Thursday, December 10, 2009

A Bad Idea

It matters not whether she is from J Street or from Avenue J, the appointment of Hannah Rosenthal as the State Department’s “Special Envoy” on anti-Semitism is a bad idea. For all of the hi-falutin title – as in special envoy for the Middle East or Afghanistan – the position is no more than an envoyship to Foggy Bottom, to a vast bureaucracy that is adept at positions that although bereft of substance give the trappings of importance.

The office now occupied by Ms. Rosenthal was created five years ago by congressional legislation, one more act by a legislative body that mistakes pandering for high public service. It is small wonder that Congress is held in low public esteem. Precisely because anti-Semitism is dangerous, the last thing that is needed to combat this terrible social disease is vacuous rhetoric and meaningless acts that suggest that the problem is being dealt with.

Ms. Rosenthal isn’t the first occupant of this position. Her predecessor was Gregg Rickman who according to an editorial in this newspaper “laid a good foundation as the first anti-Semitism envoy.” He is doubtlessly a good person with proper commitment, yet it is a good deal more than a stretch to suggest that he accomplished anything. How many readers of this newspaper ever heard of him? For sure he was busy writing memos, reading what others sent to him, attending meetings and finding things to fill the time. It’s a good bet that Ms. Rosenthal will be similarly occupied, although given her greater experience in Jewish affairs, the likelihood is that much of her time will be occupied with conferences and a multitude of communal events.

The principles that guide this nation are alone justification for our government challenging anti-Semitism, as well as racism and bigotry against any ethnic or nationality group. Anti-Semitism especially needs to be spotlighted because history, distant and recent, amply documents the toll exacted through the tolerance of the hatred of Jews. We Jews have a right to be parochial, to pressure Washington to confront and condemn anti-Semitism. We are not guests in this country. Even if we were, that would not negate our right to advocate what we think is best for our people.

The problem is that bureaucracy may be the antithesis to combating anti-Semitism, a severe social disease that has, I believe, no ready cure as long as our people remain distinct and relatively successful. Since Ms. Rosenthal’s job is in the State Department, is it too much to hope that her office will be the one that was occupied during the Holocaust by Breckenridge Long, the high official whose anti-Semitism impelled him to thwart efforts to rescue refugees? She will have an abundance of perverse riches to examine since the hatred of Jews is alive and spreading in too many places.

I am certain that home-bred or U.S.-based anti-Semitism isn’t part of her mandate, which is a shame because that is the variety that our government can and should effectively deal with. There are neo-Nazis and an assortment of far rightwing haters who have conspiracy theories about Jews and they need to be confronted. There is evidence of anti-Semitism at the FBI and other intelligence agencies and this will surely be off-limits, as is the place where Ms. Rosenthal now works, although there too there lingers the legacy of too many officials, including the great George C. Marshall, who exhibited animosity toward Jews.

This leaves the wide wide world where there is anti-Semitism aplenty and there will be much for Ms. Rosenthal to read and write about and preciously little else for her to do. Even on the information side there will be little for her to add to the ground already covered by the Anti-Defamation League and American Jewish Committee.

We know that Western Europe has had repeated outbreaks of anti-Jewish actions and rhetoric. We also know that in Russia and elsewhere in Eastern Europe, anti-Semitism remains a serious problem despite the paucity of Jews. Are we to expect that Ms. Rosenthal will have an impact on how our government addresses an issue that quite frankly is low on the totem pole of current U.S. diplomatic concerns?

Throughout Europe, as well as elsewhere, there are diplomatic niceties and national interests that dictate what issues any American administration may choose to address. There are always bigger fish in the diplomatic pond to contend with and although we may wish that it were otherwise, it is a rare day when any president or administration will make much of an issue over anti-Semitism. As just one of many examples, this is evident in the U.S.-Saudi relationship. Saudi Arabian law and practices are enveloped in the hatred of Jews. Has any president or secretary of state underscored this issue in discussions with this or that King Saud or King Faud?

Even in regard to Iran, it is hard to see how anti-Semitism fits into the equation. If the U.S. at long last takes concrete action to punish or limit Iran, it will not be because that country has engaged in anti-Semitism but because Washington believes that it is in America’s interest to take such action. What role is Ms. Rosenthal to play regarding Iran or in U.S. relations with Venezuela whose leader Chavez has been bitten by the anti-Semitism bug?

This outlook is admittedly pessimistic. It arises not from an absence of concern about anti-Semitism as from an absence of confidence that conventional diplomacy is an antidote to the disease. It is necessary for the President and Secretary of State to speak out occasionally. I feel that the State Department office will have the unintended effect of locating the issue in the middle labyrinth of a vast bureaucracy. That is what happened under President Bush. I believe that the Obama administration will be no different.