The World from The Hill: Commitment to fighting anti-Semitism scrutinized

Some are concerned about President Obama's commitment to fighting anti-Semitism in light of reports that show a spike in anti-Jewish sentiments and incidents worldwide.

But other observers defend the president's efforts thus far as appropriate in facing the challenges posed by the global trends.

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These include violent attacks on synagogues and individuals in France, spray-painted swastikas and desecration of Jewish graves in Germany, and assertions by Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez's government that "Semitic banks" have been ruining the economy.

One 2010 study at Tel Aviv University found a 102 percent increase in anti-Jewish violence worldwide from 2008 to 2009, including an increase in "coordinated and preplanned" attacks.

One concern among Foreign Affairs Committee Republicans in the last Congress was the speed with which Obama staffed the Office to Monitor and Combat Global Anti-Semitism, which was created by the Global Anti-Semitism Review Act of 2004.

The first special envoy to head the office in 2006 was Gregg Rickman, who stepped down at the beginning of the Obama administration and now is director of policy and government affairs at the American Israel Public Affairs Council.

Obama named Hannah Rosenthal, child of a Holocaust survivor and former head of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, to head the office in November 2009.

The appointment wasn't received well by some, including Rickman, who would not comment for this article but wrote in July 2010 that "Rosenthal seems to continue her stray from her main job fighting anti-Semitism. Her consistent attention to Islamaphobia suggests a real sympathy for those very people who lead the way in attacking Jews in Europe."

Some lawmakers on Capitol Hill brought up concerns about the staffing levels of the office, which reportedly dropped to one at the beginning of the Obama administration.

"I am very concerned about the trend of—again of maybe double hatting, maybe not your position, but the staff," Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) asked Rosenthal at an April 2010 hearing. "...I would hate to see the specialness of your office diluted, and that is what I would believe it to be if you didn’t have dedicated staff."

Smith, along with Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), is a co-chairman of the Congressional Task Force on Anti-Semitism this Congress.

"Nothing I have needed has not been responded to," Rosenthal responded. "It is not being diluted. It is being elevated... I think you would be proud of how well the department is supporting me and how much access and help I get."

The State Department did not respond to requests about the office's current staffing levels, but a Democratic congressional aide said that the current number has been reported as four staffers; during the Bush administration staffers ranged from three to five.

Anti-Defamation League Director Abe Foxman said that the staffing concern was a "very simplistic view" of the office's ability.

"You don't necessarily measure the success of an office by how many bodies you have," Foxman told The Hill. "Would it help to have one or two more staff people? Yes. I don't think it's a reflection that they don't consider this issue serious."

Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), who brought up the staffing issue and other concerns about human-rights policy in a July floor speech, charged that the White House has "downgraded" issues of combating anti-Semitism and battling for religious freedom worldwide.

"I don't think they're very strongly speaking out for Israel," Wolf told The Hill. "I just think there's this fundamental weakness there. I don't sense that this administration is nearly as committed on some of these issues as previous administrations have been."

Wolf, co-chairman of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, introduced a bill in January to create a special envoy to address persecution of religious minorities in Iraq, Afghanistan and Egypt. Smith and Wolf introduced a bill last Congress, which got mired in the House Foreign Affairs Committee, that would have amended the 2004 anti-Semitism act to require additional reporting by Rosenthal's office, as well as increase its funding.

But Wolf notes that the post of the International Religious Freedom ambassador still has yet to be filled. John Hanford stepped down from the position in January 2009, and Obama didn't nominate Suzan Johnson Cook, a former Clinton adviser, until June 2010. Her nomination was put on hold in the Senate and expired at the end of the 111th Congress, so the office hasn't had a leader for two years now.

"If you look at one dot on the page it doesn't tell you that much but if you connect them" it provides a broader picture of the administration's efforts on the issues of anti-Semitism and religious freedom, Wolf said.

"I don't think it's in their DNA to get really worked up about these issues," he charged.

Foxman said that he's seen the administration standing behind Rosenthal when she has asked for support and says the White House has done a "credible job" addressing anti-Semitism.

"I have no complaints," Foxman said. "I think whenever there is a serious manifestation of anti-Semitism around the globe the administration is there.

"Unfortunately," he added, "the issue is a continually growing problem. It's not going away. It's getting worse. In many of the countries where it is a very serious problem America doesn't have much political clout."

President Obama sat down Tuesday at the White House with about 50 members of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations; reports from the meeting afterward said that Obama had asked the Jewish leaders to encourage Israel supporters to "search your souls" over the role of the Jewish state in the Middle East peace process, something Wolf said is "disintegrating" under Obama.

The Conference issued a statement Wednesday saying that "contrary to certain public reports,” Obama conducted the meeting “in an atmosphere of warmth, friendship and openness and there as no expression of hostility toward Israel or its government,” according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

“The President articulated his expectations of all parties with respect to the Middle East peace process,” the leaders said. “The President underscored the unprecedented security cooperation with and support for Israel. ... The President asserted that efforts to delegitimize Israel would be met with a firm response.”

A White House statement described the meeting as “productive” and noted “America’s unshakable support for Israel’s security, opposition to any effort to delegitimize it or single it out for criticism, and commitment to achieve a peace that will secure the future for Arabs and Israelis alike.”

Critics maintain that the Obama administration needs to keep a broad focus on anti-Israel sentiment morphing into anti-Semitism.

"Now more than ever before, there are groups dedicated to isolating and demonizing Israel and its supporters on campuses and in communities around the United States," Roz Rothstein, CEO of Israel advocacy organization StandWithUs, told The Hill.

"So defining, monitoring and stopping anti-Semitism should be a high priority in order to meet the growing need," she said.

Rosenthal was not available to comment on this article, but in remarks to the 2010 Conference on Combating Anti-Semitism in Ottawa she said that raising concerns of anti-Semitism to other countries is a "top priority" for the administration.

"Through bilateral l meetings and activities, we encourage other governments to take steps against anti-Semitic manifestations within their own societies," Rosenthal said. "We ask governments to challenge acts of anti-Semitism, to speak out against and expose the hatred. We offer help with reporting and data collections. We encourage appropriate outreach by governments to members of Jewish communities. We also encourage governments to partner with us in multi-lateral institutions such as the UN, or the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the OAS, EU and others, to those same ends.

"We are ready to work with governments that want to be part of the solution, and call out those that don’t," she said.