WASHINGTON — Two former US special envoys to monitor and combat anti-Semitism warned Monday of the consequences of the Trump administration’s refusal to fill that post, saying it would be “tragic” and a “terrible loss.”
Almost two weeks ago, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson suggested to a House of Representatives panel that hiring such an envoy wasn’t necessary and that the overall effort to combat anti-Semitism would be more efficacious without one.
Part of his argument was that local State Department missions neglect their responsibility to confront the issue if there is a special office in Washington dedicated to that.
Since then, an unnamed source told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that the office would go unstaffed as of July 1.
In a call organized by the Anti-Defamation League, Hannah Rosenthal and Ira Forman, who each held the post during the Obama administration, vigorously disputed Tillerson’s explanation and bemoaned the possible consequences if the office wasn’t filled.
“It’s not just what the office of the special envoy to monitoring and combating anti-Semitism does, although that’s critically important, but it’s the symbolism of US leadership,” said Forman, who held the position from 2013 to 2017. “This would be a terrible loss.”
Since his departure, the office, which is congressionally mandated through a 2004 law, has been left vacant.
The primary role of the envoy is to train State Department officials to properly identify and combat anti-Semitism, while also working with US embassies around the world to more closely monitor its manifestations.
Furthermore, the envoy contributes to the department’s annual reports on human rights and religious freedom.
Forman told reporters that one of the most important pieces of policy the United States has done in the last decade was to push internationally a working definition of anti-Semitism.
Rosenthal amended a similar point, arguing that too many people worldwide don’t recognize the nuances of that prejudice unless it is reminiscent of the Holocaust.
“If people aren’t being rounded up and sent to their deaths, many people in the State Department, and in Congress, and many places, [think] that there isn’t anti-Semitism,” she said.
The former envoy, who served from 2009 to 2012, added that there needed to be a specific government outfit responsible for “looking at root causes, the historic causes and manifestations of anti-Semitism and the new trends that are happening.”
ADL chief Jonathan Greenblatt said that abandoning the office would be a “serious mistake” and argued that a worldwide uptick in anti-Semitism that’s occurred over the past year made that abundantly clear.
Since January, nearly 150 bomb threats have hit JCCs, Jewish day schools and other institutions, causing the evacuation of dozens of Jewish community centers and prompting some parents to remove their children from JCC programs.
Most were found to be the work of an Israeli-American teen from Ashkelon who has been charged with making thousands of bomb threats over the last two years.
One particular lament Rosenthal added was about the partisan implications of having a Republican administration seek to dismantle the special envoy’s office.
“Let’s remember that this position was created with unanimous support from the Congress. It has moved well beyond anyone’s ability to make it a partisan issue,” she said. “Why, now, it’s being put forward with a partisan angle is very tragic.”
Rosenthal went on to say she thought there would be a “profound” response from Congress if and when it became official that the office would not be filled.
US President Donald Trump has also not hired a White House liaison to the Jewish community.