In the month or so since she’s been appointed, there’s been a lot of controversy about Pres. Obama’s chosen envoy to the post of Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism (SEAS), Hannah Rosenthal. The source of the controversy is mainly this article in Haaretz, in which she criticized Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren for making “most unfortunate” remarks against J Street, the liberal counterpart to AIPAC. For example, Jeffrey Goldberg has pointed to a number of “non-neocon” Jews, such as Alan Solow, who are worried about Rosenthal using her platform to put her nose where it doesn’t belong. Andrew Sullivan, on the other hand, defends Rosenthal, saying:
[S]he is allowed to answer questions in a press interview and because the ambassador should stay out of domestic American politics and not join in a campaign to torpedo a rival to AIPAC. The way in which Oren acted as a faction leader in American Jewish politics, rather than as a neutral representative of his country, open to all people of good will toward Israel, was obnoxious and undiplomatic.
This is actually an interesting point, and it gets to the heart of the sort of schizophrenic attitude we Jews have viz a viz Israel. For example, is Israel representative of all Jews? Does anti-Zionist = anti-semitic? Etc. etc.
Looking at Rosenthal’s history, it is clear that she is a classic J Street persona. She attracted the ire of the ADL last year when she recalled her experience at the National Israel Solidarity Rally in Washington in 2002 and stated that the list of speakers “espoused narrow, ultra-conservative views of what it means to be pro-Israel.” IMHO, there’s nothing wrong with being a little to the left here, although I agree with Foxman on this one. [This was the rally in which Paul Wolfowitz of all people was booed for considering the suffering of the Palestinians. But I digress.] But let’s look at this logically and figure out where all of this leads.
Are we to constantly conflate Israel and the Jewish diaspora? The great majority of Jews love Israel and wish to see her defended, but they also have concerns closer to home. And sometimes the interests of Israel and the interests of, say, the US, are not one and the same. On the other hand, global anti-semitism can be correlated with Israeli actions. So, what exactly is Rosenthal’s job then? And does she deserve all this criticism?
As Goldberg helpfully points out, the Office of the SEAS is a part of the US Dept of State. It is a dept. of the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor led by Assistant Secretary Michael H. Posner, which is a part of the Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs, led by Under Secretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs Maria Otero. So, this is pretty far down the food chain. It attracts a lot of attention merely because, well, it’s about anti-semitism. So, from a pure employment perspective, did Rosenthal step over the line? Apparently, she did: concerning her remarks to Haaretz, the White House passed along this statement from Jeff Feltman,the Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs:
The Department of State values its close relationship with Ambassador Michael Oren and his staff at the Embassy of Israel in Washington. The United States and Israel enjoy extraordinarily close ties based on shared values, interests, and history, as well as the deep bonds between the Israeli people and the American people. Ambassador Oren plays an indispensible role in maintaining and strengthening our relationship through his day to day interaction with the Administration and Congress on issues of vital importance to both countries and his vigorous outreach to Americans of all origins and points of view.
While there was no specific criticism of Rosenthal, the message is clear: back off.
I know what Rosenthal is trying to do: she is trying to decouple Israeli actions from Jewish actions, and perhaps she feels that public criticism of Israel is as good a means for that as anything. From a logical point of view, if your job is to combat anti-semitism, then it follows that part of your job is to protect Jews worldwide from hatred resulting from actions with which the have nothing to do. That would include, for example, Israel’s action in Gaza last year, or the ongoing investigation of the bombing of the Buenos Aires JCC in 1994. So, in this instance, Rosenthal seems like a good fit for the job.
On the other hand, in criticizing an Israeli Ambassador, who has the right to speak with whom he wishes, she stepped on the toes of her State Dept. colleagues. So, the reprimand from Feltman is justified: Rosenthal stepped out of line. This is not to say that what she said was necessarily wrong. I think the truth is a little more complex than some bloggers portray it. That said, if Rosenthal is to survive in her job, then she is going to have to accept the constraints of her position and figure out a way to do her job without attacking the Israeli government.