of intolerance in all its manifestations across the globe. Together with my colleagues at the Department of State in Washington, at our embassies around the world, and with everyone in this room, we can combat anti-Semitism and promote tolerance so that in the 21st century this age-old scourge finally is relegated to the past.
  • I look forward to working with you all.