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Leaving State Department’s anti-Semitism post, Hannah Rosenthal reflects on accomplishments

by Ron Kampeas, JTA

October 16, 2012 | 11:13 am

Special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism Hannah Rosenthal recognized the work of Father Patrick Desbois, President of the Yahad-In Unum Association of France, with a Tribute of Appreciation certificate on May 12, 2011

Special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism Hannah Rosenthal recognized the work of Father Patrick Desbois, President of the Yahad-In Unum Association of France, with a Tribute of Appreciation certificate on May 12, 2011

Anti-Semitism overseas is being noted with increasing frequency by U.S. State Department human rights reports, and Hannah Rosenthal says that’s a good thing.

Rosenthal, the State Department’s second anti-Semitism monitor, says increased reporting reflects burgeoning awareness of the problem among U.S. diplomats.

“The not-so-sexy part of what I’ve done has been what I’ve done inside the building,” she said Oct. 5 in a phone interview from the State Department. It was her last day on the job before she assumes a new position -- president and CEO of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation.

Rosenthal and her staff of six within the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor cleared bureaucratic hurdles, she said, to establish a required 90-minute course on anti-Semitism at the Foreign Service Institute, the training school for diplomats, as well as a 341-word definition of anti-Semitism.

“Our reporting has improved many times over -- 300 percent in the three years I've been here,” said Rosenthal, 61, who took up her State Department post in November 2009. “That doesn't mean anti-Semitism was increasing in all those countries.”

Rosenthal, who attracted headlines for high-profile encounters overseas with foreign officials, says the intradepartmental achievements were no small matter.

“That definition? It had to be cleared by a gazillion people,” she said. “But we were able to get a comprehensive definition that included not only traditional forms -- blood libel, stereotypes -- but newer forms like Holocaust denial and Holocaust relativism, and we were able to get included in there where legitimate criticism of Israel crosses into anti-Semitism.”

Much of the definition straddles the delicate balance between legitimate criticism of Israel and anti-Jewish bias.

It incorporates the three D's first outlined by Natan Sharansky, the one-time prisoner of the Soviet gulag who now chairs the Jewish Agency for Israel, as the marks of Israel criticism that crosses over into anti-Jewish bias: demonizing, double standards and delegitimizing. The definition, which does not credit Sharansky, adds an italicized caveat: "However, criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic."

Rosenthal describes the definition as a breakthrough.

“We have now a definition we can train people on, and we've been very aggressive in training foreign service officers,” she said.

The result: Whereas anti-Semitism received passing mentions in previous reports or was addressed separately, in recent years it has received extensive attention. In the most recent report on Ukraine, for instance, anti-Semitism earned its own chapter heading and 550 words among 15,000.

Jewish community professionals say the definition, training course and attention paid in the reports translate into a stakehold for the community in a department that historically has suffered from a reputation of inattentiveness to anti-Jewish bias.

“We've always tried to ensure that those foreign service officers who have the human rights portfolio were well briefed and had connections to our local communities,” said Mark Levin, who directs NCSJ, the community body that deals with Jewish communities in the former communist world. “What Hannah was trying to do and was beginning to succeed at was to make this a formal part of State Department protocol. She’s institutionalized the fight against global anti-Semitism.”

Jewish officials also struck a note of pride in how one of their own -- Rosenthal in the 1990s and the early 2000s directed the Jewish Council for Public Affairs -- was speaking for the U.S. government.

“She brings candor and authenticity to the job,” said Daniel Mariaschin, the executive vice president of B’nai B’rith International. “Coming from the community had made her an effective advocate."

If Rosenthal’s intradepartmental achievements involved delicate bureaucratic dances, her job overseas was characterized by making clear that anti-Semitism was a U.S. government priority -- a job that required a degree of showmanship.

In some instances that meant taking her complaints directly to offenders. In April she met with Ilmar Reepalu, the mayor of Malmo in Sweden, who would not back down from his calls on the city’s Jews to reject Zionism as a strategy for repelling violent attacks on the community. So Rosenthal took her case to the country’s minister of integration, who issued a rare rebuke of a fellow public official.

“Not only were we able to get people to publicly criticize him, there have been regular kipah walks,” she said, referring to recent events in which the city’s Jews and others have defiantly donned the head coverings on outings.

In 2011, Rosenthal confronted Saudi officials about anti-Semitism in their schoolbooks and asked Jordanian officials to introduce Holocaust studies into the curriculum.

The actions threw the weight of the U.S. government behind what for years have been efforts by Jewish groups to have governments confront anti-Semitism, Mariaschin said.

“The position has profile,” Mariaschin said. “In particular, B’nai B’rith was pleased when she visited Latin America."

Mariaschin noted Rosenthal’s attention to Venezuela, where President Hugo Chavez has forged ties with Iran, attacked Israel and insinuated the existence of Jewish conspiracies.

The work of Rosenthal and her predecessor from 2006 to 2009, Gregg Rickman, who was the first to hold the congressionally mandated post, has cleared the way for more effective Jewish advocacy work, said Abraham Focman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League.

“From our perspective, the fact that the U.S. government takes it seriously makes it easier for us for us to use our advocacy,” Foxman said.

If her confrontations with government official overseas have drawn Jewish community plaudits, the other leg of Rosenthal’s overseas outreach -- promoting reconciliation between Muslims and Jews -- has received more mixed reviews.

Rosenthal helped organize and accompanied a trip in 2010 by eight American imams and Muslim leaders to the Dachau and Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps. That drew complaints from Foxman, who said the involvement of the State Department in an intercommunal matter was inappropriate.

Foxman and Rosenthal settled their differences, and he now lavishes praise on her for establishing the course on anti-Semitism for diplomats, although he continues to be critical of her participation in the imams' tour.

“It's not the job of this office to engage in kumbaya,” he said. “Its job is advocacy about anti-Semitism. Having Muslims speaking out about anti-Semitism, that's our job.”

Rickman slammed her twice -- the first time even before she had formally assumed the job, when Rosenthal had chided Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, for snubbing a 2009 conference by J Street, the liberal pro-Israel group.

More substantively, Rickman -- who now works for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and would not comment for this article -- criticized her joint outreach program with Farah Pandith, the U.S. emissary to Muslim communities. In joint appearances, Rosenthal would decry Islamaphobia and Pandith would condemn anti-Semitism.

“Rosenthal seems to continue her stray from her main job fighting anti-Semitism,” Rickman wrote on The Cutting Edge website in July 2010. “Her consistent attention to Islamaphobia suggests a real sympathy for those very people who lead the way in attacking Jews in Europe.”

Rosenthal was baffled by the criticism, saying that Rickman had not reached out to her before airing it.

“Someone named Hannah Rosenthal combating anti-Semitism does not headlines make,” she said. “So whenever I stood up to criticize Islamaphobia, I had someone with me to criticize anti-Semitism. I so resent people who want to get into dueling victimhoods. Where does it get us?”

Filling in for Rosenthal until the president names a replacement will be Michael Kozak, a senior career diplomat.

Rosenthal is looking forward to returning to Wisconsin, her home state, and being close to family and the Jewish community.

“I feel that so much was accomplished but there's so much work to do,” she said. “Unfortunately there will always be a need for the job.”

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