Conversations With America: Recent Trends in Anti-Semitism Around the World

Hannah Rosenthal
Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism 
Elisa Massimino, President and CEO of Human Rights First
Washington, DC
November 9, 2011

MS. BENTON: Hello and welcome to the U.S. Department of State. This is Conversations With America, a discussion between a top State Department official and an NGO leader, where you can watch and participate in the dialogue. I’m Cheryl Benton, Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of Public Affairs.

Today, on the 73rd anniversary of Kristallnacht, the beginning of the Holocaust, we will discuss trends in anti-Semitism around the world. We’ve received questions and comments on today’s topics from all around the globe through our blog, DipNote, and have selected several for this broadcast.

Now, let’s meet our guests. Hannah Rosenthal is the Administration’s Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism. Thank you for being with us today, Hannah.

MS. ROSENTHAL: Happy to be here.

MS. BENTON: Elisa Massimino is President and Chief Executive Officer of Human Rights First, a leading human rights advocacy organization. Thank you so much for joining us for these timely discussions.

MS. MASSIMINO: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

MS. BENTON: Hannah, I wanted to start with you, and I wondered if you could just explain to all of us what your role is as Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, and actually kind of why that’s important.

MS. ROSENTHAL: Well, it’s quite a title, huh? Monitoring and combating the world’s oldest continual hatred. Congress created this position so that they could be regularly informed of how the world is doing relative to anti-Semitism. Unfortunately, I don’t have great news to tell them, because, in my monitoring capacity, we learn from our embassies, from our consulates, from nongovernmental organizations that do tracking, from communities, from the media, that anti-Semitism is alive and well and kicking, and it’s really very disturbing.

It is also in my job description that I’m supposed to combat anti-Semitism. And that, of course, I will say for the record I do not expect to eradicate the world of anti-Semitism during my short tenure here. But I do hope that we figure out a way to move the needle. And how I want to do that is working with other vulnerable populations, other minority groups, wherever they are in the world, so that we’re working together to fight hatred. Because where there’s anti-Semitism, you don’t wait very long and there is hatred of Muslims and there’s hatred of Roma and there are hatred of gays, and it’s hatred of the month. And it’s horrific.

The most important thing, because today is the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the day my father was arrested by the Nazis and taken to Buchenwald, it’s important to know what happens when, on November 10th, people don’t speak up. If, in 1938, somebody had been charged with combating anti-Semitism, and they had seen synagogues on fire and all businesses owned by Jews shattered, and people had stepped up and condemned it and alerted the world something terrible is going on here, perhaps there wouldn’t have been the rest of the Holocaust. So in combating anti-Semitism, I’m asking government leaders, society leaders, union leaders, businesses, nongovernmental organizations, to join in condemning when we see there’s hatred, because if there’s any message, a fundamental lesson that we learned from the Holocaust, it is what is possible.

MS. BENTON: Elisa, in the work with your organization, are you finding the same kinds of things that Hannah just referred to?

MS. MASSIMINO: Absolutely. At Human Rights First, we view this as a serious and ongoing global problem and a real manifestation of serious human rights violations. That’s why we’ve published half a dozen reports, going back to 2002, on anti-Semitism, and in particular the rise over the last decade of violent bias-motivated hate crime, anti-Semitic hate crime. In Europe in particular is where we have focused. Hannah has the world.

But as she said, it’s a huge challenge. And we have focused in on this in large part because we view it as a human rights violation. I think part of the problem that we have seen in working on this issue, and then we’ve learned from it, is that often victim communities are sort of left to fend for themselves, so that anti-Semitism is considered a Jewish problem, a problem for Jews; or anti-Muslim bias, a problem for Muslims; xenophobia, a problem for the immigrant community; violence against the LGBT community is something – it’s a gay issue. And that has undermined the effectiveness of all of us to work together to eradicate violent hate crime and bias and discrimination.

And I think one – we’re so happy to have in Hannah a partner that really understands that and can work together with us and lead the U.S. Government in leading the world to eradicate anti-Semitism and hate-motivated violence.

MS. BENTON: Very good. Hannah, how would you respond to those who are critical of the fact that there is a special envoy for anti-Semitism and not one to monitor attacks against Christians or other religious groups? Or is that even a valid question?

