The former envoys at the US State Department, Hannah Rosenthal and Ira Forman, who occupied the position during the first and second terms of the Obama presidency, spoke on Monday during a briefing held by the Anti-Defamation League to discuss the Trump administration’s failure to name their successor.
The position was created under the Antisemitism Awareness Act signed into law by president George W. Bush and is now vacant.
The Office of the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism will be unstaffed as of July 1, when its remaining two employees, each working part-time or less, are to be reassigned.
“One of the first things I noted when I got to the State Department is that if people aren’t being rounded up and sent to their death, many in the department, Congress and many places felt that there isn’t antisemitism,” Rosenthal, who served in that office from 2009 to 2012, said. “So it became very important for me to make sure we defined what antisemitism is and we have trainings for the people who are about to go out to various foreign posts. If they don’t know what antisemitism is they don’t know what to report.”
Rosenthal said that leaving the position vacant would be “a huge step backward and a huge opportunity missed.”
“Let’s remember that this position was created with unanimous support from the Congress,” she pointed out. “It has well moved beyond anyone’s ability to make this a partisan issue, and how now it is being put forward with a partisan angle is very tragic.
“Antisemitism is a very virulent form of hatred and this administration has a responsibility to confront that and all other hatred,” Rosenthal said.
Forman, who was the State Department’s envoy on antisemitism in 2013-2016, said that through this office, the United State has taken a leadership role on the phenomenon.
“Moreover it is the US leadership which has encouraged European and other countries to appoint their own special envoys for antisemitism, and in the last year or two we’ve seen a major increase in these positions,” he said.
“How can we continue to encourage that if we don’t have a special envoy?” Forman continued. “We are greatly concerned by what we heard from Secretary [of State] Tillerson in the last week or so, but Congress, in a very bipartisan way, has always spoken out, and I am confident will continue.”
But while Rosenthal and Forman are appalled by the administration’s failure to fill the post, they both said they believe that when the issue comes to Congress’s attention, it will make sure the job is filled and the office remains.
“I have reached out to many members of Congress,” Rosenthal said. “This just is not on their radar yet. The importance of fighting antisemitism has yet to be discussed at the congressional level and so it may not be happening tomorrow, but soon we will see them talking about the budget and then you will see the advocacy work we are doing.”
Jonathan Greenblatt, the CEO of the ADL, has been advocating for the appointment to be made. He said in his statement that the Office of the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism has played a critical role in responding to and monitoring antisemitic events and instances around the world.
“The threat of antisemitism certainly is not abated,” he added.
“Today it remains a real and present danger for some of the world’s most vulnerable Jewish communities and yet it seems that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is in no hurry to fill this vital position.”
Greenblatt added that Tillerson has remained “opaque about his motives and inexplicably continues to kick the can down the road.
“Budget speak louder than words about priorities,” he added. “Cutting these resources for the office and delaying the decision to hire an envoy is a serious mistake.”
Reports earlier this year had revealed that President Donald Trump is considering cutting a number of special envoy positions.
The position of White House Jewish liaison has also remained vacant since the administration took office. According to a White House senior official who spoke to the Post earlier this month, the administration has no plans to fill it, breaking with a tradition dating back to Jimmy Carter’s presidency.
Last week, a bipartisan group of lawmakers wrote a letter to Trump urging him to appoint a liaison.