It’s been two months since I left my position at the U.S. State Department as the special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism (SEAS). I didn’t come away, after 44 months, with any grand theory on anti-Semitism, nor do I have any silver bullet answers to the problem. I do, however, have a number of strongly held conclusions on the tools we must utilize to combat this evil.
Foremost is to recognize the role of the major American Jewish organizations in this fight. Those of us who devote a great deal of time to the Jewish world can be cynical at times about some of our Jewish organizations. There seem to be so many of them; are they all necessary? But in my SEAS job I came to understand and appreciate the resources the Jewish communal world devotes to fighting anti-Semitism and the expertise these groups have developed, which are truly impressive. I shudder to think how much worse things would be for world Jewry without their efforts.
The growing threat of anti-Semitism today can only be confronted effectively by a broad coalition of state and civil society actors who in many ways are dependent on each other. The small SEAS office in the State Department has a limited ability to confront today’s anti-Semitism without the active cooperation of other State Department bureaus and our embassies overseas. The State Department has limited effectiveness without the support of the White House and the Congress. And the united efforts of the U.S. government are often not adequate to push back against threats to worldwide Jewry without the support of democratic allies in Europe and Israel. Perhaps most importantly, governments can’t control this problem without the active help of civil society.
From my experience the single most committed and active civil society actor fighting anti-Semitism today is the Jewish communal world.
I came to rely not only on my State Department colleagues to educate me regarding the facts on the ground and effective strategies, but also on our Jewish organizations, sharing information, seeking advice and engaging in joint action.
Here is only some of what they have done:
The American Jewish Committee (AJC) has developed a talented team of senior professionals dealing with worldwide anti-Semitism. The efforts of these professionals who focus on European anti-Semitism is not only impressive but our office depended on their strategic vision, knowledge, contacts and organizational work. AJC’s work with multilateral organizations is also very important. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has developed critical programs to aid Jewish communities overseas. Moreover, in the increasingly important field of countering cyberhate the ADL is our first source of information, unsurpassed among American Jewish groups.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC) collects information, lobbies against and reports on anti-Semitism worldwide. It was essential to the efforts to get the Working Definition of Anti-Semitism accepted by state actors in Europe. Particularly in hot spots like Hungary, SWC often helped us recognize problems before we began reading about them. The National Committee Supporting Eurasian Jewry (NCSEJ, formerly the National Council on Soviet Jewry) was our first and primary source of information in the countries of the former Soviet Union — places like Russia, the Baltic States, Ukraine and Central Asia. No one knows the Jewish communal players and government attitudes toward anti-Semitism in this part of the world like NCSEJ.
The World Jewish Congress (WJC) has knowledgeable staff and influential lay leadership around the world dealing with anti-Semitism issues. No other Jewish organization can generate more headlines and focuses more media attention on problems when diaspora Jewish communities are at risk.
When there was an international effort to push back against Hungarian government efforts to honor historical anti-Semites, Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) spoke out and sent a representative to Budapest. The Jewish Council on Public Affairs (JCPA) has worked with local Jewish community relations councils to disseminate information to the grass roots on problems to focus on. Individual Jewish federations have reached out to partner and aid some of the most vulnerable Jewish communities in the diaspora. The Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organization along with JFNA has supported the development of security measures that protect American Jewish institutions through their sole support of the Secure Community Network (SCN). The SCN’s experience in working with law enforcement has benefited smaller Jewish communities in Europe. The Conference of Presidents continues to serve as a focal point of sharing information and urging united action when anti-Semitic activity peaks.
B’nai B’rith’s Washington staff provided us critical resources for dealing with the problems facing South American Jewry. HIAS and the Jewish Agency in Israel (JAFI) quietly and effectively save Jewish lives threatened by anti-Semitism and provide for Jewish families in their new homes.
There are so many other Jewish organizations that our office worked with over these last four years. I apologize for not mentioning their individual contributions in this limited space.
Recent events have taught us that anti-Semitism is not just the problem of smaller diaspora communities in Europe — or South America, Asia or Africa. The problem is complex and increasingly pervasive. We can be proud of the work that many different parts of our government have undertaken, particularly over the last decade, to help Jewish communities overseas. However, if there is one takeaway from my experience, it is that coalitions of governments and private sector actors are the only way to effectively fight back. Our American Jewish communal organizations have stepped up to do their part. We should recognize and thank them for it.
Ira Forman most recently served as the special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism at the State Department.