By Alison Weir
The Trump administration has failed to appoint an antisemitism monitor or staff the State Department’s antisemitism monitoring office, drawing fire from diverse groups that range from the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and Israel lobbying organizations to Think Progress and the Southern Poverty Law Center.
But the State Department Office to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, and the “antisemitism envoy” who heads it, haven’t just been keeping tabs on anti-Jewish bigotry around the world. In reality, they have been monitoring international pro-Palestinian activism and promoting a crackdown on such activism in various countries.
Congress created the antisemitism monitoring office and envoy in 2004. Since then, the office has adopted a definition of antisemitism that includes many forms of criticism of Israel and it has pushed for that definition to be used worldwide to crack down on criticism of Israel. (Read more about who else has adopted the definition and how it is being used to curtail criticism of Israel and pro-Palestinian activism.)
Allan C. Brownfeld of the American Council for Judaism is disturbed by this trend, commenting: “The redefinition of antisemitism to mean criticism of Israel is clearly an effort to end freedom of speech and discussion when it comes to Israel and its policies. It has nothing to do with real antisemitism, which this effort trivializes and which, fortunately, is in retreat.”*
In 2015 Brownfeld wrote “What they seek to silence are criticisms of Israeli policies and efforts to call attention to them through such things as campaigns for academic boycotts or BDS. Whether one agrees with such campaigns or not, they are legitimate criticisms of a foreign government and of U.S. aid to that government. Only by changing the meaning of words entirely can this be called ‘antisemitism.’”
The organization Palestine Legal has similarly objected to the new definition, pointing out that the redefinition of antisemitism allows “virtually any criticism of Israel to be labeled as antisemitic.” It states: “The effect of blurring antisemitism with criticism of Israel is to censor speech. It aims to silence those who wish to criticize Israel’s well-documented human rights violations by making it unacceptable and taboo to do so. It silences the everyday observer of Israel’s actions who may wish to comment and draw parallels with other experiences, or do anything at all to oppose it.”
Meanwhile, the antisemitism envoy position has proved a revolving door to Israel lobbying organizations and activities.
State Department Antisemitism Office Monitors Criticism of Israel
The monitoring office’s 2016 report on global antisemitism included monitoring of pro-Palestinian activism. Below are a few quotes from the report:
♦ “50 Palestinian students protested and boycotted a conference presentation by an Israeli professor who was a guest speaker at the Eastern Mediterranean University (EMU). Approximately 50 Palestinian students opened banners during the conference reading, ‘Free Palestine,’ ‘Terrorist Israel,’ and held photos of suffering Palestinian children.”
♦ “Following the September 28 death of former Israeli president Shimon Peres, the FPDC [Palestinian Federation of Chile] labeled him a ‘war criminal’ on its official Twitter account.”
♦ “activists of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, spilled red paint on the facade of the restaurant and posted signs reading: ‘Free Palestine,’ ‘Avillez collaborates with Zionist occupation,’ and ‘Entree: A dose of white phosphorus.’ The attack followed picketing opposite the restaurant by BDS activists…”
In addition, the report cited statements that connected Israeli actions to all Jewish people, reporting, for example, that some Kuwaiti columnists “often conflated Israeli government actions or views with those of Jews more broadly,” and “Swedish Jews were at times blamed for Israeli policies.” While it is incorrect and unfair to associate Israeli actions with all Jewish people, the report entirely omitted reference to the many Israeli leaders and pro-Israel organizations who promote this view, claiming that Israel represents all the world’s Jewish people.
There were additional questionable listings of alleged antisemitism related to Israel, for example: “the RT channel’s June 27 airing of Palestinian allegations [by Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas in an address to the European Parliament] that an Israeli rabbi approved the poisoning of Palestinian wells.” Reporting allegations made by national leaders is what news media do, particularly when there is a context supporting the allegations. There is a documented record of Israeli settlers and, longer ago, the early Israeli military contaminating Palestinian water supply, cisterns, and wells, and of some extremist Israeli rabbis approving – and even calling for – the killing of civilians of all ages.**
Antisemitism Office Promotes Crackdown on Palestine Activism
When Congress created the antisemitism monitoring office and envoy in 2004, the legislation included criticism of Israel among the “antisemitism” to monitor (although that inclusion was buried and not obvious in a quick read of the main legislation).
At that time, the State Department declared publicly that such an office was unnecessary and would be a “bureaucratic nuisance” that would actually hinder the Department’s ongoing work against antisemitism. A State Department press release opposing the new office described the many actions the department was already taking against antisemitism.
After the office was in place, the conflation of criticism of Israel with antisemitism grew incrementally, until it became part of the office’s official definition.
