ON MY MIND: Missing antisemitism envoy

Indecision has consequences. Leaving vacant the key State Department position in the US effort to fight antisemitism globally has generated perceptions that inevitably question Washington’s commitment on this issue.

In 2004, the US Congress, with the support of president George W. Bush, established the State Department Office to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism. The first two special envoys named to head the office, Hannah Rosenfeld by president Bush and Ira Forman by president Barack Obama, led a small team that pressed governments and multilateral institutions to develop mechanisms to confront antisemitism and safeguard vulnerable Jewish communities.

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The important work of this office came to a standstill in January 2017. Amid a concerted effort to severely cut the State Department budget, including imposing a hiring freeze, the status of the special envoy has been unclear.

Comments by secretary of state Rex Tillerson that the antisemitism office could be folded into other departments were worrisome. By last summer, the remaining staff were gone. It was inexplicable that this crucial office, authorized by Congress, would be allowed to remain dormant.

During his 13-month tenure my AJC colleagues, as well as other Jewish organizations, members of Congress and media repeatedly appealed to Tillerson to appoint someone. “Failure to maintain the special envoy office with adequate resources would diminish US global leadership in the ongoing fight against antisemitism,” Jason Isaacson, AJC’s associate executive director for policy, warned in April 2017.

This position is crucial for making clear that antisemitism is a US priority and, importantly, for setting an example that other countries, especially in Europe, can emulate. One of the outcomes of a major conference on antisemitism in Europe convened by AJC in Brussels three years ago was an eight-point action plan that, among other recommendations, called for creating high-level positions in individual governments to combat antisemitism.

By September 2015, France’s first Inter-ministerial Delegate against Racism and Antisemitism was appointed. No other European government had a similar position, at least until last month when Felix Klein was appointed Germany’s first antisemitism commissioner. He has called for establishing a national database to record antisemitic incidents with the kind of details that can help authorities devise measures to combat antisemitism.

Washington needs to reengage now. The missing special envoy signals to other countries that the US doesn’t really care about the problem.

A growing number of stakeholders agree. They have been pressing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, since his April 26 swearing-in, to fix this anomaly and make the designation of a Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism one of his first priorities.

Last week, a letter from more than 1,100 religious leaders across the US was delivered to Pompeo, urging him to decide. “We are a diverse group of religious leaders from across America who have joined together to call upon you to swiftly appoint a new State Department Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism,” states the letter. “Antisemitism starts with Jews but doesn’t end there. When any minority is threatened, everyone is less safe.”

Among the signatories of the letter, coordinated by AJC, were Timothy Cardinal Dolan, the Archbishop of New York; Rev. Katharine Henderson, the president of Auburn Seminary, an influential Protestant institution based in New York; Bishop Joseph C. Bambera, chairman of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs; the Rev. Gabriel Salguero, president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition; Imam Faizul Khan of the Islamic Society of the Washington Area; and John Taylor, director of interfaith relations of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They were joined by hundreds of rabbis and Christian leaders, as well as representatives of the Baha’i, Buddhist, Hindu and Sikh communities.

A parallel push is coming from Congress, where the House Bipartisan Taskforce for Combating Antisemitism has been collecting signatures for their own letter, urging Pompeo “to prioritize” the appointment of a special envoy and “to provide the necessary resources for this critical work.” By the weekend, more than 100 members of the House of Representatives had signed the letter.

Moreover, another legislative measure is moving forward in Congress that would serve to elevate the importance of this position by according the Special Envoy the rank of ambassador.

For a position created without controversy 14 years ago, its virtual closure, for more than 16 months so far, is baffling. Ending the overextended delay, appointing the special envoy, will clarify that mobilizing governments to take on antisemitism is indeed a US priority.

The writer is the American Jewish Committee’s director of media relations.