Ira Forman, the former longtime director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, was chosen this past week to be President Obama’s envoy to combat anti-Semitism. But what exactly does this envoy do?
The Office to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism was created in 2004 with the passing of the The Global Review of Anti-Semitism Act. Two years later, the first envoy, Gregg Rickman, was appointed. Rickman had previously been known for his efforts to uncover the role of Swiss banks in preventing Jews from accessing pre-Holocaust accounts.
According to the State Department, the official purpose of the office is to “develop and implement policies and projects to support efforts to combat anti-Semitism.” The envoy has emerged as the representative of the U.S. government in all things anti-Semitism, whether decrying it or applauding those who fight against it.
In his tenure, Rickman fulfilled both roles. In his two years on the job, Rickman oversaw the annual reports for the State Department on anti-Semitic trends. In 2006, he headed a delegation to the 65th commemoration of the Babi Yar massacre. That same year, he also addressed the opening session of a regional conference for the leaders of World Jewish Congress branches in Canada, the United States and Mexico. In 2007, Rickman travelled to London to meet with governmental and law enforcement officials to discuss the reported rise of anti-Semitism in Britain.
Rickman stepped down after Obama’s election in 2008, and was replaced by in 2009 by Hannah Rosenthal. Following a stint in the Department of Health and Human Services during the Clinton administration, Rosenthal served from 2000 to 2005 as executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. After her nomination, Rickman, in a JTA Op-Ed, gave Rosenthal some advice about the challenges she would face as envoy.
For the most part, Rosenthal followed in Rickman’s footsteps, meeting with various leaders to discuss anti-Semitism. But in contrast to Rickman, Rosenthal called for a more active role for the envoy. Rosenthal explained, “I see some of this as proactive, being an ambassador and educator to organizations, to activists, to people in various parts of the world, on the importance of viewing anti-Semitism as a human rights issue.”
Given what a recent State Department report described as “a continued global increase in anti-Semitism,” Forman faces a formidable challenge.