Former Envoys Urge Tillerson to Keep U.S. anti-Semitism Office Open

Post of special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism will be unstaffed from July 1, unless Trump administration reverses decision to cut position

A youngster cleaning a headstone following an anti-Semitic attack on a Jewish cemetery in Minnesota, February 2017.
Cristina Fletes/AP

WASHINGTON - In a race against time, Jewish groups and members of Congress are pressuring U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson not to drop the post of special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism. The position was initiated by Congress with strong bipartisan support in 2004, but will be unstaffed from July 1 due to budget cuts.

The Anti-Defamation League organized a conference call last Tuesday with the two special envoys who held the position during the Obama administration, Hannah Rosenthal and Ira Forman. (Gregg Rickman, special envoy during the George W. Bush administration, was invited but could not attend, according to the organizers.) The two former envoys warned that leaving the position unmanned will hurt efforts to fight anti-Semitism at a time when it is growing and spreading around the world.

Rosenthal, who served as special envoy from 2009 to 2012, said: “Secretary Tillerson has said the State Department does issue regular reports on human rights and religious freedom in different countries, but who do you think is doing the monitoring?

“If there isn’t someone who is tasked with making sure that in both these reports we are listing, including and confronting states that are seeing increases in anti-Semitism,” the issue will not be properly addressed, she said.

She added that monitoring is just one important function of the special envoy’s office. The other – combating anti-Semitism – will be left completely unaddressed if the office isn’t staffed.

“I think this will be a huge step backward and a huge opportunity missed,” she warned, asking how the United States will be able to coordinate coalitions in different countries to push back against anti-Semitism, or to put pressure on governments that fail to act on the matter.

Forman, who replaced Rosenthal in 2013 and held the position until January 20 this year, talked about how the United States pushed for a global definition of anti-Semitism – which changed the global discourse on the issue and highlighted when criticism of Israel crosses the line and becomes anti-Semitic.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaking at the State Department in Washington, June 21, 2017.
Cliff Owen/AP

“United States leadership encouraged other countries to appoint their own special envoys on anti-Semitism,” he noted, warning that an American reversal on this issue will send a bad “global message.”

Forman said the special envoy’s office had worked in recent years to protect Jews’ rights to perform brit milah (circumcision ceremonies) and produce kosher meat, as well as fighting against attempts in Eastern European countries to honor people who murdered Jews and cooperated with the Nazis during the Holocaust.

He said all this work could be left without a clear address in the absence of a special envoy.

Forman highlighted that another problem addressed by the envoy’s office were attempts by both sides in the Ukrainian civil war to blame each other for being anti-Semitic and committing anti-Semitic crimes. He said the envoy’s office worked with Jewish communities throughout Ukraine to verify – and, in most cases, refute – those claims, and not allow Jewish people to become part of the conflict against their will and interest.

“We’re greatly concerned by what we heard from Secretary Tillerson,” said Forman. “Congress has already began to speak out, and I have no doubt that if Secretary Tillerson will consult with people [inside the State Department] he will find that this position is absolutely essential,” he added.

ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt said during the call that members of Congress from both parties have been urging the Trump administration to change course and keep the position staffed, emphasizing that it has been a bipartisan consensus for more than a decade.

“I have reached out to many members of Congress, and all of them are surprised,” Rosenthal said during the call. “This is just not on everyone’s radar yet,” she said, adding, “The advocacy for continuing this program and the importance of fighting anti-Semitism has yet to be discussed, but soon we will see members of Congress speaking out about the budget.”

As that moment of truth approaches, Jewish organizations in the United States are expected to increase pressure on the administration not to shut down or dry out the envoy’s office.