NEW YORK – Shortly after the mass shooting attack at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh on Saturday, one of the Republican Party’s two Jewish congressmen urged Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to fill the department’s position monitoring anti-Semitism.
Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY) tweeted: “This AM’s horror reminds us just how extremely important it is for the @StateDept to select a Special Envoy to Monitor & Combat Anti-Semitism.”
It wasn’t the first time Zeldin had made such a plea. Last May, he was one of 120 members of the House Bipartisan Taskforce for Combating Anti-Semitism that sent a letter to the newly confirmed Pompeo, requesting that he take the step his predecessor, Rex Tillerson, had not. The position has remained vacant since the start of the Trump administration in January 2017.
“Without a Special Envoy, the United States lacks the focus of a person solely dedicated to spearheading our important diplomatic efforts in the fight against anti-Semitism,” the letter read, adding: “Appointing this important position will make clear to foreign governments that combating anti-Semitism remains an American priority and that the U.S. maintains its traditional leadership in the fight.”
The letter stated that in addition to the special envoy vacancy, “There have also been no staff assigned to the Office to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism since May 2017.”
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Part of the reason was because Tillerson himself was unconvinced it would accomplish its stated goal. In a hearing of the House Committee on Appropriations in June 2017, Rep. Grace Meng (D-NY) pressed Tillerson on the vacant position. “By having a special person, an envoy out here, one of my experiences is, mission then says, ‘Oh, we’ve got somebody else that does that,’ and then they stop doing it,” Tillerson explained.
His statements were criticized by a number of lawmakers and organizations, including the Anti-Defamation League. The ADL’s annual tracking of anti-Semitic incidents in the United States found there was a 57 percent increase in incidents between 2016 and 2017.
The office and position of special envoy were created in 2004 when Congress passed the bipartisan Global Anti-Semitism Review Act, which mandated the appointments. It was charged with, among other things, monitoring worldwide anti-Semitism trends, documenting anti-Semitic incidents, training diplomats to address anti-Semitism abroad, working with NGOs and counterparts in the European Union and United Nations, and supporting vulnerable Jewish populations around the world.
The American Jewish Committee helped establish the congressional committee and at one point urged its constituents to sign a petition calling for the post to be filled.
Addressing Pompeo, the Bipartisan Taskforce’s letter in May concluded: “This appointment would demonstrate the commitment of the United States to Jewish communities around the world and to the fight against the persistent evil of anti-Semitism. We look forward to working with you to make this a reality.”
A State Department spokesperson told Haaretz that, "Secretary Pompeo has been clear that the Special Envoy Position should be filled as soon as possible."