Remarks at Jan Karski Institute for Holocaust Education Summer Certificate Program for Educators

Ira N. Forman
Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism 
Marshall Auditorium, Department of State
Washington, DC
July 19, 2013

Thank you; good morning. It is my pleasure to speak to you today at such a fantastic program.

Today I want to address two topics:

  • The position of Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism at the State Department
  • A report on my first two months in this job and what I have learned so far

But first I have a question. How many of you, before you joined this program today, were aware that our federal government has a position at our State Department that is solely dedicated to the issue of anti-Semitism around the world? Please raise your hand.

I see that we have a lot of work to do to raise awareness of the U.S. government’s commitment to fight anti-Semitism.

The position of Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism (SEAS for short) was created by the Global Anti-Semitism Review Act of 2004. I am a part of the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (DRL).

As Americans, this piece of legislation and the position it produced surely should make us proud.

At a time when most issues of our day are caught up in partisan rancor, this legislation and this cause were, and are, truly bi-partisan.

Republican George Voinovich in the Senate and Republican Chris Smith and Democrat Tom Lantos— the only Holocaust Survivor to be elected to the U.S. Congress – in the House co-sponsored the legislation.

It is an effort that President Barack Obama and former President George W. Bush have whole-heartedly endorsed.

Secretary of State Kerry, in his first six months in office, has repeatedly stated the importance of battling anti-Semitism and all forms of bigotry and intolerance.

Think about it for a moment. Anti-Semitism may be the oldest existing specific manifestation of hatred, but there are only some 13 million Jews in the world. There are many forms of bigotry and intolerance all over the globe.

Yet the U.S. Congress and Presidents of the United States have committed our country’s resources and energy to specifically target this virulent form of hate— at the same time we are committed to the great task of expanding the protection of human rights all over the globe.

So what does SEAS specifically do?

The name says it all. First, I monitor anti-Semitism. In two of the most widely followed reports the State Department issues—the annual Human Rights Report and the International Religious Freedom Report— our team contributes information for each relevant country about the state of anti-Semitism in the preceding year. And we do so to educate the public—both in the United States and overseas—on the extent of the problem.

But even before we summarize the state of anti-Semitism in the nations of the world, we must collect that information in a systematic way. Part of that collection process entails following reports of anti-Semitism in the media. And perhaps even more importantly, our Foreign Service Officers in almost 300 embassies and consulates around the world are trained to understand and recognize the nature of modern anti-Semitism. They need to have the tools to monitor anti-Semitism from their posts and report on it to Washington. And, where appropriate, they are working to mitigate and counter anti-Semitism.

In my brief time as the SEAS, what have I learned about the state of anti-Semitism in the world today?

Let me first explain a little about what I brought to this job. As you can see, I am a baby boomer. In the first half of the twentieth century, anti-Semitism in the United States was at its most virulent — something that touched the lives of my parents and grandparents. Yet for most of us who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, anti-Semitism has never been a major issue in our lives.

As someone who worked in the Jewish communal world for much of my career, I followed and was aware of world-wide anti-Semitism. But in the last century most of us believed that this disease was on the wane.

The last decade changed that perception. The Durban Conference, the fallout from the second Palestinian Intifada, and 9/11 have all contributed to the change in our collective view.

While anti-Semitism in the United States remains at low levels, one cannot avoid coming to the conclusion that almost 70 years after the Holocaust, anti-Semitism is on the march again in many parts of the world.

From what I have seen in my first two months on the job, the problem may be even more severe than I even thought as recently as two months ago.

On May 20, I was sworn in as the SEAS at 10:30 in the morning. At 4 p.m. that very afternoon, I was on my way to Poland and Israel for two weeks.

