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Democracy, Human Rights, Refugees: Remarks on Human Rights and Anti-Semitism

Hannah Rosenthal
Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism 
Human Rights Week at Madison East High School
Madison, Wisconsin
February 20, 2012

Hello, my name is Hannah Rosenthal, and I am the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism at the U.S. Department of State. Thank you for inviting me here today to participate in your human rights week. I am thrilled to return to Madison where I raised my children and speak to you, aspiring young leaders and future activists, about what it means to respect and promote human rights.

As the Special Envoy, I am charged with monitoring anti-Semitic incidents and combating such intolerance. But the truth is, I am in the relationship building business. I am here today because one need not be my age or have my title to do what I do. We must all share and strive for the same mission: to combat hate and intolerance to create a more peaceful and just world.

In order to fight hatred, we must begin with respecting the dignity of every individual, regardless of his or her beliefs. In fact, our differences make us human. You may have heard about the concept of the “other.” There are individuals in this world who would like us to view some people as outside the larger human family. These individuals define themselves against what they are not, and in turn target this other, this stranger.

The desire to stamp out or subjugate or ostracize certain individuals because of how they are, how they worship, or who they love stands as an obstacle for all members of society. Intolerance prevents us from achieving a just and peaceful society. And while the burden of intolerance is borne most severely by the victims, and their perpetrators are first and foremost to blame, we as society must not stand by idly. As passive bystanders we also pay a price.

So we must stand against this false sense of identity that differentiates and subjugates some individuals below others. We must expand the circle of rights and opportunities to all people – advancing their freedoms and possibilities.

Intolerance is a moral, a political, and a social ill. But it is also a solvable one. It is not unchangeable. We can, in fact, make hatred and intolerance something of the past. But this demands our attention. It’s not easy work, but it is urgent work.

This week at Madison East High School we observe Human Rights Week. At the State Department, though, every week is Human Rights Week.

At the State Department I work within the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. The Bureau was established in 1976 just a few months before Jimmy Carter became president. While in the White House, President Carter helped bring human rights to the forefront of diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, and we strive to do the same with all countries to this day.

The primary and overarching goal of the Bureau is to promote freedom and democracy and protect human rights around the world. We seek to achieve this through several different means. For example, some days I meet with Ambassadors from different countries to discuss pressing human rights concerns. This is called bilateral diplomacy. On other days I participate in meetings with officials from international organizations or speak at conferences held by international organizations like the United Nations. Just a few weeks ago, I was in Paris to discuss the importance of Holocaust education at a conference sponsored by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. This is called multilateral engagement. And every day I am constantly monitoring the news and reporting on incidents, while at the same time reaching out to the public. Public outreach is especially important because we know we cannot do this alone.

In the Bureau, we have what we call functional offices to promote freedom religion, Internet freedom, worker’s rights, disability rights and to combat anti-Semitism. We also have geographical offices that promote human rights throughout every region of the world. These offices follow human rights developments from Europe to the Middle East, from Latin America to Asia to Africa.

There is, however, so much more that we must do. We are constantly strengthening our policies and pushing ourselves and others to break down former walls of intolerance. Over the past three years, Secretary of State Clinton has made LGBT rights a priority of our human rights policy. As Secretary Clinton emphatically stated, “Gay rights are human rights and human rights are gay rights.”

At the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor we are inspired by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Beginning in 1947, delegates from six continents devoted themselves to drafting a declaration that would enshrine the fundamental rights and freedoms of people everywhere. In the aftermath of the Holocaust, when the Nazis targeted and killed six million Jews, many nations pressed for a statement to help prevent future atrocities and protect the inherent humanity and dignity of all people. And so the delegates went to work. They discussed, they wrote, they revisited, revised, rewrote, for thousands of hours. And they incorporated suggestions and revisions from governments, organizations, and individuals around the world.

At three o’clock in the morning on December 10th, 1948, after nearly two years of drafting and one last long night of debate, the president of the UN General Assembly called for a vote on the final text. Forty-eight nations voted in favor; eight abstained; none dissented. And the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted. It proclaims a simple, powerful idea: All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. And with the declaration, it was made clear that rights are not conferred by government; they are the birthright of all people. It does not matter what country we live in, who our leaders are, or even who we are. Because we are human, we therefore have rights. And because we have rights, governments are bound to protect them. The rights enshrined in this document do not apply to a select few, but to all of humanity.

Anti-Semitism attacks the very idea that every individual is born free and equal in dignity and rights. But Jews, Christians, Muslims and all religious communities are all part of the same family we call humanity. As a child of a Holocaust survivor, anti-Semitism is something very personal to me. My father was arrested – on Kristallnacht, the unofficial pogrom that many think started the Holocaust – and sent with many of his congregants to prison and then to Buchenwald. He was the lucky one – every other person in his family perished at Auschwitz. I have dedicated my life to eradicating anti-Semitism and intolerance with a sense of urgency and passion that only my father could give me.

Over the past two years, I have been tracking anti-Semitism around the world, and have witnessed its alarming presence and growth.

First of all, anti-Semitism is not History, it is News. I run into people who think anti-Semitism ended when Hitler killed himself. More than six decades after the end of the Second World War, anti-Semitism is still alive and well, and evolving into new, contemporary forms of religious hatred, racism, and political, social and cultural bigotry.

This stems from the fact that traditional forms of anti-Semitism are passed from one generation to the next, updated to reflect current events. We are all familiar with ongoing hostile acts such as the defacing of property and the desecration of cemeteries with anti-Semitic graffiti. There are still accusations of blood libel, which are morphing from the centuries-old accusations by the Church that Jews killed Christian children to use their blood for rituals, to accusations that Jews kidnap children to steal their organs. Conspiracy theories continue to flourish, such as supposed Jewish control of the U.S. media and the world banking system, or that Jews were involved in executing the September 11 attacks. “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” continue to be best sellers in many, many countries, and taught to religious students as truth. The ‘old fashioned’ anti-Semitism is alive and well.

