WASHINGTON — A week after a State Department report documented an increase in European anti-Semitism in 2014, a senior state department official said Wednesday that combating anti-Semitism is “a major issue for the US government,” acknowledging that efforts were focused on communities considered at-risk rather than on anti-Semitic elements within the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In a briefing, the official who spoke on condition of anonymity lauded the fact that the fight against anti-Semitism overseas “is one of the few issues that remain totally bipartisan” in Washington. The role of the State Department Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat anti-Semitism was in fact grounded in Congressional legislation over ten years ago, rather than being a position created at the behest of a a particular presidential administration.
The official warned that it was important to strike a careful balance, saying that “it is damaging to the larger cause of fighting anti-Semitism if we overstate the problem and certainly if we understate it.”
“Oftentimes I hear rhetoric around ‘are we at the end of the 1930s again, facing the situations that we faced at that time. And I have to say – no we’re not. To the degree that folks say that, I think we do ourselves a disservice,” the official explained, but also added that “if we say that we’re not facing the kind of situation that we’re five years from boxcars to Auschwitz, it doesn’t mean that it’s not important.”
The official noted what he termed a “trendline” of anti-Semitism rising after a post-World War II slump. Amid current anti-Semitism, particularly in Europe, the “stakes for historical communities are very high.”
The official emphasized that although “anti-Semitism is not limited to Europe,” the State Department sees it as “a larger problem in Europe than in other continents.”
European anti-Semitism, he stressed, was far from monolithic. The official described at least four categories present in Europe, ranging from the “old anti-Semitism” of the far right; left-wing ideological anti-Semitism; the anti-Semitism epitomized by the French comedian Dieudonne and embraced by followers on the far-left and far-right alike, and the anti-Semitism of western European Muslim communities, which he described as “associated with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
In many cases, these strains exist alongside each other. “We know through polling that supporters of the National Front in France have high levels of anti-Semitism that are frankly roughly the same as levels that we find in Muslim communities in France,” he noted.
The official said that in the State Department’s working definition of anti-Semitism, certain anti-Israel critiques are also interpreted as anti-Semitic.
The State Department adopted the ‘Three D’s” definition propagated by Jewish Agency head Natan Sharansky. “If you delegitimize Israel, if you demonize issues, that is anti-Semitism, or if you treat Israel with double standards – that Israel has to live up to different standards — that’s anti-Semitism,” the official explained. “Together with that, we make it clear that criticism of Israel is not inherently anti-Semitic, even when the US government may disagree with it.”
According to the official, the US government does not primarily see the current upswing in violence in Israel as primarily anti-Semitic, and the official remained vague on the role that anti-Semitism has played in the ongoing tensions.
“I don’t think that the US government is primarily looking at these issues through the lens of anti-Semitism,” the official said. “I think that there’s a recognition that when people are killed for being Jews, that is clearly anti-Semitism and through the lens of this type of “three-Ds” mechanism, we look at individual actions or statements and those we have often characterized as anti-Semitism.”
The official noted that “the violence, and the killing and the attacks in Israel and in the West Bank are of great concern to the State Department, and we have condemned that type of violence” but that in confronting anti-Semitism, the State Department engages in “triage” – addressing issues that seem pressing.
“As things develop, we all hope that the violence ends and doesn’t explode [but] perhaps we will have to change our priorities as we see things develop,” the official explained. “Right now we see our worry as some of these very vulnerable Jewish communities in Europe.”
In the past days, the official said, the State Department’s anti-Semitism watchdogs have concentrated instead on the erection of a statue of a World War II-era anti-Semitic figure in Hungary, and on the weekend demonstration in Malmo, Sweden, where participants were videotaped screaming “slaughter the Jews.”
Still, the State Department’s Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, Ira Forman. met in September with a Palestinian official, where he raised the topic of anti-Semitism on official websites that are affiliated with Palestinian movements.
One of the key challenges of the current trends in anti-Semitism, the official emphasized, was that it was much more diffused than under some of the centralized regimes of the twentieth century. The official cited the case of the Soviet Union, when Jewish activists rallying against anti-Semitism in the communist state knew that there was “one single address that we had to go to and deal with the problem and that was the Kremlin.”
In contrast, the official noted, modern-day efforts to combat anti-Semitism have to face “literally dozens of leaders” and that in many cases, there isn’t “just one address we can go to.”
The official stressed that if opponents of anti-Semitism are honest with themselves, they need to understand that “we’re not going to fix this problem.”
“This is not pessimistic and it doesn’t’ take a rocket scientist to understand this – anti-Semitism has been around for at least 2300 years that we know of,” the official warned. “It’s highly likely that not only you and I but our grandchildren, our great-grandchildren and our great, great grandchildren will live in a world where there is anti-Semitism.”
Instead, policymakers view anti-Semitism as “a faucet.”
“If we live in a world where we can’t eliminate anti-Semitism, the real important question is what’s the level of anti-Semitism,” the official explained.
“I like to use the metaphor of a fault. You’re not going to turn a faucet off, you’re just going to turn it down.”