How The State Department Is Combating Anti-Semitism


The end of any presidential term is an appropriate time for assessment and analysis. One of the major issues that we Jews continue to be concerned about is the current state of anti-Semitism, which has surged to unprecedented post-World War II levels. This leads to the frequently asked question: Beyond private organizations and activists who struggle with today’s manifestations of history’s oldest hate, what exactly is the U.S. government doing to combat anti-Semitism?

Unlike the 1930s, the State Department now officially recognizes the existence of anti-Semitism. That is due in no small measure to a bipartisan Congressional Act in 2004, when the position of special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism was first established. President George W. Bush appointed Gregg Rickman, who served from 2006-2009. He was succeeded in the Obama administration by Hannah Rosenthal (2009-2012) and then by the current special envoy, Ira Forman. Both Rickman and Rosenthal made noteworthy contributions to making combating anti-Semitism a part of official U.S. foreign policy. Rickman set the tone by vigorously engaging with more than 25 countries during his term, while Rosenthal built on Rickman’s accomplishments by establishing a mandatory course on anti-Semitism at the Foreign Service Institute as well as personally confronting the anti-Semitic mayor of Malmo, Sweden.

We at the Simon Wiesenthal Center have worked closely with the special envoys from the beginning, but especially with Ira Forman, the current special envoy. Forman has taken the office to new levels of engagement. Under his watch, the State Department convened a high-level meeting on anti-Semitism with Secretary of State Kerry that Rabbi Marvin Hier, the dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, described as “the first time that the State Department had elevated the battle against anti-Semitism to such a high level within the department’s leadership.” Forman, working closely with our office and other Jewish activists, was also instrumental in pushing the Hungarian government to abandon plans to erect a statue to honor a notorious Nazi collaborator who helped pave the way for the persecution and murder of over 450,000 Hungarian Jews.

Working alongside his colleague, Nicholas Dean, special envoy on Holocaust issues, Forman played a pivotal role in diplomatic efforts that led to the recent adoption by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance of a Working Definition of Anti-Semitism. This is the first-ever formal international definition of anti-Semitism, and a potentially crucial tool for forcing governments and international agencies to confront and take action against it. There are numerous other efforts and initiatives related to anti-Semitism that Forman continues to be directly involved with in the waning days of the Obama administration.

Despite these achievements, the Jewish community cannot assume that fighting anti-Semitism is the main priority of the secretary of state or other U.S. diplomats. There are geopolitical calculations that can often weigh in, including maintaining good relationships with “allies,” or the need to win other states’ cooperation, and there indeed some officials who are hostile to Israel or indifferent to anti-Jewish bias.

One recent example of how anti-Semitism can sometimes be minimized even as it is being addressed was evident in the State Department’s recently released report on international religious freedom. The report, which is written and released by the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom (and not by Forman’s office) and based on mandated reporting by U.S. embassies and consulates, does include references to anti-Semitism in many countries and regions, including the Palestinian Authority, where it states “anti-Semitic material continued to appear in official PA media.”

However, the report omits any mention of the book fair in Saudi Arabia last year that the U.S. participated in, and featured anti-Semitic titles such as “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” And, when the report mentioned a similar incident in another book fair in the United Arab Emirates, it neglected to point out that the U.S. Embassy in the UAE posted an invitation to the book fair on Facebook.

The stubborn persistence of such attitudes in the echelons of power, whether motivated by geopolitics or by blindness to the real dangers of anti-Semitism, means it is incumbent upon us to recognize that we collectively must strengthen our vigilance and activism. At the same time, we also need to recognize the tenacious commitment of one (appointed) diplomat, Ira Forman, who is making a real-time difference in this struggle. Whether Democrat or Republican, we should recognize Forman’s substantial achievements and express our “hakarat hatov” [appreciation] to one American official who reminds the world that America cares about anti-Semitism. We must also be vigilant in ensuring that whoever occupies such a position in future administrations lives up to the standards set by Forman and his predecessors. 

Mark Weitzman is director of government affairs at the Simon Wiesenthal Center.