Anti-Semitism is a hot topic on Capitol Hill these days, but lawmakers sometimes seem to get confused about the difference between the good guys and the not-so-good guys.
That was apparent when plans by the Helsinki Commission to hold hearings on anti-Semitism in Europe touched off a political rumble after the chairman announced the list of witnesses.
The commission, an independent federal agency that monitors human rights across Europe, includes members of both houses of Congress and representatives of the State, Commerce and Defense departments.
Its panel of witnesses originally included two recognized experts — Mark Levin, executive director of NCSJ, a leading Soviet Jewry group, and Dr. Shimon Samuels, European representative for the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
What raised eyebrows was the third: a representative of Amnesty International, a
major human rights group. While AI is respected for its work around the world, Jewish leaders say it has a big blind spot when it comes to anti-Semitism.
“It’s a very odd choice,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “I don’t know what their expertise is. In fact, they have turned a blind eye to anti-Semitism while spending a lot of their time chastising Israel.”
AI was one of the nongovernmental organizations that sat by last summer in South Africa as pro-Palestinian groups turned the United Nations Conference on Racism into a festival of anti-Israel invective.
The group finally protested some of the outright anti-Semitism that was one of the most disturbing features of the Durban conference, but most participants said its objections were too little, too late.
“By not standing up, they gave this anti-Semitism new credibility,” Foxman said. “This is a strange group to treat as ‘experts’ in hearings on anti-Semitism.”
AI also has taken a skewed approach to the Middle East conflict, he said, regularly criticizing Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians but ignoring anti-Israel and anti-Semitic incitement throughout the Arab world.
Last week, AI teamed up with Human Rights Watch, another international group, to issue a statement condemning the new wave of anti-Semitism. But the statement went on to express what seemed like equal or greater concern about the rise in violence “against Arabs and certain ethnic and religious minorities” in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks and the intensifying crisis in the Middle East.
“Their record on Israel has been consistently negative, and their silence on anti-Semitism quite deafening,” said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee.
Another prominent Jewish activist said that the group’s appearance may be designed to mollify American donors upset about its performance in Durban.
Early this week Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), the Helsinki Commission co-chair on the House side, was besieged with complaints from Jewish groups and lawmakers, including Rep. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), the only Jewish member of the Helsinki panel.
The invitation to AI, Cardin said, “just doesn’t make any sense. They might be an appropriate witness for some subjects, but not anti-Semitism.”
The effort by Cardin and others produced partial results. Late Tuesday, congressional sources said that Smith, while keeping AI on the witness list, invited two other Jewish groups to testify: the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee.
Despite AI’s continued presence on the panel, Cardin said he was satisfied.
“I’m pleased the Helsinki Commission is holding hearings on this,” Cardin said. “It is important for us to look at human rights and religious freedom issues, and to express concern about the rise of anti-Semitism. The other witnesses are very well qualified to talk about that.”
Snags In Mideast Measures?
The Bush administration is using its clout with Congressional Republican leaders to slow down a series of resolutions the White House claims could impede its ability to wage effective Mideast diplomacy.
Many lawmakers are taking a different view, even a number of top Republicans. But that may not be enough to get the Mideast measures past several key congressional leaders who are still singing the administration’s tune.
“There’s a lot of support, but the big problem is when the administration leans on the Republican leadership,” said Rep. Gary Ackerman, sponsor of last year’s Middle East Peace Facilitation Act, or MEPCA, which the Queens Democrat said was “lobotomized” in response to administration pressure.
Now Ackerman has teamed up with Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), the deputy majority whip, to push a much tougher version of MEPCA, a companion to a Senate bill offered by Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
The measures would impose a variety of sanctions on the Palestinian Authority, including freezing its assets and curtailing its diplomatic activities in Washington, unless the president can certify that the PA is working actively to end terrorism.
They would also scale back the presidential waiver authority in last year’s bill, adding to the administration’s ire.
“Congress is getting more and more impatient with the Palestinians,” Ackerman said. “The administration is very far behind the curve.”
Congressional sources say, however, that there are major roadblocks ahead, starting with Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), the head of the House International Relations Committee and an administration loyalist. Hyde is refusing to mark up the legislation.
But the political dynamics of pro-Israel, anti-PLO legislation has changed dramatically, posing a major headache for the Republican White House.
“Traditionally, strong pro-Israel, anti-PLO resolutions have come mostly from the usual suspects — Democratic members with big Jewish constituencies,” said a congressional source. “In the past six months, we’ve seen a real shift to Republicans putting their names on these resolutions, and often Republicans in real leadership positions, whose districts have few Jews.”
Blunt represents a southwest Missouri district with a small Jewish population. A recent measure expressing solidarity with Israel was passed over administration objections in large measure because Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), the majority whip, signed on as a primary cosponsor along with Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), who regularly introduces pro-Israel legislation.
And a measure imposing sanctions on Syria, originally authored by Rep. Eliot Engel (D-Bronx), has the Bush administration in a panic because the other lead sponsor is Rep. Dick Armey (R-Texas), the majority leader