Remarks at the 2011 B'nai B'rith International Policy Conference

Hannah Rosenthal
Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism 
Montevideo, Uruguay
December 5, 2011

Date: 12/05/2011 Description: Special Envoy Hannah Rosenthal addresses the B'nai B'rith International Policy Conference in Montevideo, Uruguay. - State Dept Image

Good afternoon. I am privileged to have joined this gathering not only as a representative of the United States Government, but also as a friend. I know personally the value of the work you do and I applaud you. As the oldest continually operating Jewish service organization in the world, B’nai B’rith has been a leading human rights organization since its founding in 1843, not only for the Jewish community, but worldwide. As an organization that first became involved in international issues because of the alarming increase of anti-Semitism in Romania in the 1870s, it is fitting that this – the first B’nai B’rith conference to ever be convened in Latin America – would herald those roots by presenting a conference entitled “Defending Israel and the Jewish World”. Regrettably, over 140 years after the founding of B’nai B’rith’s international arm, the Jewish community has the same concerns of rising anti-Semitism that they did in the 1870s. The only difference is that today we are concerned with rising anti-Semitism not only in Europe, but around the entire globe.

In the 21st century we are still facing rising anti-Semitism internationally and the shores of this continent are far from immune. In a recent survey undertaken by the University of Buenos Aires in Argentina, over 50% of the respondents acknowledged that there is discrimination against Jews. In Venezuela, government-affiliated media carry anti-Semitic expressions. And in Chile, Uruguay, and Brazil we have reports of anti-Semitic desecrations and harassment. These incidents tell us that anti-Semitism is not history, it is news. In addition, more than six decades after the end of the Second World War, anti-Semitism remains alive and well, and is evolving into new, contemporary forms of religious hatred, racism, and political, social, and cultural bigotry.

President Obama and Secretary Clinton have honored me with this appointment and have elevated my office and integrated it into the workings of all other parts of the State Department. I have been on the job for two years now – and I have seen six significant trends in anti-Semitism around the world all of which can also be found right here in Latin America:

Traditional forms of anti-Semitism are passed from one generation to the next, and sometimes updated to reflect current events. We are all familiar with hostile acts such as the defacing of property and the desecration of cemeteries with anti-Semitic graffiti. There are still some accusations of blood libel, which are morphing from the centuries-old accusations by the Catholic Church that Jews killed Christian children to use their blood for rituals, to accusations that Jews kidnap children to steal their organs. Conspiracy theories continue to have traction with some groups, such as supposed Jewish control of the U.S. media and the world banking system, or that Jews were involved in executing the September 11 attacks. The old Czarist forgery, “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” can be found in all corners of the world – from parts of the OSCE region to right here in South America.

This ‘old fashioned’ anti-Semitism is alive and well here in South America as well. On a visit to Chile, I saw swastikas spray-painted on university campuses. When I addressed a gathering of Jews from Latin America, Chileans who were present told me they feel uncomfortable wearing kippot and other outward symbols of Judaism. In April 2011, a host on state-run radio in Venezuela urged everyone to buy and read “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” Fortunately by May, that official was fired; a positive outcome.

Argentine Jews have told me that the unresolved 1992 and 1994 bombings of the Israeli Embassy and the AMIA Center and in Buenos Aires remains an open wound among their community. Jewish communities in the region have told me that the close association of some Latin American countries to a virulent anti-Semite and Holocaust denier like President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad leaves them unsettled.

A second phenomenon is Holocaust denial. It is being espoused by religious and political leaders, and is a standard on hateful websites and other media outlets. As the generation of Holocaust survivors and death camp liberators reaches their eighties and nineties, the window is closing on those able to provide live, eyewitness accounts. There is a heightened urgency to promote Holocaust education, create museums and memorials, and carry the memory and lessons of the Holocaust forward. In Ecuador the government is attempting to conquer Holocaust denial head on and to promote tolerance by training educators to teach all public high school students about human rights, the Holocaust, and recent genocides. They should be applauded for this proactive effort.