In Israel I participated in the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s Global Forum on Combating Anti-Semitism. At that forum, I spent valuable time meeting diplomats, non-governmental organization representatives and Jewish community members from around the world. Outside of the conference, I met with both Israeli and Palestinian Authority officials. Our conversations included discussions on:

  • How efficient the internet has become as a vehicle to disseminate anti-Semitism and other forms of hate. Material that 15 years ago would have been distributed within a relatively small circle of cranks and extremists can now reach thousands and even millions with one click of a mouse;
  • How the Boycott and Divestment movement, by exerting economic and political pressure, is deeply connected to attempts to delegitimize and defame the state of Israel;
  • How to define legitimate criticism of the state of Israel and where it crosses the line into anti-Semitism;
  • How to best work with new governments in the Middle East to ensure new constitutions and legal frameworks respect all people—of all religions;
  • How the continued economic downturn and high levels of youth unemployment in Europe have helped foster disenchantment with mainstream politicians and the rise of left- and right-wing extremist nationalist parties. Parties which, in some cases, have gained enough strength to win parliamentary seats despite —or perhaps because of—appeals to anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry. Parties which, in some cases, have developed brown-shirt-type paramilitary forces. And though history never exactly repeats itself, one cannot help but remember how the Great Depression spawned similar movements in the 1920s and 1930s; and
  • How the “old” anti-Semitism, which was often fostered by extreme right-wing and xenophobic forces, is alive and well.

In central and eastern Europe, for example:

  • A member of parliament from the Jobbik party in Hungary questioned the patriotism of Hungarians of Jewish descent and called for a list of Jewish government officials to be compiled.
  • And in Greece, a country particularly hard hit by the great recession, a member of the Golden Dawn Party openly read the famous forgery “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” on the floor of the Greek Parliament.

But new forms of anti-Semitism have also developed: In other parts of Europe and South America, immigrant populations (often themselves targets of discrimination) are partially infected with particularly virulent forms of anti-Semitism which is fueled by the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

This is often a result of some satellite TV channels from the Middle East integrating anti-Semitic rhetoric into programming that reaches beyond the region.

The export of anti-Semitism in media and educational materials is a particular concern of mine. In my meeting with the Palestinian Education Minister, for instance, we discussed the portrayal of Jews in textbooks and social media, and learned that a comprehensive review of Palestinian textbooks is coming up by the Palestinian Authority.

But if my trip to the Global Forum on Anti-Semitism was instructive, my next trip to Europe was eye-opening. In June I traveled to Brussels to deliver a speech on combating anti-Semitism at a conference honoring the centenary of the birth of Raoul Wallenberg. I met representatives of human rights NGOs as well as of Belgium’s Jewish community.

I was told publically and privately by several interlocutors, leaders from the Brussels and Antwerp Jewish communities, that Jews in Belgium are coming under increasing pressure from anti-Semites. For example:

  • Some secular Jewish families are moving their children to religious schools because they are targeted and physically assaulted in the public schools;
  • If one wears religious garb or jewelry in public, at a minimum, one may be subject to verbal harassment;
  • Members of the Jewish community and NGOs told me the source of this problem comes from within the growing Muslim community—a community which itself is a target of prejudice from the majority population.
  • I’m pleased to report that the government of Belgium is committed to stopping Anti-Semitism and intolerance in all its forms. The Ministries of Interior and Justice organize an encounter with the Jewish community every six weeks to discuss concerns, and the Belgian government recently issued an apology for the role of the Belgian State in the deportation of some 25,000 Jews and 351 Roma in World War II.
  • We continue to work to make sure action follows this promising dialog, to hold perpetrators accountable.

From Brussels I flew to Berlin to attend a conference hosted by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe -- OSCE -- on the security of European Jewish communities. If anything, the mood at this conference was even more somber than in Brussels.

  • The cost of security for Jewish institutions in Europe can be upwards of 20% of that organization’s budget. For smaller, poorer communities, this is an increasingly difficult burden.
  • Only in Germany is the government willing to meaningfully subsidize these costs. In many other countries, the police/security forces closely cooperate with local Jewish communities to avoid security problems. But in some European nations, the police will not even work with communities as they struggle to protect themselves. We need to work with governments to assure that protecting Jewish communities is a priority, despite financial challenges.
  • Tragically, recent events have proven to us the crucial need for security at schools and community centers. In France, the 2012 killings of three children and a rabbi at a Jewish school in Toulouse—after the killer also killed three French soldiers, one of whom was Muslim—have cast a chill upon the largest Jewish community in Europe.
  • What I heard from some (though certainly not all) Jewish community representatives at the conference was that if present trends continue we are looking at the end of Jewish communities in many European countries.

