Anti-Semitism and Other Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination -- How Do We Combat Them?

Ira N. Forman
Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism 
Panel Discussion Honoring the Centenary of the Birth of Raoul Wallenberg
Brussels, Belgium
June 12, 2013


Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for being here this evening. I want to thank our host Belgium and organizer Sweden as well as the representatives of Hungary and Israel for participating in the series of events commemorating Raoul Wallenberg in Brussels this year.

I am here today to share with you the strong commitment of the United States to combat anti-Semitism. Let me tell you a quick story about the creation of my position. One could say that this position exists because of Raoul Wallenberg.

Raoul Wallenberg saved thousands of Jewish Hungarians during the Holocaust. A teenaged Thomas Lantos, the only Holocaust survivor ever to serve in the United States Congress, was one of them.

Congressman Lantos represented the U.S. at the United Nations World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa in 2001. The prevalence of viciously anti-Semitic sentiment and attempts to de-legitimize the state of Israel he saw there led him to the conclusion that the United States must be more involved in fighting the evil of anti-Semitism.

It led to his introduction of the legislation that paved the way for the position of Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism.

Now, nearly 70 years later, Raoul Wallenberg’s ideals are generating a renewal of the fight against hate and anti-Semitism. They got rid of the man but they could not defeat his ideals.

And today we also stand in support of the Government of Sweden’s efforts to obtain a full accounting of Wallenberg’s fate, and ask all governments and individuals in a position to shed light on it to cooperate and come forward.

It is notable that this conference is taking place in Belgium, a country with a long and complicated history in the fight against anti-Semitism. In 1939 neutral Belgium welcomed nearly a thousand Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution in Germany aboard the passenger ship M.S. St. Louis.

During what was a difficult and complicated part of my country’s history as well, this ship and her passengers were denied entry to the United States when their planned disembarkation in Cuba fell through.

Thanks to Belgium’s generosity, as well as that of England, France and the Netherlands, many of these passengers escaped the fate that awaited them under the Nazis, but hundreds ultimately perished when Belgium was occupied, along with thousands of other Jews who were deported during the Holocaust.

Emerging from this dark chapter of history, the Government of Belgium today deserves commendation. On January 24, the Belgian Senate unanimously adopted a resolution recognizing “the responsibility of Belgian authorities – and, through them, the Belgian state,” for the deportation of over 29,000 Jews during the Nazi occupation in World War II.

This followed Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo’s apology in September, 2012, for the role of Belgian officials in the deportations of Jews and Roma to Nazi concentration camps.

Along with this resolution came recommendations for Holocaust education in all Belgian high schools.

We applaud this resolution -- and the individuals who worked so hard to craft and pass it.

I also thank the Government of Belgium for its work last year as chair of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, a fitting name for this organization which was adopted during Belgium’s chairmanship.

Current Forms of Anti-Semitism

Today we are here to discuss current forms of anti-Semitism.

While I’m new to this job— this is my fourth week— I have participated in a trip to combat anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial with a group of Muslim clerics and scholars.

And I have already had the opportunity to join, and learn from, other government officials, non-governmental organizations, and Jewish community leaders at the recent Global Forum for Combating Anti-Semitism in Jerusalem.

I have some thoughts to share with you about anti-Semitism today and would like to let you know some of the things the United States government is doing to combat it.

As Secretary of State John Kerry said when he addressed the Anti-Defamation League’s Centennial in April, “More than six decades after World War II ended, six decades after the world's collective horror at the Holocaust, anti-Semitism remains a dangerous menace. We need to continue to tell the world this is simply unacceptable. At the beginning of the 21st century, we need to come together to condemn anti-Semitism in every form -- whether it's the disturbing rise of xenophobic and anti-Semitic parties in Europe or the uptick of violence against Jewish people anywhere in the world.”

We can and we must support efforts to combat hate and promote tolerance in our world.

We are attempting to advance these principles through diplomacy, public messaging and programs all over the world. Our strategy is to confront and combat hatred in all its ugly forms -- whether it is hatred directed against people on account of their religion, ethnicity, race, sexual orientation, or differences of political opinion, or due to their country of origin.

Anti-Semitism is a particularly old and virulent form of such hatred. If we want to change these trends, we need to stand together in our efforts to promote tolerance, acceptance and compassion.

Unfortunately, anti-Semitism is not history -- it is news. Centuries-old stereotypes and myths are conflated with current events to inject new life into persistent prejudices of the past.

