Trump’s antisemitism envoy leaves a polarizing legacy as Biden prepares new pick
At the height of the debate over Israel’s possible annexation of the West Bank last summer, J Street, the liberal pro-Israel group, was urging followers on social media to write to Senators opposing the move.
Elan Carr, the State Department’s envoy to combat antisemitism, jumped in to take exception to J Street’s use in a Tweet of a photo of then-President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking at the White House as Jared Kushner and two other Jewish advisers looked on. “How dare @jstreetdotorg use this picture in this context,” Carr said in a message from his government Twitter account. “Their imagery uses #Antisemitism and crude anti-Semitic conspiracy theories to advance their agenda.”
How dare @jstreetdotorg use this picture in this context. Their imagery uses #Antisemitism and crude anti-Semitic conspiracy theories to advance their agenda. They should withdraw this and apologize to @POTUS @realDonaldTrump and to #Jewish Americans who serve our great country. pic.twitter.com/g4nz13g8K3
— U.S. Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism (@USEAntiSemitism) July 8, 2020
It was a bold accusation to lob at a Jewish organization widely accepted within the country’s liberal mainstream. “It came out of the blue,” Jeremy Ben-Ami, J Street’s president, recalled in an interview. “It was kind of an astonishing use of that office to attack domestic political critics of the administration.”
But the attack on J Street fit a pattern for Carr, a former gang prosecutor who Trump named to fill the envoy role in 2019. In less than two years in the role, Carr expanded its mandate to include domestic antisemitism and adopted a controversial set of views about what anti-Jewish bigotry looked like and approach to stopping it.
As President Joe Biden prepares to nominate a new envoy in the coming weeks, Carr’s tenure shows how one of the federal government’s most powerful bully pulpits for opposing antisemitism can be used to shape the terms of the fight.
“He helped redefine the job,” said Matt Brooks, director of the Republican Jewish Coalition.
Carr, the son of Israeli immigrants, entered the job with a wide-ranging resume. Fluent in both Hebrew and Arabic, he helped create the Israeli public defender system as a legal adviser to the country’s justice ministry in the 1990s. Having joined the U.S. Army shortly before the 9/11 attacks, Carr served as a counterterrorism officer in Iraq, where his grandfather had been among the Jewish leaders targeted in show trials around the founding of the state of Israel.
He returned home to Los Angeles, and worked as a Los Angeles County deputy district attorney, then ran for an open Congressional seat in the Los Angeles suburbs in 2014. It was a Democratic district and Carr lost by nearly 20 points, but the campaign drew national attention, including the backing of casino mogul Sheldon Adelson and Mitt Romney. Carr lost again in a county supervisor race two years later.
In a 2014 article, Washington Jewish Week labeled Carr a rising star who, “through energy, fundraising abilities and disciplined public adherence to the GOP’s message,” could become the new Jewish face of the Republican Party.
Meanwhile, Trump had let the envoy role, which Congress created in 2004, sit empty for the first two years of his term. After dozens of Jewish groups helped advance federal legislation that would have forced an appointment, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo named Carr envoy in February, 2019. His appointment was welcomed by mainstream Jewish groups and Carr, who ran as a moderate in his political campaigns, quickly pledged to “fight all forms of Jew hatred, regardless of the ideological clothing it wears.”
Carr traveled extensively before the pandemic, and was a central feature of Trump’s Jewish outreach efforts, joining the president’s annual High Holiday call to Jewish leaders and defending the president from claims of antisemitism.
“He was very dedicated to the job,” said Deborah Lipstadt, a Holocaust scholar and professor at Emory University, whose name has been floated as a potential Biden pick to replace Carr. “He took a very holistic view.”
This winter he helped spearhead agreements with Bahrain and Morocco in which the two Arab states agreed to fight “antisemitism, including anti-Zionism and the delegitimization of the State of Israel.”
A polarizing approach
But the two signature traits of Carr’s time as envoy — boundless energy and an expansive view of his role — joined with his understanding of antisemitism to make him a polarizing figure in the Jewish world.
Carr outlined his doctrine in a 2019 London speech, arguing that antisemitism had three distinct strands: far-right “ethnic supremacist” antisemitism, far-left “Israel-hating” antisemitism and “militant Islam” antisemitism.
While he consistently declined to rank the strands by severity, Carr focused most on left-wing antisemitism, devoting the bulk of his London speech to the subject. He assigned staffers to monitor antisemitism in Middle Eastern nations and to combat the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement targeting Israel, but not to address right-wing antisemitism or white supremacy, according to an unpublished report prepared for a University of Southern California task force studying antisemitism and Israel. The draft also stated that Carr almost exclusively referred to white supremacy as “ethnic nationalism.”
Carr, who did not respond to an interview request, explained his decision not to focus on right-wing antisemitism during another event shortly after the London speech.
“When it comes to the far-right, nobody seems to be confused,” Carr said at a European Leadership Network event that November. “Everyone seems to understand what a neo-Nazi is.”
But in the aftermath of deadly shootings by white supremacists at synagogues in Pittsburgh and Poway, Calif., some critics found Carr’s focus on left-wing antisemitism strange, and said it allowed him to avoid uncomfortable questions about the Trump administration’s role in fostering right-wing violence.
At the same time, Carr frequently shined a spotlight on anti-Israel activism on college campuses that he believed crossed the line into antisemitism.
“He clearly embraced a framing that allowed him to say, ‘We’re fighting antisemitism,” said Lara Friedman, president of the liberal Foundation for Middle East Peace. “But they weren’t fighting antisemitism in a way that pushed back against the forces that led someone in Germany to shoot up a synagogue on the High Holidays.”
Other observers chafed at another tenet of Carr’s approach — his promotion of “philosemitism,” or love of Jews — as way to counter allegations of antisemitism against Trump by talking highlighting his staunch Zionism and closeness with Jews, including Trump’s own daughter and her family.
Carr defined philosemitism as “the appreciation, respect, and affection for Jewish values and the Jewish community,” and encouraged foriegn nations to “adopt philosemitic narratives.”
While Jewish communities throughout history have periodically sought to emphasize their value in society to avoid persecution, in the modern era they have typically preferred appeals to universal equality.
Jonathan Karp, a professor at Binghamton University and editor of the 2011 book “Philosemitism in History,” said that in the United States, pronounced philosemitism is most common among conservative evangelical Christians, who offer hardline support for the Israeli government and sometimes even adopt Jewish ritual practices, like wearing prayer shawls and blowing the shofar.
Karp said that the concept can be used in positive ways, but also provides cover for politicians who deal in antisemitic tropes.
“It can sometimes be the flipside of antisemitism — not the opposite, but two sides of the same coin,” he explained in an interview. “It can be used as a pretext: ‘Well, I like Jews if they stay in their place, or go to their place.’”
Brooks, the leader of the Republican Jewish Coalition, dismissed such criticism.
“Anybody who is trying to advocate against people being philosemitic needs to do their own inward self-reflection,” Brooks said.
Foundation for Biden
Carr’s expansion of the envoy’s role has raised its profile at a time when there is wide agreement in the Jewish community that more needs to be done to confront antisemitism but deep division over how to do so.
Congress elevated the envoy to an ambassador-level position last month, meaning whoever Biden appoints will report directly to Secretary of State Tony Blinken. The promotion could also make the office, which has sometimes flown under the radar, attractive to a more prominent figure.
“Historically it had been a bit of a staff position in the State Department and Elan really elevated it and made it a voice for our issues,” said Fred Zeidman, a prominent Republican donor and former chair of the Holocaust Memorial Council.
While Zeidman and other Republican Jewish leaders hope Biden appoints someone who continues Carr’s focus on fighting anti-Israel activism, some on the left are clamoring for someone who will use the expanded bully pulpit to reframe the fight to focus on right-wing extremism.
IfNotNow, a left-wing group devoted to ending the Israeli occupation, is [running a campaign around the nomination for envoy, which it refers to as “the most important Biden appointee you’ve never heard of.”
The organization is circulating a video on social media blasting Abe Foxman, former head of the Anti-Defamation League and one of the most-talked about candidates, as Islamaphobic and too focused on defending Israel. The video was also critical of Sharon Nazarian, an ADL vice president also under consideration.
Foxman declined to comment and the ADL did not respond to an inquiry.
In addition to Foxman, Nazarian and Lipstadt — who is a contributing columnist to the Forward and a member of its governing association — others being talked about for the role include Mark Weitzman, government affairs director at the Simon Wiesenthal Center; Mark Levin, chief of the National Coalition Supporting Eurasian Jewry; and Aaron Keyak, Biden’s Jewish outreach director during his presidential campaign.
Morriah Kaplan, an IfNotNow spokeswoman, said the next envoy should take an expansive view of antisemitism, but one that does not focus on student activists campaigning against Israel.
“The fight against antisemitism is part of the fight for multi-racial democracy,” Kaplan said. “Elan Carr used the role primarily to attack critics of Israel.”
One aspect of Carr’s legacy that retains broad support across the political spectrum is the way he expanded the envoy’s domestic portfolio. Housed in the State Department, the role was originally created to help the government monitor international incidents of antisemitism and encourage foreign countries to intervene on behalf of Jews when necessary.
“It was a global position,” said Gregg Rickman, the first person to fill the role, from 2006 until 2009. “If there were incidents anywhere outside the country that’s where it kicked in — inside the country, it fell to the education department, the Justice department, FBI.”
But Carr, buoyed by the addition of several staff members to the envoy’s tiny office, including one focused on online threats, made events within the nation’s borders an integral part of his work. He spoke out against antisemitism on American campuses, and regularly criticized groups like J Street and Jewish Voice for Peace, a left-wing group that aggressively criticizes Israeli policy.
Zeidman, the Republican donor, cheered on this approach, arguing that while it can be politically fraught to tangle with domestic foes, it is integral to the job.
“We’re seeing much greater incidents of antisemitism than we had ever had before and if we don’t shine a light on it it’s going to continue to grow,” Zeidman said. “Elan was really the torchbearer for that.”