Washington — Hannah Rosenthal, the State Department’s envoy for combating anti-Semitism, was heartened if skeptical when some Arab officials pledged to her that they would remove anti-Semitic tropes from their school curricula.
She was frustrated when they hemmed and hawed. And she was outraged when they outright refused to do so.
Rosenthal visited Lebanon, Jordan and Saudi Arabia last month on a mission to persuade officials in those nations to remove from their textbooks intolerance aimed at non-Muslims and to introduce positive references to Judaism.
The most common response, she said, was avoidance and of a hoary variety: Talk about Jews almost inevitably led to grievances about Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.
“As soon as a conversation about religious tolerance becomes tense, they shut it down or they go to Israel-Palestine,” she told JTA in an exclusive interview after the trip.
Rosenthal, who is Jewish, met with Education Ministry and other government officials in Jordan and Saudi Arabia. In Lebanon, she met only with civil society groups promoting interfaith dialogue, in part because she was limited to a few hours in the country for security reasons. Meeting with Lebanese government officials has become sensitive for U.S. officials now that Lebanon’s Cabinet includes members of Hezbollah, a U.S.-designated terrorist organization.
Rosenthal’s signature achievement on the trip was extracting from Saudi officials a pledge to remove anti-Semitic references from curricula, including some apparently rooted in the notorious forgery positing Jewish world domination, the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”
“I got commitments from the ministries of education and culture that they were ready to work with us,” she said. “I am taking all of this at face value.”
A Saudi Embassy spokesman in Washington did not return a request for comment.
Rosenthal said a typical initial response in Saudi Arabia was for officials to challenge her to produce evidence of intolerance. When she did – for instance, a passage describing Jews as the spawn of “monkeys and pigs” – she was told the book was outdated and no longer in use.
Rosenthal told Saudi officials the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor was planning a study of Saudi texts and would assess which countries have schools using the textbooks, as well as whether the texts promote intolerance. Saudi textbooks with offensive passages relating to Jews, Christians and women have been found in use as far afield as Argentina and Pakistan.
Rosenthal said the grantees that would carry out the study had yet to be selected.
“It was positive in the sense that they all said the right thing,” she said of the Saudis. “They’re claiming all the bad stuff has been taken out. We’re going to do an honest academic review and see what’s there.”
More disappointing, Rosenthal said, were her encounters in Jordan, particularly with a high-level Education Ministry official who resisted any suggestion that Holocaust studies be introduced into the curriculum.
“This is how it ended: We’re having this semi-tense conversation about this dismissal of the Holocaust, and he says, ‘We are not teaching that this didn’t happen,’ ” she said.
A Jordanian Embassy spokesman in Washington declined comment. Jordan has a peace treaty with Israel.
Rosenthal also confronted officials of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, the body that cares for millions of Palestinian refugees and their descendants, about their failure to teach U.N.-created Holocaust materials.
A high-ranking official with UNRWA told JTA that the agency is bound by agreements with host countries to use local textbooks. Additionally, in some areas – notably the Gaza Strip – UNRWA officials have faced threats from Islamist groups for reports of plans to introduce Holocaust and tolerance teaching into the curriculum.
In Lebanon, Rosenthal sought out organizations that seek to promote tolerance among the “Abrahamic faiths” only to find that Judaism was not included.
“It turned out ‘Abrahamic’ meant Islam and Christianity,” she said.
Rosenthal offered to assist the groups in bringing lecturers who could teach about Judaism.
She subsequently learned that one of the groups she addressed – Adyan Village, which is partnered with Notre Dame University – brought in an Eastern Orthodox nun who had some knowledge of Judaism.
Rosenthal told JTA that her most moving visit in Lebanon was to the site of a synagogue in Beirut that the country’s tiny Jewish community is endeavoring to restore.
“They were nervous about showing it to me, and they feel extremely vulnerable – my guide told me that his business clients don’t even know he is Jewish,” she said. “Their hope is that it will be ready by Rosh Hashanah, but builders and contractors find out they’re working on a synagogue and don’t come back.”