I want to thank the Jewish community of Madison for convening this important gathering, a women’s Sabbath.
I’m so thrilled to be back here in Madison and to see so many familiar faces in the room. Few things top being in a room full of women devoted to social justice and inter-religious tolerance!
As a child of a Holocaust survivor, anti-Semitism is something very personal to me.
When I was old enough to somewhat understand what my father went through being the only member of his family to survive, I asked him how he handled his guilt and kept his sanity. He didn’t miss a beat and said: “I survived to have you, Hannele!” – so took that guilt off his shoulders and put it squarely on mine – and I have dedicated my life to eradicating anti-Semitism and intolerance with a sense of urgency and passion that only Dad could give me.
Importance of Combating Anti-Semitism for the Obama Administration
I am honored and humbled to serve as the United States' new Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism. The word “combat” strongly underscores the United States’ commitment to fight anti-Semitism wherever it is found.
What steps will I pursue in addressing this challenge? I hope to both respond to anti-Semitism when it rears its ugly head, and to work to prevent its future.
Building strong relationships across ethnic lines and with persons of other faith traditions is crucial to our success. As with any form of prejudice, anti-Semitism is often based in ignorance and fear. It is easy to criticize and even demonize people you’ve never met. Building relationships among different ethnic and religious communities is central to tearing down walls of hostility. With dialogue, there is less room for stereotypes to grow and flourish.
The U.S. government’s International Visitor Leadership Program brings to this country every year thousands of foreign experts from all over the world to meet and confer with their professional counterparts and to experience America firsthand. Through this prestigious program, imams’ views of Jews have been transformed, having their negative stereotype replaced by a positive view as American families hosted them on their visit.
Anti-Semitism: Changing face, More Insidious and Subtle
Just last month, we saw a priest lead a mob in dismantling a menorah in front of an Orthodox Church in Moldova’s capital and removing the menorah to a site in front of the Jewish cemetery. A few weeks ago, Moldovan prosecutors —claiming that no violent crime had been committed -- fined the priest the maximum amount permitted under the law – just under fifty dollars -- and agreed to investigate the NGO involved in the menorah’s dismantling and removal to another site. The positive side of this situation is that Moldovan prosecutors are now looking at other criminal charges they didn’t originally consider, and the Moldovan Orthodox Church is considering disciplinary action against the priest who organized the menorah- removal.
In Vienna in December, at the annual menorah lighting ceremony, the Chabad Rabbi was attacked by a mentally-ill Palestinian asylum applicant (and lost a finger), while in Ebensee in Upper Austria last May, five teenagers chanted Nazi slogans and fired rubber bullets at participants at a commemoration event at the former Nazi concentration camp. The youths were arrested; three were released under court surveillance and none of them has yet been brought to trial.
In the early morning hours of December 18, thieves stole the ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ sign from above the entrance of the Auschwitz death camp site. The sign was found on December 20, cut into three pieces. Five suspects have been arrested by Polish police authorities. The alleged ringleader, Swedish neo-Nazi Anders Hogstrom, intended to sell the sign to raise funds for neo-Nazi political activities. Polish officials are seeking his extradition from Sweden for prosecution.
And last month we saw the Swiss Christian Democratic People’s Party, which is viewed as centrist in the governing coalition, state that there should be no more separate Jewish or Muslim cemeteries. Later he apologized.
In Greece, two recent arson attacks have struck the Etz-Hayyim Synagogue in the city of Hania on the island of Crete. The first attack on January 5 caused damage to the exterior of the synagogue, and a bar of soap was hurled against the synagogue walls as a provocation (evoking threats to ‘turn Jews into bars of soap’). The second attack on January 16 caused severe damage to the synagogue, destroying nearly 2,000 books and severely damaging its wooden roof, floor and offices. The historic synagogue dates back to the Middle Ages. The attacks have been widely condemned by government ministers and public figures in Greece, and our Ambassador and embassy officers are working with the Government of Greece to condemn and combat anti-Semitism while bringing the perpetrators of these senseless attacks to justice.
For example, when anti-Israel protesters gather outside a synagogue, a sacred place of worship for the Jewish faith, and then proceed to march to an Israeli Embassy, there is a dangerous blurring of lines between political expression and anti-Semitic opposition to the Jewish faith itself.
Criticism of Israel is not necessarily anti-Semitic, but it crosses the line when, for example, that criticism applies double standards in criticism, comparing a current policy of Israel to that of the Nazis, and holding all Jews collectively responsible for actions of the State of Israel.
United Nations’ bodies long have shown a bias toward condemning Israel at a rate much higher than for any other country. We documented this in the Combating Global Anti-Semitism report, published in 2008. For example, we compared UN resolutions with negative country-specific references from 2001 to 2007. Israel was in nearly 170 resolutions, while North Korea was mentioned in fewer than 10. There were more than 50 resolutions criticizing Israel's human rights record, with only 5 targeting North Korea, and 8 targeting Sudan. (p. 51, Appendix A of CGAS report)
We continue to do all we can to see that Israel is treated fairly at the UN and other international organizations. Last year, the United States joined the UN’s Human Rights Council – the UN’s intergovernmental body responsible for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe. Our country’s presence on the HRC will help it to live into its mandate to address situations of human rights violations and make recommendations on them – including anti-Semitism.
Anti-Semitism shows up in literature. A children’s book in South Korea designed to teach about other countries included cartoons depicting Jewish conspiracies to control the U.S. media and cause the September 11 attacks. This book sold 10 million copies before it was pulled from the market by the publisher in 2007 (p. 21 of CGAS report).
"The Pineapple Show" is a recent play that was performed at the Ministry of Culture in Iran. It denies that the Holocaust occurred and uses a play on words to belittle the Holocaust. And of course we are all too familiar with the Iranian cartoon contest and conference to deny the Holocaust.
In secondary school textbooks published in Saudi Arabia, high school students are exposed to such intolerant statements as:
[Note: Examples taken from secondary school curriculum that was freely offered on the Internet (2007-2008 academic year textbooks, published in Saudi Arabia).]
No government should produce materials that are intolerant of other religious, racial, or ethnic groups, or teach such intolerance as part of its educational curriculum and we continue to engage the Saudi government on this issue.
We should acknowledge that Saudi leaders have taken some positive steps on their own. King Abdullah has led a series of international interfaith summits that have included the participation of Jewish leaders. The King Faisal International Prize for Medicine in 2009 was awarded to Stanford University cancer expert Dr. Ronald Levy, reportedly the first American Jewish Scholar to win such a prize in Saudi Arabia. Though modest, these are real opportunities to reach out to a society that is the symbolic core of the Muslim world.
The horror of the Holocaust is even used and abused. We are all familiar with Iranian President Ahmedinajad’s statements denying the Holocaust. But some are now taking it to a shocking new level, by celebrating the Holocaust and even promoting a new Holocaust against Jews. MEMRI (the Middle East Media Research Institute) recently translated two bone-chilling video clips of radical clerics on major international television networks earlier this year, lauding the Holocaust. One shows footage of the victims in their suffering and stages of death, while repeatedly approving what he called “their humiliation.” They went on to conclude: “Allah willing, the next time it will be at the hand of us believers.”
January 27 marks an anniversary we all wish never had any reason to exist – the 65th anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz. I will attend commemorative events at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. We must all join together to actively combat Holocaust denial, Holocaust revisionism, and the promotion of future Holocausts.
I look forward to working with you all.