The first antisemitism envoy, Gregg Rickman, endorsed an Israel-centric definition originally proposed by an Israeli government minister and disseminated by Israel partisans in Europe. After his term of office, Rickman went to work for the pro-Israel lobbying organization AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee).
The second antisemitism envoy, Hannah Rosenthal, officially adopted the new Israel-centric definition in 2010, making it “the State Department definition.” She then pushed through a training program about antisemitism for U.S. diplomats that used what she called the new “breakthrough definition.”
After she left the envoy position, Rosenthal headed up the Jewish Federation of Milwaukee, where she worked on numerous activities supporting Israel, including promoting a Stand with Israel event (see her promotional video for the event here and below).
The next envoy, Ira Foreman, also worked for AIPAC, and was instrumental in spreading the new Israel-centric definition to other nations. Indeed, Forman declared that “the United States pushed for a global definition of antisemitism” and that this “changed the global discourse on the issue” during an Anti-Defamation League press conference.
Pressure to Staff Antisemitism Monitoring Office
The administration has indicated it may not fill these positions as part of budget cutting; out of 13 Special Envoy positions in the State Department, 8 are currently vacant (there is no Special Envoy to monitor and combat other forms of racism, for example against African Americans)***. Trump’s failure to fill the antisemitism positions has provoked an escalating bipartisan outcry by Congressional representatives and advocacy groups, amplified by certain media coverage and commentary.
Among those pushing for Trump to fill the office are the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, various pro-Israel groups, diverse Congressional representatives supportive of Israel, and, more mildly, the liberal organizations Think Progress and the Southern Poverty Law Center.
♦ The Anti-Defamation League has long used an Israel-centric definition of antisemitism and is known for hardcore Israel advocacy that leans heavily towards blind promotion of the most extremist right-wing elements of Israel’s government. It has created a petition demanding that Trump fill the envoy position. Former ADL director Abe Foxman said: “The special Ambassador to combat antisemitism at the State Department is one of those things that ‘make America great.’”
♦ Think Progress, a progressive organization close to the Democratic Party, featured an article critical of the failure to fill the post, announcing: “Attacks targeting Jews are at a record high at home, but the State Department doesn’t think special monitoring abroad is necessary.”
♦ The Southern Poverty Law Center then featured the Think Progress article about the State Department “abandoning the office” in its “Hate Watch Headlines.” The SPLC is often revered for its important work to oppose bigotry and hate, but it has praised Israel and been criticized for equating anti-zionism with antisemitism. Furthermore, its over $300 million operation has sometimes been brought into question as a cash cow that benefits from finding “hate” where it might not actually exist.
The various advocates, as well as the Think Progress article, have cited an Anti-Defamation League report that antisemitism is on the rise, and fast. On the face of it, this certainly should be disturbing to anyone who supports equality and human rights. However, a number of groups have questioned the ADL report, and an ADL official admits that it is “not a scientific study.” The ADL report does not include a spreadsheet of the incidents it has included for independent researchers to examine, and it is unknown how many of the incidents may have been actually pro-Palestinian activism, but we do know that the “rise” included 2,000 hoax threats made by a young Jewish Israeli reportedly suffering from mental problems.
♦ Members of the House of Representatives’ Bipartisan Task Force Against Anti-Semitism initiated a letter in March calling on Trump to fill the position, another bipartisan letter was sent in June, and Democratic Senator Ben Cardin implored Trump to fill the “critical” position. Legislation was introduced into both the Senate and the House that would elevate the envoy position to ambassadorial level and would require even more detailed reporting than it is already doing.
♦ Most recently, Katrina Lantos Swett, whose father Congressman Tom Lantos sponsored the legislation that created the position, sent a letter to Tillerson outraged that there hasn’t been “great eagerness to move swiftly to fill this post.” The Daily Caller reports her view that the special envoy is the “tip of the sword’ to focus on and combat antisemitism on a global scale.”
On June 26 the ADL organized a conference call with the media in which former envoys Hannah Rosenthal and Ira Forman called on Trump to fill the position, saying that “the envoy’s working definition of antisemitism helped U.S. personnel in foreign countries determine what is and is not antisemitism” — in other words, clarifying to them that they must consider various forms of criticism of Israel as antisemitism.
Rosenthal told NBC News: “This is another example of America losing its leadership role in the world.”
In arguing for the office, ADL head Jonathan Greenblatt pointed out: “These dedicated diplomats drove an exponential growth in U.S. reporting on antisemitism and mobilized a full arsenal of U.S. diplomatic tools and training.”
