A different way to combat anti-Semitism

Washington Jewish Week  February 1, 2012
By Suzanne Pollak

Hannah Rosenthal relaxes before telling an audience at Georgetown University that criticism of Israel is one thing, but calling for its annihilation is anti-Semitism. (Photo by Suzanne Pollak)

Hannah Rosenthal, the State Department’s special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism, would much rather speak out

against Islamphobia than anti-Semitism. The way she sees it, an American Jew denouncing a Holocaust denier or someone advocating the annihilation of Israel just doesn’t carry much weight.

At the same time, she looks for sympathetic non-Jews and urges them to speak out against anti-Semitism.

“That is how I have decided to approach my job. I meet with other faith leaders. I ask them to condemn” attacks against Jews and Israel. “And guess what? It has far more importance,” she told a group of about 50 faculty members, students and area residents attending her recent lecture at Georgetown University, which was sponsored by the Program for Jewish Civilization.

That same thinking is why she recently invited eight imans from Saudi Arabia to join her on a tour at Auschwitz. Rosenthal believes that many of the region’s Holocaust deniers are more ignorant than evil, and, therefore, need to be enlightened with overt facts that can’t be brushed away.

She made a similar trip to Auschwitz a few years ago and boasts that two former adamant Holocaust deniers now speak out against the Holocaust. One of those original deniers when confronted for the first time with a tattooed number in a survivor’s arm, asked. “Why did you let them do to that to you.”

Rosenthal was surprised that they knew nothing about it.

“Anti-Semitism is found on every continent, in almost every country. You don’t need to have Jews there,” she said.

Criticizing Israel and its policies does not rise to the level of anti-Semitism, she said. However, calling for its destruction is another story. Whenever Israel is demonized or held to a much higher standard than other countries, that is anti-Semitism, she explained.

This hatred comes in several forms, she told the Georgetown audience. There is the “old-fashioned anti-Semitism” that includes graffiti, cemetery desecration and blood libel allegations.

Then there are those who deny the Holocaust, and there has been a spike in this “at a time when survivors, camp liberators and witnesses are dying. Actual glorification of the Holocaust is experiencing an astronomical growth,” Rosenthal said, explaining that her facts come from those who monitor neo-Nazi and other websites.

Cyber space, especially Facebook and Twitter, can carry malicious rumors further and faster than with propaganda of the past.

There still are annual parades with SS veterans, mainly in the Baltic countries. “They parade to cheering crowds, in full regalia,” she said.

When she complains to government officials about their country’s parades, she said, she often is told, “‘What do you expect? They are old people. They were really freedom fighters, because they were fighting Soviets, and if some Jews had to die, some Jews had to die.'”

In Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the media “actually calls for another Holocaust to finish the job,” the State Department official said, sighing, “That’s really hard. That’s really hard. You have to wonder, did we learn anything?”

Doesn’t she find all this depressing?” 

Not at all, she claims, noting, “I get to do something about it. I get to call them [political leaders] on it with the power of the United States behind me, and it’s pretty cool.”

It is Rosenthal’s responsibility to monitor 193 countries, although she admits, “I have to prioritize.” She speaks one-on-one with governmental leaders, urging them to condemn anti-Semitism within their borders. She works with groups to combat hatred, and she decides which programs to fund around the world, including one group, Centropa, that puts together short films “that discuss how Jews lived, not how Jews died.”

One organization that continually holds Israel to a different standard is the United Nations, she stressed. In the past 10 years, that body has issued 434 resolutions condemning Israel “for some form of human rights abuse.” During that same time span, there have been five resolutions against North Korea and eight against Sudan, she said, shuddering.

She pointed to a boycott against Israeli goods, and wondered when Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka, Burma and China are called on the carpet, why aren’t people asked to boycott goods from those countries.

“They won’t,” she said, adding, “It would keep you up at night how these countries are treating their citizens.”

Criticism of Israel somehow usually ends, “therefore it doesn’t have the right to exist,” but criticism of “Burma, Venezuela and Sri Lanka, no one says they don’t have the right to exist. Diplomats just say, ‘We can fix this.’ ”

Rosenthal described herself as a “passionate advocate.” To her, “hate is hate.”

She acknowledged that despite her best efforts, anti-Semitism isn’t ending anytime soon. Instead, she measures her success “in how many others I can get to condemn all the hatred that is around and how many non-Jews speak out against anti-Semitism,” she said.

Her office started a movement last year to get young people across the globe to commit to one hour of volunteer time “helping someone who isn’t like them.” It began with the goal of getting 2,011 young people to participate in 2011. By the end of the year, the Facebook page for that movement had “over 17,000” participants.

Rosenthal remains upbeat, praising the support she has from her bosses, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama.

The Program for Jewish Civilization is an interdisciplinary research and teaching unit at the university. It focuses on the cultural, religious, political, historical, philosophical, scientific and literary contributions of the Jewish people. Since it was established in 2003, PJC has hosted nearly 150 lectures and events featuring more than 175 leaders throughout the world.




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