A second phenomenon is Holocaust denial. It is being espoused by religious leaders, heads of State, such as in Iran, in academic institutions, and is a standard on hateful websites and other media outlets. As the generation of Holocaust survivors and death camp liberators reaches their eighties and nineties, the window is closing on those able to provide eyewitness accounts and thus we have a heightened sense of urgency to promote Holocaust education, create museums and memorials, and carry the memory and lessons of the Holocaust forward.

A third, disturbing trend is Holocaust glorification, which can be seen in parades honoring soldiers who fought in the Waffen SS, which glorifies Nazism under the guise of fighting the Soviets and obscures their roles in the Holocaust. Following a March 2011 commemoration in Latvia, a notorious neo-Nazi made blatantly anti-Semitic statements, including incitements to violence against Jews, on a television talk show. The growth of neo-Nazi groups is of special concern in Europe, and Holocaust glorification is especially virulent in Middle Eastern media – some that is state-owned and operated, which calls for a new Holocaust to finish the job. Truly bone-chilling.

A fourth concern is Holocaust relativism – where some governments, museums, academic research and the like are conflating the Holocaust with other terrible events that entailed great human suffering, like the Dirty War or the Soviet regime. No one, least of all myself, wants to weigh atrocities against each other, but to group these horrific chapters of history together is not only historically inaccurate, but also misses opportunities to learn important lessons from each of these historic events, even as we reflect on universal truths about the need to defend human rights and combat hatred in all of its forms. History must be precise – it must instruct, it must warn, and it must inspire us to learn the particular and universal values as we prepare to mend this fractured world.

The fifth trend is the increasing tendency of blurring the lines between opposition to the policies of the State of Israel and anti-Semitism. What I hear from our diplomatic missions, and from non-governmental organizations alike, is that this happens easily and often. I want to be clear – criticism of policies of the State of Israel is not anti-Semitism. But we record huge increases in anti-Semitism whenever there are hostilities in the Middle East. This form of anti-Semitism is more difficult for many to identify. But if all Jews are held responsible for the decisions of the sovereign State of Israel, when governments like Venezuela call upon and intimidate their Jewish communities to condemn Israeli actions – this is not objecting to a policy – this is anti-Semitism. When individual Jews are effectively banned or their conferences boycotted, or are held responsible for Israeli policy – this is not objecting to a policy – this is anti-Semitism.

Natan Sharansky identified three ways that he believes crosses the line: It is anti-Semitic when Israel is demonized, held to different standards or delegitimized. The U.S. is often the only “no” vote in international bodies where countries seem to have an obsession with singling out Israel for disproportionate condemnation.

The sixth trend is the growing nationalistic movements which target ‘the other’ – be they immigrants, or religious and ethnic minorities -- in the name of protecting the identity and ‘purity’ of their nation. When this fear or hatred of the ‘other’ occurs or when people try to find a scapegoat for the instability around them, it is never good for the Jews, or for that matter, other traditionally discriminated against minorities. The history of Europe, with Russian pogroms, Nazism, and ethnic cleansing in the Balkans provides sufficient evidence. And when government officials talk about protecting a country’s purity, we’ve seen that movie before.

These trends run counter to the principles outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and we must continue to strive to attain them. There is still much work to be done.

Our human rights agenda for the 21st century is to make human rights a human reality. As the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, I have recognized that this won’t be possible without the help of you, our youth and future leaders.

Last year my colleague Farah Pandith, the Special Representative to Muslims Communities, and I launched a virtual campaign called “2011 Hours Against Hate,” using Facebook. Perhaps you have heard of it? We are asking you, young people around the world, to pledge a number of hours to volunteer to help or serve a population different than their own. We ask that you work with people who may look different, or pray differently or live differently. For example, a young Jew might volunteer time to read books at a Muslim pre-school, or a Russian Orthodox at a Jewish clinic, or a Muslim at a Baha’i food pantry. We encourage you to walk a mile in another person’s shoes.

Farah and I have met with hundreds of young people around the world – students and young professionals – in Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Spain – countries that in their histories celebrated Jews and Muslims co-existing and thriving together. They want to DO something. And I have a feeling that YOU want to DO something too. They expressed strong interest in the campaign – and we have already surpassed our goal of 2011 hours pledged against hate. More recently, Farah and I met with youth and interfaith leaders in Saudi, Jordan and Lebanon, discussing reaching out to others and increasing tolerance and understanding among different religious groups. Really, we have just begun.

So while I fight anti-Semitism, I am also aware that hate is hate. Nothing justifies it – not economic instability, not international events, not an isolated pastor burning a Koran.

When history records this chapter I hope it will reflect our efforts to build a peaceful, fair, just, free world where people defend universal human rights and dignity. This is not a vision to be dismissed as naïve idealism – it is a real goal that should never be far from our thoughts.

Since the beginning of humankind, hate has been around, but since then too, good people of all faiths and backgrounds have striven to combat it. The Jewish tradition tells us that “you are not required to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.”

Together, we must confront and combat the many forms of hatred in our world today. Where there is hatred born of ignorance, we must teach and inspire. Where there is hatred born of blindness, we must expose people to a larger world of ideas and reach out, especially to youth, so they can see beyond their immediate circumstances. Where there is hatred whipped up by irresponsible leaders, we must call them out and answer as strongly as we can – and make their message totally unacceptable to all people of conscience.