“Old fashioned” anti-Semitism is instilling fear where there should be freedom and draining small and vulnerable 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.

Last year, a member of the Golden Dawn party in Greece stood up in Parliament to read from the Tsarist forgery, “Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”

In November 2012, a Hungarian Member of Parliament from the Jobbik party suggested drawing up a list of Jews in government and other prominent positions, questioning their loyalty and suggesting they are a threat to the country.

While I was at the Global Forum for Combating Anti-Semitism in Israel at the end of May, an offensive cartoon appeared in a Norwegian newspaper depicting a rabbinic-looking man holding a baby down with a pitchfork while a religious woman cut off his toes. The U.S. government firmly believes in freedom of religion and freedom of expression; they are universal rights, enshrined in the U.S. Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

As always, however, we hope that responsible government and civic leaders would make clear their objections to speech that promotes intolerance. And I should mention that Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban addressed the World Jewish Council in Budapest and condemned anti-Semitism while admitting Jobbik is a problem.

The government in Greece has also distanced itself from Golden Dawn and recent murders of migrant workers have seen the assailants prosecuted aggressively.

I want to mention one particularly excellent example of a governmental leader speaking out. For the past couple of years, the Jewish community in the Southern Swedish town of Malmo was suffering from attacks on their synagogues and community centers, threats against the rabbi and his young family, and demonstrations against their community wrapped in anger toward Israel.

Its mayor had a record of making anti-Semitic statements. My predecessor, Hannah Rosenthal, visited Malmo and met with the mayor, among others, in April of 2012.

Reporting her conversations to government officials in the capital, she found the government of Sweden ready to support her message. Minister for Integration Erik Ullenhag publicly condemned the mayor’s hurtful rhetoric in the strongest terms. Describing his language as “ignorant and bigoted” he said the mayor was “complicating the work to combat anti-Semitism.”

The mayor has this year decided not to seek re-election after 20 years on the job, but I will positively note that he has come out in displays of public solidarity with the Jewish community in Malmo since former Special Envoy Rosenthal’s visit, including participating in a demonstration against anti-Semitism last October.

Holocaust denial, Holocaust glorification and Holocaust relativism are also current forms of anti-Semitism. Iranian President Ahmadinejad is one of the most vocal Holocaust deniers.

My trip with a group of international imams and Muslim scholars to the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau is one such way in which we combat Holocaust denial and glorification.

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.

Last week, I met with a group of rabbis and imams from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, on a trip to learn about the American model of cultural and interfaith relations.

Interfaith outreach is an important part of my job. The more people learn about their neighbors – their faith, their traditions, their ways of life – the more we can build mutual respect and understanding and confront anti-Semitism and hate.

Hate of “the other” is particularly strong today in some parts of the world. Another troubling trend we’ve seen is the rise of xenophobic parties in Europe, movements that target immigrants, and religious and ethnic minorities in the name of protecting the identity and ‘purity’ of their nation.

In Greece, Golden Dawn won almost 7% of the vote, and has increased its popularity since the election. It has targeted persons perceived to be illegal migrants in attacks, in addition to demeaning Jews.

In Hungary, Jobbik holds over 11% of the seats in the Hungarian parliament.

Perhaps even more disturbing, both Jobbik in Hungary and Golden Dawn in Greece have inspired black-shirted thugs to threaten and intimidate people through violence— ugly echoes of developments that we saw in Europe in the 1930s, another time of economic difficulties.

Another troubling trend is the persistent tendency of blurring the lines between opposition to the policies of the State of Israel and anti-Semitism. This happens easily and often, especially in Europe, among some who are genuinely concerned about the plight of the Palestinians.

I want to be clear – criticism of policies of the State of Israel is not to be automatically conflated with anti-Semitism. But when criticism of Israeli policy includes charges that Zionism is an ideology of religious or ethnic superiority, or that Israel is immunized from international criticism because Jews control the media or the banking system, then the speakers – sometimes quite unconsciously – are promoting the same old anti-Semitic attitudes that were around for centuries before the current State of Israel was founded.

We remain concerned when bodies like the UN Human Rights Council maintain a separate agenda item on Israel while every other country in the world is lumped together in a single item, and for some members this is likely spurred by anti-Semitic views.

Making a Difference

As we fight anti-Semitism, we must remember that hate is hate. Nothing justifies it – not economic instability and not international events.