MS. ROSENTHAL: Well, every question’s a valid question. I think Congress, in 2004, in their wisdom, felt that when we are looking at bias, human rights violations and all, that unless somebody is tasked with focusing on anti-Semitism, it will get short shrift. And I think it was a bipartisan effort. Tom Lantos, who was the only Holocaust survivor to ever serve in the U.S. Congress, of blessed memory, he really felt somebody has to have that responsibility.

And so we have an Office of International Religious Freedom that looks at religious freedom writ large. And we have two representatives in government that focus on either engaging with Muslim communities around the world or working with the Organization of Islamic Conference. So we have various people who are tasked with this. But Congress felt so strongly that unless somebody has that responsibility, it’s not going to get done. So I’m very honored that the Administration asked me to do this.

MS. BENTON: Great.

MS. MASSIMINO: I would say also that – to someone who raises that kind of question, in my experience anyway in working on these issues, it has actually been a boost to our overall fight against discrimination and hate crime to have this position in the U.S. Government and to have someone of Hannah’s stature and commitment in it. Because as unique as each of these forms of racism is in their history and development, what we’ve found in working on combating hate crime and discrimination is that many of the solutions are similar. And so that’s why it’s so important for us to be working together as communities, at the government level and at the community level, to call on governments. We – at Human Rights First, we’ve produced a 10-point plan to combat hate crime, and it really is applicable, whether you’re talking about the Roma or Jews or Muslims or immigrants.

Key – getting back to what Hannah said earlier – is – first on that list, really, is that hate speech has to be confronted and called out, particularly when it’s political leaders who are doing it. And that is still happening around the world. And when there is silence in the face of that hate speech, then it can create an enabling environment for violence no matter who the victims are.

MS. BENTON: So what would you say – how has anti-Semitism changed? Sixty years ago, 40 years ago, 20 years ago – what is it today, or is it different?

MS. ROSENTHAL: Well, I run across people – it’s an interesting question because I run across people who say there isn’t any anti-Semitism because anti-Semitism, to them, is Jews being rounded up and burned. And of course, that happened, and it’s horrific, and I live with it every day and I would say most Jews do, and all other people of conscience.

But there are differences. What led up to the Holocaust was centuries of anti-Semitism. What followed the Holocaust has been decades of more anti-Semitism, in some cases almost as virulent, in some cases not so much. When anti-Semitism – if you look at the history over the millennia, it really began as a religious bigotry. Jews didn’t accept Jesus as their savior. Jews didn’t adhere to the teachings of the prophet, and the list goes on. Added to that over the decades was – and centuries – was a racial component that Jews were a different race. And so it became, in addition to religious bigotry, racial bigotry.

And I would say currently, over the last several decades, on top of those two, there’s political hatred of Jews. And so it looks different, sometimes it sounds different. I tend to put it all together as, fundamentally, hatred, and that’s how it has to be approached.

MS. MASSIMINO: I agree with that. I mean, I – and the sad fact is that in some ways, it hasn’t changed very much at all, and that there certainly still are the strains of historic anti-Semitism in some of the same places in the world where it first began, and that – the sad fact is that that’s still around, and we have to fight that. I think it has, as Hannah said, become – in addition, on top of that, there has been a – some, let’s say, more nuanced forms of anti-Semitism, in some ways where people may not even admit to themselves that it’s – exists in their communities.

And so that creates different challenges for those of us who are trying to combat anti-Semitism. It requires us to pay more attention to education, to talk more to people about what we mean when we say that this is anti-Semitic. And I think that, as in many circumstances, if people don’t think that there’s a problem, then the problem is liable to get worse. And so that’s what we’re on guard for all the time. So part of the job is really – it’s monitoring, it’s combating. Part of combating is really educating.

MS. BENTON: Exactly. We’re gotten a number of DipNote questions, and so I wanted to go to one. And we have Wex from the United States who writes: “Many provisions of international law were established following the Holocaust to prevent another such event from happening. However, we have seen many genocides and many acts of genocide since then. Do you think that the Holocaust could have taken place in today’s international system?”

MS. ROSENTHAL: Well, I wish I could say that because the Universal Declaration of Human Rights grew out of the Holocaust and the definition of genocide grew out of that, and hopefully increased education against hatred grew out of that, that it wouldn’t happen today, but I would be dishonest.