Even sitting at my desk in Washington I cannot avoid confronting new evidence of anti-Semitism. Just two examples from recent weeks:

  • In the wake of anti-government demonstrations that began as an environmental campaign in Taksim Square and quickly spread throughout Turkey, a number of senior Turkish officials repeatedly suggested that the “interest rate lobby” or even the “Jewish Diaspora” were responsible for instigating the protests.
  • In the United Arab Emirates and Iraq, during Ramadan, cable television is featuring a mini-series called Khaybar. According to the series’ own scriptwriter, “[t]he goal of the series is to expose the naked truth about the Jews and stress they cannot be trusted.”

I don’t want to end without also telling you that in these first two months I have also been heartened by positive developments.

On my first day on the job, I flew to Poland, where I joined a group of international imams and Muslim scholars who were visiting Nazi concentration and death camps and speaking to Holocaust survivors.

I will never forget these experiences and the reactions of these individuals to the evidence of the Holocaust. Of course, there were the horrified reactions to the stories of the survivors, the bundles of hair and piles of baby shoes. But what were truly memorable were the conversations at the end of the trip when one after another they agonized about what they could do to make the world aware of what happened—and to ensure it never happened again.

These are the types of conversations I intend to foster as Special Envoy, whether in formal meetings with government officials and NGOs, or in more informal conversations with religious communities.

And that's where the second half of my mission, combating anti-Semitism comes in. So let me tell you a bit more about how I see my role.

I will visit other countries—as many as I can.

This will give me the opportunity to see for myself where and how anti-Semitism was generated and how it was impacting Jewish communities around the world.

Where anti-Semitism is rampant, I will meet with foreign governments and urge these governments to speak out against it. And where other governments have been successful, I will look for ways to combine our efforts.

I will urge governments to fight anti-Semitism with educational efforts, often in the form of Holocaust education for that country’s schoolchildren—the work that you do.

And I will meet with representatives of Jewish communities and non-governmental organizations—NGOs—who engaged daily in the fight against bigotry and hate.

In Washington, I will work on these same issues with State Department colleagues, and in meetings with foreign officials, and I will advocate for State Department funding for programs to battle anti-Semitism and support human rights.

I will also urge continued robust support to our overseas missions as they seek to counteract anti-Semitism and promote interfaith dialogue and understanding in their respective countries.

And as I work to monitor and combat Anti-Semitism, I will speak out against injustices against other minority groups. Hatred begets hatred, and we must work across communities to stop the spread.

In conclusion, my first two months have confirmed some of previous suspicions. Jewish communities around the world that are under tremendous pressure from rising anti-Semitism. They need the support and protection of the United States as they struggle to function as viable, vibrant Jewish communities.

If we are going to reduce or mitigate anti-Semitism we must invest in education and interfaith programs that increase tolerance (Holocaust education and programs like bringing imams to Auschwitz) and invest in efforts to stop the flow of anti-Semitic material from countries like Iran and other countries which have seen a rise in anti-Semitism.

And we must alleviate the pressure on beleaguered Jewish communities today and invest in mitigating present and future anti-Semitism.

This is not an either/or proposition – even with limited resources, we are committed to working with partners to do both.

Anti-Semitism has been given many names, “the Peculiar hatred,” “the Longest Hatred,” “the convenient Hatred.”

What we know is that this form of bigotry has been with us for millennia. It will likely be a curse on the human race long after all of us are gone.

But that does not excuse any of us from the task of fighting it now and investing in beating it back for future generations.

Working together, I am confident that people of goodwill, of this generation, are fully capable of fighting the good fight. A fight that is on the right side of history and the right side of justice.