Remarks at Anti-Defamation League Chicago Regional Centennial Celebration

Ira N. Forman
Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism 
Standard Club
Chicago, IL
July 8, 2013

Good evening, thank you for the invitation.

I congratulate the ADL on its 100-year history of dedication to the cause of combating anti-Semitism. Working towards the vital mission to “Imagine a World without Hate,” the ADL has shown itself to be a tireless force for change, a champion of America’s values, and a shield against extremism.

I have shared the Anti-Defamation League’s priorities throughout my career. After working with the Center for National Policy and Clinton administration, I became the Executive Director of the National Jewish Democratic Council in 1996. In September 2011, I was named Jewish Outreach Director for President Obama’s 2012 Reelection Campaign.

It was my privilege to accept the appointment as U.S. Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism. The State Department has made clear its continued commitment on this vital issue. As Secretary Kerry stated at the April Centennial Summit, “We all of us have to join in a common resolve to stand up, speak out, and act against anti-Semitism and all forms of hatred, whenever and wherever they occur.”

He noted that he has “never met a child, two-and-a-half years old, or two years old, or three years old, who hates anybody. Hate is taught.” Neither have I.

And of course, he emphasized the ADL has “been an invaluable ally in our shared struggle to promote human dignity and justice for imperiled minority groups around the world.”

To that end, as Special Envoy, I meet with senior officials from countries all over the world. Together we encourage the empowerment of local actors to prevent and prosecute hate crimes and to promote tolerance and respect.

Here in Washington, we inform and educate State Department employees working on a wide variety of issues and engaging with foreign leaders. We regularly deliver training modules on anti-Semitism at the Foreign Service Institute.

U.S. embassies around the world have a standing tasking to make sure we’re informed about anti-Semitic incidents as they happen. They also are charged with knowing who to engage to promote tolerance to ensure that a trend against discrimination and violence does not gain momentum. Our effort is not to simply criticize, though we are not shy about doing so when warranted.

Rather, our job is to make a difference. In some countries, simply pointing out that a criticism of Israel contains anti-Semitic assumptions may change the way public figures put forward their position.

In other places, the culture of anti-Semitism is so strong that public figures are reluctant to speak out even when they are personally persuaded that the common wisdom – or lack thereof – is wrong. In these cases, we need to work with local actors to identify concrete steps that will make a real change over time, rather than a headline for a day.

In this regard, my predecessor, Hannah Rosenthal, traveled to over 30 countries during her tenure as Special Envoy. She had significant success in getting senior officials to speak out and condemn the Holocaust—in changing the way educational systems incorporate lessons about the Holocaust into curricula—and, most importantly, in helping empower local actors to prevent, combat and prosecute hate crimes and promote tolerance and respect.

And it is not all talk. Hannah and the Special Representative to Muslim Communities, Farah Pandith, put in place a program called “Hours Against Hate.” It encouraged young people to work together across the lines of religion and tradition on projects that benefitted both Jewish and non-Jewish communities. It became an official tolerance campaign for the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Our work ensures that places where anti-Semitism is at its most virulent can have access to programs that promote tolerance and mutual understanding over hate.

The enormity of this task only underscores its urgency.

More than six decades after the end of the Second World War, anti-Semitism is alive and well. Centuries-old stereotypes and myths are conflated with current events to inject new life into the stale prejudices of the past. In many cases, myths and misinformation about Israel were indoctrinated into the minds of people by authoritarian regimes desperately seeking a pretext to remain in power.

The myths and misinformation have outlived the regimes that propagated them. Undoing the damage that has been done doubtless will be the work of generations. But the enormity of the task only underscores its urgency.

The trends are deeply troubling.

“Old fashioned” anti-Semitism is instilling fear where there should be freedom and draining Jewish communities of resources they can ill afford. We are all too familiar with ongoing hostile acts such as the defacing of property and the desecration of cemeteries with anti-Semitic graffiti.

Old slanders are recycled, such as when a Hungarian Member of Parliament from the Jobbik party last year made reference to a long-discredited accusation of blood libel from 1882.

Conspiracy theories continue to flourish in the Middle East. These include supposed Jewish control of the U.S. media and the world banking system, and claims that Jews were involved in executing the September 11 attacks.

In Venezuela, the government-controlled media published numerous anti-Semitic statements against opposition leaders including former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, a Roman Catholic with Jewish ancestors.

Last summer, Iranian Vice President Rahimi at an anti-drug conference blamed the Talmud for the spread of illegal drugs.

In France, the Jewish community recorded in 2012 a 58 percent year-on-year increase in the number of anti-Semitic attacks.

In the United Kingdom, the Community Security Trust reported 2012 to be “the third worst year on record” since it began tracking these figures in 1984.

In our own country, almost two-thirds of hate crimes committed each year on the basis of religion or belief are committed against Jews.

Jewish communities cannot but believe their fears are justified when they go to their parliament and see elected representatives reading aloud “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion”-- as a Golden Dawn Member of Parliament did in Greece last year.

Or when they hear politicians call for a list of Jews to be collected because they pose a “security risk” to their home country -- as a representative of Jobbik did in Hungary last year.

Or when they turn on the TV and hear a political leader (and future president) praying for the destruction of the Jewish homeland or calling Jews descendants of apes and pigs -- as happened in Egypt.

They cannot feel safe when they hear their people accused of crimes they could never have committed, when Iranian officials blamed Jews for the massacre of Muslims in Burma.

It is clear there is much work to be done.

On my first day as Special Envoy, just a few hours after Secretary Kerry introduced me at the launch of the 2012 International Religious Freedom Report, I boarded a plane to Europe. I spent the next week in Poland with a group of international imams. They also visited the Nazi camp at Dachau in Germany.

What a trip that was. It was my first time visiting the Nazi camps at Auschwitz- Birkenau. No one can visit these places and not be deeply affected, but to share the experience with faith leaders from places as diverse as Indonesia and Bosnia was tremendously rewarding. A Palestinian imam I traveled with shared these reflections:

  • “For me Auschwitz means a difficult situation. It means collectively punishing. It means genocidal killing of civilian people…children, women, without any reason. This is what it means for me. It means evil things, a terrible past, and at the same time, it means hope.
  • “Why hope? Because the people here in Europe, with what they have faced in the past, they have overcome the discrimination, all the terrible things. And now they live with peace…with safety. This means we can, in the Holy Land, do the same thing. We can overcome our conflict, our wars, our people who were killed, and we can talk together to reach a peace.”

This trip succeeded in closing gaps in understanding, and I too, came away more committed to seeking peace and a world that can move past hate.

I am honored to join the ADL and organizations around the world working towards this mission. It is my distinct privilege to be able to contribute to these efforts to promote acceptance, respect, and tolerance. I look forward to working with you in the months and years to come, and I thank all of you for what you do every day to this end.