Washington, D.C. — In the name of religion, ISIS terrorists violently drive ethnic Yazidis, who practice Zoroastrianism, from their homes in northern Iraq. In the name of religion, Nigeria’s Boko Haram extremists, who practice a Wahhabi strain of Islam, brazenly kidnap schoolgirls, sparking a worldwide reaction. In the name of religion, Islamic terrorists target Christians, including adherents of the Coptic sect, at an increasingly alarming rate in a number of countries around the world.
And in a small State Department office sits Rabbi David Saperstein, the first Jewish person to serve as the State Department’s point man for spreading the American brand of religious tolerance on the world stage.
Talk about a tough job. Some would see the rabbi’s task as nearly futile given today’s geopolitical realities — like tilting at windmills. But he sees it as an opportunity to spread the positive influence of religion, which he did for four decades at the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center here.
As religious-inspired beheadings carried out by non-state actors become commonplace on the nightly news and across the Internet, and as a debate rages in Washington and in world capitals about whether the Western world is at war with Islam, Rabbi Saperstein is armed with books that reflect his beliefs.
On the shelves next to his desk are volumes on religious freedom from the perspective of the law (he is also an attorney) and from the perspective of several faith traditions. And there are textbooks from the courses on church-state law and Jewish law that he taught at Georgetown Law School.
As a diplomat now, Rabbi Saperstein is also armed with the weight of U.S. policy, no small thing. His job is to convince other nations that affording the religious freedom that their constitutions promise is in the interests of their long-term stability.
“Religious freedom is one of the glories of America … the common heritage of humanity,” Rabbi Saperstein said, in his first interview with the Jewish media since he officially began his State Department work; but, he added, it’s a liberty endorsed by the laws of most societies but not necessarily enforced.
Rabbi Jack Moline, executive director of the Washington-based Interfaith Alliance, said the power of diplomacy that Rabbi Saperstein’s position exercises is a complement to the military power that an army has in bringing about change in foreign countries. “He doesn’t have an army,” Rabbi Moline said, adding, “diplomacy is a major part of the American arsenal.”
Rabbi Saperstein, now Ambassador Saperstein, barely had time to move into his State Department office before terrorism in the name of religion landed with a bang on his desk.
During his first week on the job, “Paris happened,” he said, referring to the terrorist killings in the French capital, at the office of the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine and at the Hyper Cacher kosher supermarket; the attacks took place on Jan. 7, a day after he began his new job.
The murders, committed by men and women who pledged allegiance to a violent branch of radical Islam, were the latest, and one of the most egregious, are the most recent examples of intolerance in the name of religious belief — the reason the Clinton administration created a separate ambassadorial post for religious freedom 17 years ago.
Rabbi Saperstein hit the phones immediately, calling the leaders of French Jewry, offering them a willing ear and moral support.
In the days after the terrorist attacks the rabbi also consulted with officials of the State Department and the White House, helping to shape the U.S. government’s reaction to and statements about the terrorism.
Which is the mandate of the ambassador-at-large. During his brief time in office, Rabbi Saperstein has traveled to Canada to take part in meetings with his religious freedom peers from several countries, visited and joined a presidential mission to Iraq and its Kurdish province for discussions about the protection of ethnic and religious minorities, and joined a delegation at the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz led by Secretary Jack Lew.
Back at home, he works with representatives of many religious communities, and with religion-oriented non-governmental organizations, and serves as the president’s principal advisor on matters of religious freedom. He can make policy recommendations for U.S. actions toward nations that violate the rights of individuals to freedom of religion.
Rabbi Saperstein is a participant in State Department staff meetings. “I have the ear of the higher-ups,” he said.
The rabbi deflects a question about the criticism that President Obama received when he recently declared, in an apparent off-the-cuff remark, that the Jewish victims in the Hyper Cacher shooting were “randomly” selected, rather than being earmarked because they were Jews.
The attack at Hyper Cacher, which killed four Jewish customers, was labeled an anti-Semitic attack by French President François Hollande, leaders of the French Jewish community, and the American government.
Since the shootings, the administration has consistently termed the attack at the kosher supermarket as an act of anti-Semitism, and the president’s recent remark was not meant as a contradiction, Rabbi Saperstein says. “It was clearly an anti-Semitic act.”
Rabbi Saperstein also declined to comment on the president’s disinclination to brand the acts of terrorism committed by identified Muslims as an expression of “radical Islam.”
Before President Obama nominated him, three Christians served in the ambassador-at-large position. The position, part of the Office of International Freedom, was created by the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act, which President Clinton signed into law, to “monitor religious persecution and discrimination worldwide, recommend and implement policies in respective regions or countries, and develop programs to promote religious freedom.”
The rabbi now does, on an international scale for all faith groups, the type of work he had performed domestically for 40 years for Reform Judaism.
At 67, he is of retirement age. “I never thought of retiring” — or leaving the RAC, he says. Until he was approached by officials from the State Department and White House about the open post. “I originally said no,” Rabbi Saperstein says one recent morning, sitting around a small conference table in his modest State Department office. “I loved what I was doing” at the RAC. Then his wife convinced him that the State Department offer represented a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to take his RAC work to a larger stage.
While working at the RAC, Rabbi Saperstein had participated in more than a dozen visits to Muslim and Arab countries.
Now that he is at the State Department, what reception has he — an identified Jew whom Newsweek magazine once named the most influential rabbi in the United States — received from representatives of Muslim and Arab countries?
No hostility, Rabbi Saperstein says. During a time when radical Islam is seen as increasingly influenced by anti-Semitic interpretations of Islamic scripture, the Muslims he has dealt with on the job so far approach him with respect and curiosity, he says. No one has refused to deal with him because of his Jewish identity. “In every country I have been received with respect.
“To some extent [my Jewish background] is helpful,” the rabbi says. “They’re intrigued that this position is held by a Jew. They understand that I represent the United States” — not American Jewry. “That makes an eloquent statement about the United States” and, he says, about the type of religious freedom it fosters.
His ecumenical experience at the RAC was a good preparation for a highly visible Jew dealing with members of many religions, says Rabbi Steve Gutow, president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. “He can handle the large issues intellectually and theologically in a way that helps those from other religions understand that he knows their faith as well as a non-believer possibly can.”
Rabbi Saperstein declines to discuss the ongoing controversy over New York City’s regulating of the haredi community metzitzah b’peh oral suction procedure for circumcised infants — “It would not be appropriate for me to comment on a domestic religious freedom issue; my responsibilities address the international scene.”
One on-the-new-job adjustment: deciding which title to use. “When it relates to the work I do [at the State Department], I use the ‘ambassador’ title,” Rabbi Saperstein says. When he’s teaching about Judaism or speaking in a synagogue, then it’s “rabbi.”
Some people he meets aren’t sure which title to use. “I don’t think I ever corrected anyone at any time.”