A third, disturbing trend is Holocaust glorification – Following a March 2011 commemoration in Latvia, a notorious neo-Nazi made blatantly anti-Semitic statements, including incitements to violence against Jews, on a television talk show. Holocaust glorification is especially virulent in Middle East media – some that is state owned and operated - calling for a new Holocaust to finish the job. This is occurring side-by-side with the growth of neo-Nazi groups. Truly bone-chilling.

A fourth concern is Holocaust relativism – where some governments, museums, academic research and the like are conflating the Holocaust with other terrible events that entailed great human suffering, like the Soviet regime. No one, least of all myself, wants to weigh atrocities against each other, but to group together these horrific chapters of history is not only historically inaccurate, it also misses opportunities to learn important lessons from each historic event even as we reflect on universal truths about the need to defend human rights and combat hatred in all of its forms. History must be precise – it must instruct, it must warn, and it must inspire us to learn the particular and universal values as we prepare to mend this fractured world. While we support and defend freedom of speech, when cartoons in the international press depict Israeli Foreign Minister Lieberman with half his face as Adolf Hilter, precision is lost and anti-Semitism is born – and civil society should reject this type of action.

The fifth trend is the increasing tendency of opposition to the policies of the State of Israel to cross the line into anti-Semitism. What I hear from our 194 diplomatic missions around the world, and from our close relationship with NGOs in the US and in other nations, is that this happens easily and often. I want to be clear – criticism of policies of the State of Israel is not anti-Semitism and, as Jews, we have to recognize that. But we record huge increases in anti-Semitic acts whenever there are hostilities in the Middle East. In Argentina, the Delegation of Jewish Argentine Associations attributed a 2009 spike in anti-Semitic acts almost exclusively to the conflict in the Gaza Strip. This form of anti-Semitism is more difficult for many to identify. But if all Jews are held responsible for the decisions of the sovereign State of Israel, when governments like Venezuela make anti-Israel statements that fail to distinguish between criticism of Israel and hostility towards the Jewish community.– this is not objecting to a policy – this is anti-Semitism. When all academics and experts from Israel are effectively banned or their conferences boycotted, or individual Jews are held responsible for Israeli policy – this is not objecting to a policy – this is anti-Semitism.

Our State Department uses Natan Sharansky’s “Three Ds” test for identifying when someone or a government crosses the line from criticizing Israeli policies into anti-Semitism: when Israel is demonized, when Israel is held to different standards than the rest of the countries, and when Israel is delegitimized. The U.S. is often one of the few “no” votes in international bodies where countries seem to have an obsession with singling out Israel for disproportionate condemnation. As leaders of Jewish communities you know that a single “no” vote is insufficient and outreach to other countries is essential.

The sixth trend is the growing nationalistic movements which target ‘the other’ – be they immigrants, or religious and ethnic minorities -- in the name of protecting the identity and ‘purity’ of their nation. When this fear or hatred of the ‘other’ occurs or when people try to find a scapegoat for the instability around them, it is rarely good for the Jews. The history of Europe, with pogroms, Nazism and ethnic cleansing provides sufficient evidence. And when government officials talk about protecting a country’s purity, we’ve seen that movie before.

The State Department monitors these trends and activities and reports on them in all 198 countries and territories – in two major annual reports: The International Religious Freedom report and the Human Rights report. I am now involved in developing a major training initiative for State Department employees so they can better monitor what is happening in their countries, and sensitize them to the various forms of anti-Semitism – this will make our annual reports more comprehensive, and allow us to do an even better job of monitoring and confronting anti-Semitism in all its forms. If we don’t chronicle it, if we don’t name it, we can’t fight it.

Of course, it isn’t enough to study and monitor these deeply troubling trends. It is critical that we act to reverse them. My approach to combating anti-Semitism is not just to preach to the choir, so to speak, but to join in partnership with non-Jews in condemning it – government, civil society, international institutions, business leaders, labor unions, and the media.

Not long ago, Secretary Clinton launched an initiative to strengthen civil society across the globe and she instructed all of us in the State Department and all our overseas posts to treat civil society as strategic partners. Partnering with opinion leaders from civil society as well as government -- as well as building bridges among ethnic and religious groups, is the way to change a culture – from fear and negative stereotyping to acceptance and understanding, from narrow mindedness to an embrace of diversity, from hate to tolerance.

