The Makings of History / A Personal and Collective War

U.S. envoy Hannah S. Rosenthal believes that Jews cannot fight anti-Semitism by themselves and Muslims cannot fight the hatred they experience by themselves: There is need for a joint war against racism in general.

Hannah S. Rosenthal's calling card bears the golden eagle emblem - the symbol of the United States - with 13 stars arranged in the shape of a six-pointed star. It looks like a Star of David. Her official title is extremely wordy: "the special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism in the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor." Appointed by U.S. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Rosenthal fearlessly identifies with the Jewish left in America; before assuming her present position, she was active in Americans for Peace Now, among other things. Fortunately for Rosenthal, her middle name is not Arabic, as opposed to that of the president, but still right-wing Jews curse her on the Internet as though she were a representative of Islamic Jihad, if not worse.

U.S. envoy Hannah S. Rosenthal. Right-wing Jews curse her.
Emil Salman

A few weeks ago, the presidential envoy participated in a conference in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan; also present was the State Department's special representative to Muslim communities, Farah Anwar Pandith. Rosenthal, a woman of 59 with a mischievous sense of humor, said to herself that it would be of no interest if she spoke at the conference against Jew-hatred while Pandith spoke against Islamophobia; it would be much more interesting if the opposite were to take place. She suggested to Pandith that they exchange the speeches they had brought with them from Washington, and they did so: Pandith condemned anti-Semitism, Rosenthal condemned hatred of Islam.

It wasn't just a gimmick. Rosenthal believes that Jews cannot fight anti-Semitism by themselves and Muslims cannot fight the hatred they experience by themselves: There is need for a joint war against racism in general.

Not long after their speeches, there was an uproar on the Internet. Rosenthal's political opponents are now demanding her ouster. She knows how to relate to them with a sigh and a smile - that's how she treats other events, too.

Recently she returned from Kiev, Ukraine, she told me. During a meeting with an official there with the title of "ambassador at large for xenophobia," Rosenthal complained about a rumor circulating in Ukraine to the effect that "the Jews" had kidnapped 25,000 Christian children and stole their internal organs. The Ukraine envoy tried to calm her by telling her that his government had launched an official investigation to determine whether there was truth in the rumor. Rosenthal couldn't believe her ears, and the ambassador added with satisfaction that the findings of the investigation were unequivocal: There was no report that 25,000 children were missing, and thus no basis to the rumor.

Rosenthal works with a series of basic assumptions that define various types of anti-Semitism; at the same time, she is often required to check whether criticism of Israeli policy is tainted by anti-Semitic sentiments. It isn't always. She encounters anti-Semitism almost everywhere, even by chance, she says. Last week, for example, we toured the Jewish quarter of Prague together. At the souvenir stalls for tourists they sell dolls that look like Haredi Jews, and each doll has a U.S. 1-cent coin attached to it. Rosenthal made a note of it.

She came to Prague to participate in an international conference of teachers who use a unique method of teaching Jewish history, centered around specific people rather than dates or processes. The teachers use films produced by an organization called Centropa, which is situated in Vienna and headed by an American photographer and producer named Edward Serotta.

Over the past 10 years, Serotta and his crew have photographed almost 1,300 Jews, most of them residents of Eastern and Central Europe, some of them in the Balkans, Greece and Turkey. The interviewees provided Centropa with family albums containing 25,000 photos that document the lives of the Jews before, during and after the Holocaust. Centropa's material constitutes a more "general" sort of information than that relating to individual memories, and yet is more personal than the level of "collective memory." The films help the students identify with the daily routine of Jewish life in the past, without blurring the historical context. This teaching method is becoming increasingly popular, mainly in the United States, and several schools in Israel have recently adopted it, too.

Grading U.S. presidents

The research institute of Siena College, a Catholic school in New York State, is publishing the latest results of a survey it conducts among more than 200 historians. They are asked to rank the U.S. presidents according to their achievements, functioning and conduct, among other things. The survey has been conducted five times since 1982, and in spite of the progress of historical research, there has been no change in the five presidents who head the list: Franklin D. Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. This year Lincoln dropped to third place in favor of Theodore Roosevelt. The five worst presidents in the opinion of those surveyed were George W. Bush, Franklin Pierce, Warren G. Harding, James Buchanan and Andrew Johnson.

Among the top 10 names were another three 20th-century presidents: Woodrow Wilson, Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower. Among the top 10 chosen this year, John F. Kennedy was conspicuously absent. His name was not included among the top 10 last time either.

Each of the 44 presidents received separate grades for a long series of characteristics. In 15th place, two places below Bill Clinton, is the incumbent, Barack Obama. He received good grades for his imagination, media savvy and level of intelligence. His previous experience and his foreign policy reduced his overall average.