Do I think a cultured country can build efficient killing factories today? It would be harder. But the hatred that goes unanswered is still hatred, and we don’t have to look very far for us to see what’s going on. So international instruments were created and courts of law were created to hold people accountable. But hatred is still there. We see Darfur, we know about Cambodia, we know about Srebrenica. You have to scratch your head at some time and say, “We really have to rethink this.” In a world where people are communicating instantly and in a way that’s different, how are we making sure that all these new methods of educating people and talking about the realities of the world – that we’re adapting what the message is?

And do I think horrendous things could happen? Of course I do, because they are happening.

MS. BENTON: Yes, exactly. In your work with the Human Rights Watch --

MS. MASSIMINO: First, yes.

MS. BENTON: -- are you find – Human Rights First – are you finding the same or similar?

MS. MASSIMINO: Well, I think that – I mean, that’s – it’s – one of the legacies – one of the positive legacies of the Holocaust was the creation of these norms that were intended to be the bulwark against – “Never again.” But what we know now is that norms are not enough. You really need – you need political leadership. That was one of the things that was lacking. And you need enforcement mechanisms. You need a vibrant civil society to stand up and demand from their government accountability for these crimes. And so while we have assets that we did not have at that time, that the world did not have at the time of the Holocaust, we know from sad experience that it hasn’t been enough because we’ve seen genocide since “Never again.”

One of the things that makes me hopeful is that you’re starting to hear in the halls of government, particularly in the United States, talk about the – we have the lofty principles, we have the rhetoric – what can we do to reengineer government responses to mass atrocities. Not just after they’ve happened, with the International Criminal Court and the various tribunals to hold people accountable and try to use that deterrent effect, but what can we do to prevent and intervene in the process of mass atrocities?

And just a few weeks ago, President Obama issued a presidential study directive that is intended to create a mass atrocities prevention board in the U.S. Government that will bring together, we hope, all of the different agencies that can contribute to a strategy, a real strategy, and elevate that to the level of the President.

From my perspective, Human Rights First is very focused on – I would say the last decade was very much focused on accountability and holding the perpetrators of mass atrocities accountable and genocide accountable. And I think all of us feel like that’s important, but it’s sadly deficient.

MS. BENTON: It’s like “What else,” right?

MS. MASSIMINO: We want to stop it before it happens, before mass atrocities happen, and hundreds of thousands of people are killed or displaced. And so we really need to look at the whole spectrum of the kind of supply chain for genocide and mass atrocities, and how to interrupt that. One of the things we’ve been looking at and encouraging this board to look at is the enablers of mass atrocities. For every Milosevic, there is a Viktor Bout, an arms dealer or a money launderer or a political – whether it’s governments or private individuals – who are facilitating mass atrocity. It was true in the Holocaust and it’s just as true today.

So I think we have a more sophisticated view of how these things happen, and we have to be very cold-eyed about how you intervene to stop them.

MS. BENTON: Your thoughts on that, Hannah? Because I think she’s made some great points.

MS. ROSENTHAL: Well, exactly. I mean, I love the partnership that we have. Human Rights First really, as far as I know, was the first, if not only, human rights organization that got that we have to deal with hate crimes first and foremost. And the name of your first study on anti-Semitism was Fire and Broken Glass, which is relevant to today.

Putting rule of law principles into place obviously help, and those countries today that are not prosecuting are sending a message that people literally can get away with murder. And we can’t let that happen, and that’s why supporting a civil society to be an alternative voice to keep it – the message alive is so critical.

But the prevention – it’s wonderful that there are commissions looking at where governments intervene and where in the supply line we need to make a correction. But sometimes it’s as fundamental as what are we teaching our children. And to the extent that schools all over the world are not examining the messages they’re teaching kids, how do we – kids aren’t born hating.

MS. BENTON: Right, exactly.

MS. ROSENTHAL: Somewhere they’re learning it.

MS. BENTON: Exactly.

MS. ROSENTHAL: And schools play a role in that, as does mass media, as does inheriting bigotry from parents and other generations. But I think we have to spend our time on the rule of law issues and where governments’ roles are in that. But we also need to be looking at the future, and the future is on those little kids who still do not hate. Why? Where are we going to intervene so that they don’t?

MS. BENTON: Right. I want to take another question from DipNote, but I can just hearken back to when I was a child and growing up in the ‘40s, ‘40s-‘50s, that the racism that came from other kids to me, I would think, how could that be, where do they learn that? So it’s the same. It’s the cycle that we haven’t stopped yet.

But Kent in the United States writes that: It is not just anti-Semitism that’s on the rise, hate of one group or another across the board is also on the rise. Could it be that the same ignorance that promotes anti-Semitism promotes other forms of hatred?