The next tactic may be for Congress to vote to fund the office. Since Israel lobby bills usually easily pass, often with overwhelmingly positive votes (most recently, 98-2), this will quite likely go through. The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism already has a petition telling Congress to “Fully Fund State Department Office for Monitoring and Combating Anti-Semitism.”
Both Forman and Rosenthal say they expect Congress to fund the envoy’s office in the coming budget, and expect this will succeed in pushing Trump to appoint someone to the post.
Unfortunately, given Trump’s failure to failure to reign in bigotry and antisemitism among some of his supporters, it may be unlikely that the new envoy will turn a focused attention to real cases of anti-Jewish bigotry. In fact, given Middle East advisor and son-in-law Jared Kushner’s support for rightwing Israeli settlers, as well as the Islamophobia embraced by elements of the Trump circle, the Trump administration could well move the office even more in the direction of suppressing support for Palestinian rights and criticism of Israel.
Meanwhile, on July 3rd alone, Israeli authorities forced a Palestinian family to demolish its own home, Israeli forces rounded up 18 Palestinians in predawn raids, prisoners in Israel’s notorious Ktziot prison faced life-threatening conditions (40 percent of Palestinian males have cycled through Israeli prisons), and the Israeli military invaded and bulldozed land in Gaza. A typical day in Palestine. But don’t let the special envoy hear you say that.
Alison Weir is executive director of If Americans Knew, president of the Council for the National Interest, and author of Against Our Better Judgment: The Hidden History of How the U.S. Was Used to Create Israel. Additional citations and information on this topic are in her recent report and timeline: “International campaign is criminalizing criticism of Israel as ‘antisemitism’”.
* Allan C. Brownfeld, Publications Editor of the American Council for Judaism, provided the comment below for inclusion in discussing the expanded definition of antisemitism:
The meaning of the term “anti/Semitism” has undergone dramatic change in recent years. It used to refer to hostility to Jews and Judaism. It has been redefined by some to mean criticism of Israel. In recent days, establishment Jewish organizations from the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) to the Simon Wiesenthal Center have called the BDS movement “anti-Semitic”—despite the fact that it is supported by groups such as Jewish Voice for Peace and such international groups as Jews for Palestinian Right of Return and the Israeli activist organization Boycott from Within.
The effort to redefine anti-Semitism as criticism of Israel has been going on for more than four decades. In 1974, Benjamin Epstein, the national director of the ADL co-authored “The New Anti-Semitism,” a book whose argument was repeated in 1982 by his successor at ADL, Nathan Perlmutter, in a book entitled “The Real Anti-Semitism In America.” After World War II, Epstein argued, guilt over the Holocaust kept anti-Semitism at bay, but as memories of the Holocaust faded, anti-Semitism had returned—this time in the form of hostility to Israel. The reason: Israel represented Jewish power. Jews are tolerable, acceptable in their particularity, only as victims,” wrote Epstein and his ADL colleague Arnold Forster, “and when their situation changed so that they are either no longer victims, or appear not to be,the non-Jewish world finds this so hard to take that the effort is begun to render them victims anew.”
Jewish critics of Israel are as likely to be denounced as “anti-Semites” as non-Jews. For example, columnist Caroline Glick, writing in the International Jerusalem Post (Dec. 23-39, 2011) found New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman guilty of employing “traditional anti-Semitic slurs” and “of channeling long-standing anti-Semitic charges.” In a February 2012 Commentary article, Ben Cohen writes that, “The list of flagrant Jew-baiters is growing; those with Jewish names provide an additional frisson.” Among those he names are M.J. Rosenberg, a former employee of AIPAC. Mondoweiss editor Philip Weiss, New Yorker correspondent Seymour Hersh, and Time Magazine columnist Joe Klein.
The redefinition of anti-Semitism to mean criticism of Israel is clearly an effort to end freedom of speech and discussion when it comes to Israel and its policies. It has nothing to do with real anti-Semitism, which this effort trivializes and which, fortunately, is in retreat.
** Abbas later apologized for and retracted his allegation that the rabbi had approved contaminating wells, which numerous media had compared to Medieval “blood libels” of Jews. The Western media and the antisemitism report did not mention the extensive evidence that Israeli settlers have contaminated wells and that the state of Israel did the same during the conquest of Palestine. The suggestion that evidence of human rights violations cannot be discussed if similar accusations have been unfairly made against other people at another time in history enables current violations to continue.
*** State Department Special Envoys (as of June 30, 2017)
Special Ambassadors (A similar but higher position)
Below is a promotional video that the second anti-Semitism envoy, Hannah Rosenthal, made to promote a “Walk for Israel” event in Millwaukee in May, 2017 . The event was to celebrate the creation of Israel, “the world’s first Jewish state in 2,000 years.”