Rosenthal talks about combating antisemitism

If you aren’t depressed by the time you leave here tonight, I haven’t done my job, Hannah Rosenthal tells her audience.

Rosenthal, who led the U.S. State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism from November 2009 to October 2012, came to the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus on Monday, May 6, to talk about her efforts to document and fight what she describes as the oldest hatred on Earth – against the Jewish people.

IMG_5265Despite providing the impetus for founding the United Nations more than half a century ago, that “longest hatred” still has an insidious grip in countries around the world, she says.

Rosenthal finds expressions of antisemitism that range from denials of the Holocaust – the systematic mass murder of approximately 6 million Jews by Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany – to proponents of the idea that the Holocaust was good, but unfinished. She also comes across those who believe that accounts of the Holocaust are simply exaggerated – due, in part, to the lingering stereotypical view that Jews control the media.

The talk by Rosenthal, who has long-standing connections with the Madison community and UW–Madison, was sponsored by the Wisconsin Alumni Association, the Madison Committee on Foreign Relations and the UW–Madison Division of International Studies.

She learned about the Holocaust from her father, a rabbi and the only member of his family who survived the Nazi death camps. Her father’s experience has inspired her lifelong pursuit for social justice; in addition to her State Department post, she has served as executive director of the Chicago Foundation for Women and of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, and currently serves as CEO and president of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation.

Rosenthal describes the daunting task of confronting hatred that runs deep and wide. Increased scrutiny of this hatred has yielded a rising number of reports.

She notes a few victories along the way, including a 2010 trip, in which she took a group of American imams and Muslim leaders – including Holocaust deniers – to the Dachau and Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps. She describes the experience as deeply emotional

“The purpose of the trip was to collectively bear witness to the still-open wounds from the Holocaust and to build new partnerships to combat antisemitism and Islamophobia,” she writes on a State Department blog.

“In a statement issued at the close of the trip, the Muslim leaders strongly condemned Holocaust denial, Holocaust justification and antisemitism. The leaders affirmed that they would strive to fight all religious or ethnic intolerance or hatred,” she writes.

Still, Rosenthal voices concerns about a rising tide of Holocaust denials coming as the numbers of living survivors and witnesses dwindle. She worries about the Holocaust simply becoming another chapter in the history books – if it’s even included in history texts, which isn’t the case everywhere.

Her efforts have included trying to make sure students are taught about this, efforts that have not always been successful.

Rosenthal also addressed when criticism of Israeli government policy crosses the line into antisemitism. She cited the three D’s – demonization, de-legitimization, and different standards – for marking when that line has been crossed.

She points out that the United Nations has condemned Israel more than 400 times, far more than any other country, and strong evidence that different standards are being applied. Yet, she adds that the United Nations, although flawed, remains the best international forum available.

On a positive note, Rosenthal has great hope for younger generations. “They get it,” she says.

Based on discussions with youth groups, Rosenthal and Farah Pandith, the State Department’s special representative to the Muslim communities, helped to launch a successful social media-based campaign called 2011 Hours Against Hate. Young people in every corner of the world were asked to pledge their time to do something positive for “someone who isn’t like you.”

In combating hatred of all kinds, Rosenthal stresses the importance of building relationships. She strongly endorsed exchanges of all kinds, including student exchanges, scholarly exchanges, and artistic exchanges, as a means to counter hatred with connections.

— by Kerry G. Hill