MS. ROSENTHAL: Absolutely. I mean, that goes – absolutely. I don’t blink on your question at all because, as I said, kids aren’t born hating. And somewhere they’re learning, whether it’s the bully on the block on the playground, or it’s what the minister in their church is teaching them that other people are less than, or it’s their gang or their parents or their textbooks. They’re learning that some people are not as good as other people. And it’s across-the-board hatred. That’s what I’m talking about. We have to start at that fundamental.

MS. MASSIMINO: When we began looking at this phenomenon of the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe, we – after a few years, we realized that this was occurring – as unique a phenomenon as anti-Semitism is, it was occurring in an environment, an enabling environment for hate crime in many different communities. And it’s a vicious cycle of hate, as you can imagine.

So I think it’s really important that just underscores for me that question, very insightful, that we have to band together to combat this kind of hatred. We are part of an organization called the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and it’s a very – it’s led by Wade Henderson, a good friend.

MS. BENTON: Yes, he’s great.

MS. MASSIMINO: And a visionary, really, in helping bring communities together to talk about these issues and to craft common solutions to them and to carry them out.

MS. ROSENTHAL: What you point out, Wade is a perfect example of a leader with vision. But in the United States, we have a history over the last several decades of people with differences getting together to fight for each other’s differences, whether it’s the Civil Rights Movement, women’s movement, the labor movement, and the list goes on – anti-poverty. That culture I am not seeing as I travel Europe. I am not seeing that same kind – that identity politics keeps people away rather than maybe getting together.

I’m finding one example that’s different, and that is right now in the Netherlands. There is a piece of legislation moving in the Netherlands that would ban ritual slaughter.

MS. BENTON: Interesting.

MS. ROSENTHAL: Okay. Animal rights issue hooked up with some anti-immigrants, and it became a political force. Now, I do think some of the motivation there is not animal rights; it’s because the anti-immigrant feeling doesn’t want Muslims there, and if you ban ritual slaughter, halal meat becomes an issue. But guess what, it also affects Jews because halal and kosher laws are very similar. And in that country, the Muslims and the Jews are working together to try to defeat that. You don’t see that in a lot of places in Europe.

MS. MASSIMINO: It’s really true. I mean, when we work in these environments in Europe, we are looking for where is the leadership conference of those communities, and we don’t find that. I think it’s one of the more promising areas for the U.S. Government and other governments to look at in terms of funding and helping to support and create – bringing victim communities together to try to create this kind of collaboration, because it really is an important part of the answer.

MS. ROSENTHAL: It may be our most important export.

MS. BENTON: That’s fascinating. A question that I have is: Is there a difference between anti-Israel sentiment and anti-Semitism? And if so, how do you distinguish between the two?

MS. ROSENTHAL: That’s a question I get every day. I want to be perfectly clear to you and to anybody who’s listening or watching. Legitimate criticism of a policy of the state of Israel is not anti-Semitism. If that were the case, over half of Israel would be anti-Semitic.

Now, where does the line get crossed from legitimate criticism about a policy of the sovereign state of Israel into hatred of a collective Jew? It happens in many ways and it happens often. One, when Israel is completely demonized, when you find Israel depicted in art and cartoons, in rhetoric, as the devil, as bloodthirsty, as responsible for all the ills of the region and maybe the whole world, that isn’t criticism of a policy of the state of Israel. That’s hatred of the collective Jew. That’s crossed the line.

A second example would be where Israel as a country in the world is being held to different standard than all other countries. And we see that in multilateral groups all over. I just need to point out that the United Nations in the last decade has passed 434 resolutions criticizing the state of Israel for one thing or another. And I’m sure Israel isn’t perfect. We’re not perfect. These resolutions might be pointing out something that’s worthy of being condemned – 434 times.

MS. BENTON: A lot.

MS. ROSENTHAL: Now compare that with Sudan, 5; North Korea, 8. It is clear in the Human Rights Council there’s only one country that has a permanent agenda item on their agenda, and that is to criticize Israel. So to hold Israel to a completely different standard isn’t criticizing a policy.

And the final one is to conclude from that Israel doesn’t have a right to exist.

MS. BENTON: Right.

MS. ROSENTHAL: So when you deal with demonization or holding Israel to a double standard or a different standard or delegitimizing, that isn’t criticism of a policy of the state of Israel. That’s hating the collective Jew, or anti-Semitic.

