If ever there is a group of individuals who understand anti-Semitism intellectually, emotionally, intuitively and, yes, viscerally, it is the children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors. For us the hatred and persecution of Jews is not an abstract concept. On the contrary, we view it in the very personal context of our murdered families, and of the suffering our parents and grandparents endured in places like Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen.
Hannah Rosenthal, who was appointed as the State Department's Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism in December, is not only superbly qualified to spearhead the US Government's efforts to mobilize international opposition to a centuries-old scourge that has once again become a clear and present danger of ever increasing dimensions. She brings to her office the unique perspective of a daughter of a man who was persecuted and tortured for no reason other than the fact that he happened to have been born a Jew.
Rosenthal served as executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the policy arm of the organized American Jewish community, and is a former executive director of the Chicago Foundation for Women. She was Midwest regional director of the US Department of Health and Human Services during the Clinton Administration. Because she had been a member of the advisory board of J Street, the simultaneously pro-Israel and peace-oriented advocacy group, Jewish paleo-conservatives and right wing bloggers proclaimed themselves shocked, shocked to discover that President Obama had appointed yet another progressive activist to his administration.
Indeed, she is anything but a conventional mainstream organizational executive. As the JCPA's senior professional, according to a recent editorial in the New York Jewish Week, she "sometimes confronted an entrenched old-boys network that was uncomfortable with her outspoken liberalism, not to mention her gender. But Rosenthal also displayed a striking ability to win over many of her detractors," and she is "someone who sees the fight against anti-Semitism as the quintessential human rights issue."
One of Rosenthal's most significant credentials in her new post is her identity as the daughter of a survivor of the Nazi concentration camp of Buchenwald, the same camp that President Obama visited last June. Her father, Rabbi Franz Rosenthal, was arrested by the Gestapo in Mannheim, Germany, during the November 9, 1938 Kristallnacht pogrom, and spent almost a year as an inmate at Buchenwald. Released through the efforts of Pastor Hermann Maas, a German anti-Nazi Protestant minister, he arrived in the United States in December 1939.
Rabbi Rosenthal's incarceration at Buchenwald and his experiences as a refugee in this country forged his daughter's identity as a fighter for human rights and against not just anti-Semitism but all forms of racism and bigotry. When President Obama said at Buchenwald that "this places teaches us that we must be ever vigilant about the spread of evil in our own time, that we must reject the false comfort that others' suffering is not our problem and commit ourselves to resisting those who would subjugate others to serve their own interests," his words reflected the very essence of Hannah Rosenthal's life mission.
Her father once told her that "I survived to have you." Ever since, she explains, "I have dedicated my life to eradicating anti-Semitism and intolerance, both domestically and globally, with a sense of urgency and passion that my father instilled within me."
One of Rosenthal's challenges is the integration of the fight against anti-Semitism into the process of international diplomacy. "We are committed to raising any anti-Semitic incidents within the context of our bilateral relationships," she says. "It is important for us to urge other governments to condemn anti-Semitism and take steps against anti-Semitic manifestations within their own societies. Governments can be part of the problem or part of the solution. We are ready to work with governments that want to be part of the solution, and call out those who don't. We also must expose and challenge public figures who spread misinformation and lies about the Jewish people."
She is especially concerned by the rise of new forms of anti-Semitism that require new and innovative responses. In particular, she advocates forming coalitions across ethnic and religious lines to counter what she terms the "insidious" spread of anti-Semitic rhetoric in the mainstream media and other public settings. "As with any form of prejudice," she believes, "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."
Among her priorities is calling attention to the increase and spread of Holocaust denial as a new form of anti-Semitism in popular culture, especially in parts of the Muslim world. "It is appalling," she told me, "that notorious anti-Semitic tracts continue to have a considerable market in many countries, especially among teenagers and young adults. Along the same lines, we must make every effort to stop the inculcation of anti-Semitism in children through textbooks and children's books. If we can't get the next generation to be free of the anti-Semitic attitudes, we cannot meaningfully combat anti-Semitism."
Rosenthal is also deeply troubled by the double standard with which the State of Israel is treated at the United Nations. She notes that between 2001 and 2007, there were more than 50 UN resolutions criticizing Israel's human rights record, in contrast to only five targeting North Korea, and eight targeting Sudan. At the same time, she believes that "we must also seize on the few positive opportunities that the UN provides - including the 2007 resolution condemning Holocaust denial and the UN's annual Holocaust commemoration - as potential educational tools in countries around the world."
It is both symbolic and appropriate that the task of coordinating the official American response to the scourge of international anti-Semitism should have been entrusted to the daughter of a refugee from Nazi Germany. President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton must be commended for appointing Hannah Rosenthal to this sensitive and critically important position.
Menachem Z. Rosensaft is Adjunct Professor of Law at Cornell Law School, Distinguished Visiting Lecturer at Syracuse University College of Law, and Vice President of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants.