WASHINGTON — Congressional Republicans are stepping up their efforts to combat antisemitism through a series of public speeches and legislative maneuvers.
Two GOP lawmakers, Senator George Voinovich of Ohio and Congressman Chris Smith of New Jersey, are pledging to lead the fight for a bill requiring the State Department to create a special office to combat antisemitism and file annual reports on anti-Jewish activity throughout the world. The brainchild of Representative Tom Lantos, a California Democrat and the only Holocaust survivor in Congress, the measure is opposed by the Bush administration but is now expected to pass, with the help of its new Republican supporters.
The chances of the bill, the Global Anti-Semitism Awareness Act, passing are now “very, very strong,” Lantos told the Forward.
The emergence of GOP co-sponsors for Lantos’s bill comes as Senate Republicans have made a priority of focusing attention on antisemitism. The GOP-controlled Senate approved legislation September 23 urging members of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe to consider appointing a “personal envoy” to ensure “sustained attention with respect to fulfilling OSCE commitments on the reporting of antisemitic crimes.”
Senate Republicans last week took the unusual step of dedicating a major bloc of time on the Senate floor, including at least seven speeches in two days, to the rise of antisemitism worldwide and the need to combat it. The campaign was organized by Senator Rick Santorum, a Pennsylvania Republican, who last week told reporters that he supports the content of the Lantos bill.
Kicking off the speeches September 14, Satorum said: “As we enter into Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year, a time of reflection for the Jewish people, I thought it would be appropriate to reflect upon the state of affairs with respect to Jewry around the world and the frightening rise in antisemitism we have seen in many parts of the world.”
The fight against antisemitism appears to offer Republican officials a new chance to appeal to Jewish voters. A recent survey released by the American Jewish Committee found that American Jews fall to the left of Republican leaders on a wide range of issues, but also reported high levels of concern over antisemitism in America and other parts of the world.
One Democratic beneficiary of the recent Republican focus on antisemitism is Lantos. It is rare in the GOP-controlled Congress for a Democrat to succeed in beating out Republican-backed versions of competing bills.
In May, the Senate unanimously passed a bill proposed by Voinovich, that would have required State Department monitoring of antisemitism around the world and directed it to list antisemitic incidents in the International Religious Freedom Report and the Human Rights Report, two existing annual surveys. Smith had been trying to pass similar legislation in the House.
Lantos was pushing a more ambitious bill, which included similar measures but added the requirement for a special office within the State Department.
Lantos’s bill is opposed by the Bush administration. A letter sent to Lantos in July by the State Department cautioned against focusing special attention on hatred directed at one group. “Extending exclusive status to one religious or ethnic group would open the door for every faith and ethnic group to argue for equal treatment,” the letter said. “It could erode our credibility by being interpreted as favoritism in human rights reporting.”
In response, Lantos sent an angry letter to Secretary of State Colin Powell, in which the congressmen argued that “the current eruption of the age-old disease of antisemitism is more pernicious than anything we have seen since the Holocaust.”
He also noted that the State Department reports already have special sections on women, children, disabled people and laborers, and that the department already has special offices on Tibet, women, human trafficking and religious freedom.
Speaking to the Forward last week, Lantos dismissed the State Department’s objections as “cynically hypocritical and appallingly disgusting.”
Two weeks ago, a group of religious leaders, former administration officials — among them leading Republicans, as well as writers, artists and academics — sent a harsh letter to Powell to protest his department’s opposition to the Lantos bill.
Frustrated with the administration’s position, Lantos decided to reach out to Voinovich and Smith in an effort to convince them to support the Democrats’ bill. Early last week, Lantos said, he reached an agreement with Smith to co-sponsor a bill that includes Lantos’s tougher requirements. The bill was scheduled to come up for a preliminary vote in the House International Relations Committee on Wednesday, and was expected to be voted on by the full House in the near future.
A spokesman for Voinovich confirmed that he is set to push a similar bill in the Senate, despite State Department opposition.
Congressional staffers said that in his dealing with Voinovich, Lantos skillfully used his own moral credibility on issues relating to the persecution of Jews and Voinovich’s need for Jewish support in his reelection campaign. Although Voinovich is comfortably leading in the polls in his race against his Democratic challenger, State Senator Eric Fingerhut, the Republican has been losing ground in recent weeks.
Congressional sources said that while Jewish Ohioans appreciated Voinovich’s previous leadership in fighting antisemitism, they might have been upset had he been perceived as thwarting legislation proposed by the only Holocaust survivor in Congress.
“I presume that [Voinovich] will do this best because this is an important piece of legislation for him. He believes in the substance,” Lantos said. “But obviously for political reasons, as well.”
According to congressional staffers and Jewish activists in Washington, the State Department is likely to refrain from lobbying against the measure now that Voinovich and Smith are on board.
Congressional sources raised the possibility that a face-saving formulation will be found, under which the State Department would appoint a special envoy on antisemitism instead of naming a director to head an office on the issue.
Among the Republicans who say they will support the Lantos bill is Santorum, who organized the recent Senate speeches against antisemitism. The speeches by Santorum and his GOP colleagues relied in part on material compiled by the Anti-Defamation League and othe Jewish organizations. His staff also circulated in the Senate a thick binder documenting the recent rise in global antisemitism.
The senators who spoke — Santorum, Voinovich, Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, Jim Bunning of Kentucky, Sam Brownback of Kansas, Norm Coleman of Minnesota and Gordon Smith of Oregon — focused mainly on antisemitic acts perpetrated in Europe, but referred also to expressions of anti-Jewish and anti-Israeli sentiments on American campuses.
Democratic staffers on Capitol Hill, speaking on condition of anonymity, accused Santorum of cynically exploiting the issue of antisemitism to court Jewish voters for President Bush one month before the election.
Jewish activists in Washington rejected such criticisms, arguing that any initiative to highlight the threat of antisemitism should be applauded, regardless of the motivation.
Officials with Jewish organizations said a bipartisan action would have been better, but that Santorum’s initiative was still a positive development.
Santorum, who held a press conference with representatives of Jewish news organizations prior to the series of Senate floor speeches, said he welcomed any of his Democrat colleagues who wanted to join his initiative.