MS. MASSIMINO: I think this is a really important point, and we get asked that question all the time too. Because as a human rights organization, we are founded on these principles that all governments have a requirement – there’s a single standard, not different standards – it’s a single standard that governments have to live up to in protecting rights.

My – and it does – as we were talking about earlier in terms of modern forms of anti-Semitism, there is often a blurring of these lines, where some people use criticism of – oh, I’m not anti-Semitic, I’m just critical of – and so – and yet it’s perfectly legitimate to have criticisms of our own government or any government.

But I think the way I look at it, you can debate government policy but you cannot debate human dignity. And it’s a bright line, really. I don’t think that’s fuzzy. And that’s how I speak to people about it when they ask me that question. And I think we have to – we find ourselves having to engage in a lot of environments where there is a bias against Israel. Whether it comes from anti-Semitism or it comes from some other place, it’s wrong to conflate Israeli Government policy with the collective Jew, and it’s unhelpful, I think, to conflate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism. Both of those things make it tougher for us to eliminate this horrible form of racism.

MS. BENTON: Wow, that’s great. I know we’re running out of time, but I would be remiss if I did not ask: How is 2011 Hours Against Hate, which is – you launched nine months ago with Farah Pandith, our special representative –

MS. ROSENTHAL: And you were with us –

MS. BENTON: I was with you, but how is that going? And what’s next for that?

MS. ROSENTHAL: Well, it’s an example of dealing with the fundamentals. It’s a recognition that whether it’s anti-Semitism, hatred of Roma, hatred of gays, hatred of Muslims, hatred of Christians, it’s fundamentally about hate. And young people were saying to us, “Give us something to do.” So the 2011 Hours Against Hate Campaign is asking young people – and it’s all virtual, through Facebook and technology I don't understand – that asks young people to donate, pledge, an hour or more of their time to serve or help someone who doesn’t look like them, pray like them, or live like them.

Our goal was to get 2011 hours pledged, and nine months later, we’re over 16,000. It totally caught on. Mayors and Peace Corps workers and organizations all over the world have used it as an organizing vehicle to bring diverse people together. We’re asking people to walk in each other’s shoes. It’s a beginning.

MS. BENTON: Yeah. And it’s like you’re engaging civil society, which is one thing the Secretary is extremely high on. When you engage civil society, then you start making a different kind of change.

MS. ROSENTHAL: Absolutely.

MS. BENTON: So I hate this. This is the end. We’re reaching the end. But before we go, Hannah, I want to see if you have any closing thoughts, and I would like to hear from you Elisa.

MS. ROSENTHAL: Well, I want to thank you for deciding to have this conversation on November 9th. It’s a very important day for me personally and professionally, and it places us as a reminder – that’s what anniversaries and commemorations are about – how can we act differently than so many acted then. And so I’m heartened. I didn’t even ask for this. Somebody came up and said, “You know, it’s November 9th. Perhaps this is a time we should be discussing this.” So I appreciate that sensitivity and that reinforcement of the message. So thanks very much.

MS. BENTON: Good. You’re welcome.


MS. MASSIMINO: Likewise, I feel very privileged to be here, but even more so, as I’ve said, to be working on these issues in – with a government, our government, that clearly cares so much about them, so much that they appointed someone of Hannah’s superstar quality to carry it out, because it is difficult work; it’s personally challenging, and it’s confronting hate every day. And for us, we are a very pragmatic organization. We live by these lofty principles, but we’re really focused on how can we move the needle, how can we make a change. And we are very committed to this 10-point plan that we’ve developed to combat hate crime. We are pushing governments everywhere to adopt it. We are so fortunate to live in a country where we have a government that can lead by example on this issue. This is something – it’s a great gift.

And so we – I love this initiative to engage young people. I have three children. Two of them are teenagers. And when they read about these issues, their reaction is, “What is wrong with the world and with you people?” they say to me, my generation. And I think to harness that kind of moving beyond hate in our young people and to combat it in the education systems, where that’s not the case, that is the future of the solution to this problem.

MS. BENTON: Perfect, perfect. Well, that concludes this session of Conversations with America. I’d like to thank Special Envoy Hannah Rosenthal and Ms. Elisa Massimino – I’m sorry – for sharing your work and knowledge of the issue with us. And I’d also like to thank each of you for joining us today.