Interview: Hannah Rosenthal

The President’s choice to combat anti-Jewish hatred on behalf of his administration has already been given a rough ride — and not by antisemites

By Simon Round, March 4, 2010
Hannah Rosenthal

Hannah Rosenthal

It is perhaps not particularly surprising that three months into her new job, President Obama's special envoy to combat and monitor antisemitism has been subjected to abuse. What is startling is that, up to now, none of Hannah Rosenthal's critics have come from the extreme right or the Islamic world - they have nearly all been Jewish.

Rosenthal, in London to address a Community Security Trust dinner and to take a look at Britain's anti-race hate infrastructure, is keen to play down the controversy she has been involved in. Last December, she criticised Michael Oren, Israel's ambassador to the US. "I was asked about statements he had made that J Street [the American pro-Israel, pro-peace organisation] endangered the lives of seven million people in Israel. I said that his statement was 'most unfortunate'. The quote was completely accurate but the headlines were crazy. Then the bloggers picked it up and went nuts."

Fifty-eight-year-old Rosenthal, fighting jet lag over a hot chocolate in a London hotel, has been accused of being unsupportive of Israel by right-wing critics at home. She refutes the allegation. "Politics in the US are very polarised - it's not particular to the Jewish community, but we are certainly not immune. I have relationships with some of those who wrote the blogs - we're more than acquaintances. I expect to have a civil discourse. If you have a problem with me, pick up the phone and tell me - don't print it in a newspaper."

Her predecessor under the Bush administration, Gregg Rickman, has also laid in, saying that "if Ms Rosenthal cannot figure out the borders and limits of her portfolio, perhaps then she should seek another position to avoid embarrassment". Rosenthal is clearly not impressed. "I have not spoken to him. I did call him once but I never got a call back."

Rosenthal, a Chicago-born campaigner who has held federal posts and worked within the Jewish world, is certainly not seeking another position. She also rejects any suggestion that she is not supportive of Israel. Oren, she says, is a friend of hers. Although the Israeli-Arab conflict is not within her sphere, she does have to make a call about when anti-Zionism is actually antisemitism in disguise.

A desecration at a Jewish cemetery in London, the kind of incident that Hannah Rosenthal seeks to stamp out — using US influence

A desecration at a Jewish cemetery in London, the kind of incident that Hannah Rosenthal seeks to stamp out — using US influence

She says: "I agree with Natan Sharansky. He says anti-Israel sentiments becomes antisemitism when people perpetrate the three D's - when Israel is deligitimised, when there is a double standard and when the country is demonised. There are those who think that Israel should not exist. I think that crosses the line - it says that Jews do not have the right to self-determination in their own country. No one says that about other national groups. To equate Israel's actions with Nazism or apartheid also crosses the line.

"It is also not right when Israel alone is condemned for things that plenty of other countries are doing. The perfect example of this is the unfriendly neighbourhood called the United Nations. In the past six years there were 170 negative resolutions about Israel. In comparison there were only eight about Sudan."

She admits that her job would be much easier if the Middle East was a more peaceful place. "Israel is at a political impasse which needs to be addressed on the world stage. They bear responsibility because they are a nation among nations, but their first responsibility is to protect the citizens of their country. We have to hope that at the end of the day, Prime Minister Netanyahu and the rest of the world's community will realise it is better to forge peace then belligerence."

While Rosenthal is charged with combating and monitoring antisemitism, she freely acknowledges that she is very unlikely to eradicate 1,000 years of Jew hate in a few years. So what would constitute success for her? "My background is in advocacy. As an advocate you push and push and push and you're never happy until a final bill is passed or an issue is resolved. But baby steps are important right now. Study after study has shown that if people hate Jews , they also hate Muslims and hate gays. So I wanted to work with the interfaith community and the inter-ethnic community."

Rosenthal, the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, has personal reasons to want to succeed in her job - her father was the only one in his family not to be killed by the Nazis. She is glad that she has, in the apparatus of the US State Department under Hillary Clinton, a powerful force behind her. "My predecessor's building was in a separate office away from the day-to-day work of the State Department. This administration has moved the position not only into the main State Department building but I'm on the seventh floor, just down the hall from the Secretary of State's office. I have been given clear guidance on what is expected from me from the President's people. Coming from Chicago I have known Barack Obama since he was a state senator and I go even further back with Hillary Clinton."

As well as forging links and generating policy, she also has the power to react to events, for example in the case of the bombing of the synagogue in Crete last month. "We were immediately on the case. We wanted to find out what had happened and we made sure that the Greek government was speaking out about it. The Prime Minister of Greece wrote an open letter to the Jewish community of Greece for the first time ever explaining that this was not what Greece was about.

"We are a superpower. This means we have power but also responsibility. We give money for development and we want to make sure we invest in countries and organisations that share our goals."

It is less than 24 hours since Rosenthal landed on British soil but she has already seen enough to conclude that we are doing plenty of work in this country to promote racial harmony. "There are parliamentarians here who are devoted to this issue, you have a Jewish community which is organised and you have the CST which does valuable work and which has no equivalent in the US. So this is not 1939 we're in."

However, she is also aware that Britain is also a hotbed of many boycott, sanction and divestment movements. She is particularly angry about the academic boycott of Israeli lecturers. "They are boycotting Israeli academics because they are Jews and that is antisemitic. I call it out every chance I get. There is concern here, and there is also concern in the US. Abraham Foxman of the Anti Defamation League believes that 2009 was the worst year since the Second World War for antisemitic incidents. But Jews in the US have laws that protect them and courts that understand those laws. Despite the fact that there is both religious and political antisemitism there, I feel very safe in the United States. And by the way, I also feel very secure in Britain too."

Last updated: 11:27am, March 4 2010