If we educate diverse people about the current trends of anti-Semitism, if we call out propaganda and lies, stereotypes and myths, if we condemn indifference and intolerance, we can make progress.

If we educate, especially young people, about what is possible, if we highlight people who did the right thing, like Raoul Wallenberg, we can make progress against anti-Semitism.

If children learn about the contributions of minorities to society, if we utilize old technologies and new forms of communication to inform and inspire, if we sensitively instruct and train how to teach about the particular universal lessons of the Holocaust, we can move the needle against all forms of hatred.

Education is critical.

I am pleased that there are many teachers in this audience, and that Belgium has programs in place to educate young people about the Holocaust in their schools, as well as taking teens to visit Nazi death camps and seeing exhibits about the concentration and death camp system.

One story that should be taught is that of Sweden’s Raoul Wallenberg. I am sure most of this audience knows the story well. Under diplomatic cover and with the help of colleagues and other individuals, Wallenberg was able to save thousands of Jewish Hungarians between July and December 1944.

He did so by issuing fake passports and hiding Jews in buildings he rented and declared property of the Swedish government. He did it with the full support of the government of Sweden. Wallenberg’s story is one of courage and selflessness. Like other heroes of Nazi occupied Europe he risked everything to stand up for his fellow human beings in the face of powerful and monstrous evil.

As I recently walked through Auschwitz-Birkenau I must admit I pondered whether I myself would have had the courage to do what Wallenberg and other righteous among the nations did. As great educators it is my guess that many of you in this audience can use these types of experiences to inspire the next generations to put themselves in the shoes of the victims… or in the shoes Raoul Wallenberg. To make them ponder that great evil and ask themselves how we can confront the evil of anti-Semitism in our own times.

Wallenberg’s acts of courage not only saved thousands of Jewish Hungarians in 1944, but we use them to educate and inspire 70 years later. We remember his fate, we honor his courage again and we continue the work he gave his life for.

At the Department of State, human rights training includes segments on identifying anti-Semitism. This will help sensitize State Department officers to the various forms of anti-Semitism and help us better monitor what is happening in their host countries.

This will make our annual human rights reports more comprehensive, and allow us to do an even better job of monitoring and confronting anti-Semitism.

In educating and raising awareness of anti-Semitism and related Holocaust denial, we provide innovative programming – both in Washington at the State Department and overseas.

We have sent every American embassy and consulate copies of the documentary, “The Last Flight of Petr Ginz,” about a Czech boy imprisoned in Theresienstadt, ultimately being deported to Auschwitz where he perished. The United Nations Holocaust Programme prepared a study guide with the film, which we also sent, and my predecessor as Special Envoy suggested ways to reach out to local communities to mark Kristallnacht and the International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

When I return, we will offer a program, “Lost Music of the Holocaust,” featuring music composed by people who were in hiding or in concentration and extermination camps. A world premiere live performance of one piece composed in Dachau will be performed by the grandson of a Schindler’s List Holocaust survivor. We have invited the diplomatic community, Jewish organizations and other local contacts, as well as employees of the Department of State.

In addition to education, let me note the vital role that monitoring, hate crime legislation, collection of disaggregated hate crime statistics, law enforcement and prosecution of hate crimes also play in combating anti-Semitism.


As an American, I am proud that the United States has made the fight against anti-Semitism a national priority. I am honored that Secretary Kerry and President Obama have selected me to help with this task. And I am pleased to acknowledge and affirm the efforts of other nations and other peoples to fight the scourge of anti-Semitism.

And so I would like to profoundly thank the governments of Belgium, Hungary, Israel and Sweden for holding this program tonight.

This fight against anti-Semitism, against all forms of intolerance, requires the commitment of not just governments but of individuals. And ordinary men and women of good-will must be a part of this fight. It is our job to help educate and inspire that fight.

Each of us will come to that inspiration from different paths. For me it started with the simple values of tolerance and equality that I learned from my parents around the dinner table. And it has been strengthened by the examples of the righteous, exemplified by Raoul Wallenberg.

Just last week we observed in the United States the 45th anniversary of the tragic death of Robert F. Kennedy. In an anti-apartheid speech given before young people in South Africa a few years earlier Senator Kennedy spoke of the thousands of men and women in Europe who resisted the occupation of the Nazis— many of whom gave their lives for that resistance. He went on to add “It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

Today it remains our job— to create our own ripples, and carry Raoul Wallenberg’s battle against anti-Semitism and intolerance into a new century.

Thank you.