Educating our young is a priority - they are our future; their values and opinions form at a very early age.

No government should produce materials that are intolerant of members of any religious, racial, or ethnic group, or teach such intolerance as part of its educational curriculum. A child is not born with hate. A child is taught to hate. The Department of State continues to focus on this important issue and express our concern to the governments using such hateful lessons and textbooks, calling Jews the children of apes and pigs or promoting the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

The United States through the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement provides training to foreign law enforcement officials, which covers crimes against vulnerable groups, including Jews, because these issues are of prominent concern to the U.S. We use old and new technologies to communicate with the public about human rights, tolerance and democracy. We strongly support the freedoms for all people to express their views, even distasteful ones, both offline and online – but we also work to promote tolerance and to eradicate ignorance. We are enhancing our cultural and educational exchanges to showcase our civil society organizations, and to learn from the successes of other countries in confronting and combating hate in all of its forms.

I want to mention two examples of efforts I am engaged in to combat certain forms of anti-Semitism I have mentioned.

To combat the Holocaust denial, I went with eight leading imams, two of which had been deniers, to Dachau and Auschwitz. My goal was to have them issue a statement condemning Holocaust denial.

When we arrived at Dachau, Germany’s first concentration camp, the imams were overcome with the pictures they saw and immediately went to the ground in prayer, at the sculpture commemorating the six million Jews exterminated. At that moment I knew I was watching history being made. All passers-by, tourists, docents, stopped in their tracks to witness this spontaneous prayer of these leading imams. And when we got to Auschwitz, it was overwhelming for them, and for some transformational. We were walking amidst ash and bone fragments from the 1.5 million Jews exterminated there – solely because of who they were. We were facing the fact that unfettered and unanswered hatred can indeed create an Auschwitz. All the imams had their own catharsis there, and together they produced a statement strongly condemning Holocaust denial and all other forms of anti-Semitism.

They are now urging colleagues and schools to join their statement. Some are planning to take their youth on the same trip, to become witness to history, to teach the power of hatred, and the power that condemnation can have to stop the hatred.

Also, my colleague Farah Pandith, the Special Representative to Muslim Communities, and I have launched a virtual campaign called “2011 Hours Against Hate.” We are asking young people around the world to pledge a number of hours to volunteer to help or serve a population different than their own. We ask them to work with people who may look different, or pray differently or live differently. For example, a young Jew might volunteer time to read books at a Muslim pre-school, or a Russian Orthodox at a Jewish clinic, or a Muslim at a Baha’i food pantry. To walk in another person’s shoes.

We are using Facebook (with such a huge user population, that if it were a country, it would be the third largest in the world,) and other social media to connect the youth globally, and to engage them to go beyond words, speeches, or even lectures – providing a vehicle to DO something to promote tolerance and practice mutual respect.

We began meeting with thousands of young people – students and young professionals – in Turkey, Azerbaijan, Spain, Lebanon, and Jordan – countries that in their histories celebrated Jews and Muslims co-existing and thriving together. They want to DO something. They expressed strong interest in the campaign – and we already have over 16,000 hours pledged. The Olympic Committee is trying to incorporate the Hours Against Hate campaign into the 2012 London Summer Games. And we really have just begun.

So while I fight anti-Semitism, I am also aware that hate is hate. Nothing justifies it – not economic instability, and not international events.

Together, we must confront and combat the many forms of hatred in our world today. Where there is hatred born of ignorance, we must teach and inspire. Where there is hatred born of blindness, we must expose people to a larger world of ideas and reach out, especially to youth, so they can see beyond their immediate circumstances. Where there is hatred whipped up by irresponsible leaders, we must call them out and answer as strongly as we can – and make their message totally unacceptable to all people of conscience.

When history records this chapter I hope it will reflect our efforts to build a peaceful, fair, just, free world where people defend universal human rights and dignity. This is not a vision to be dismissed as kumbaya or naïve idealism – it is a real goal that should never be far from our thoughts. It is a vision that inspired the birth of this organization over 165 years ago.

Since the beginning of humankind, hate has been around, but since then too, good people of all faiths and backgrounds have striven to combat it.

The Jewish tradition tells us that “you are not required to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.”