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State Department Opposes New Antisemitism Office

OAKLAND, Calif. — The only Holocaust survivor in Congress is feuding with the State Department over his bill to create a special office at Foggy Bottom to track antisemitism across the globe.

Rep. Tom Lantos, the ranking Democrat on the House International Relations Committee, told the Forward this week that he was pushing ahead with a bill, HR 4230, that would create an Office to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism within the State Department. Earlier this month the State Department sent Lantos a three-page memo vowing to oppose the bill on grounds that antisemitism is already monitored and that giving it extra attention would be seen as “favoritism.”

Lantos said he intends to raise the matter personally with Secretary of State Colin Powell as soon as possible.

“Not even the State Department denies there is a tremendous upsurge in antisemitism in Europe and in other parts of the world,” Lantos said, noting Powell’s speech in April at the conference on antisemitism in Berlin organized by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. “The notion that all groups need to be treated equally in this context is somewhat absurd. I’m unaware of an upsurge of anti-Episcopalian sentiment in the world. This is typical State Department bureaucratic nonsense, and I intend to treat it as such… in my conversation with Colin Powell.”

The State Department memo argued that Lantos’s bill “could erode our credibility by being interpreted as favoritism in human rights reporting.” The memo continued: “Adding a separate and duplicative annual report, or creating a special section within an existing report highlighting a single group, opens us to charges of favoritism and challenges the credibility of our reporting…. Extending exclusive status to one religious or ethnic group would open the door for every faith and ethnic group to argue for equal treatment.”

Lantos fired back in a July 19 letter to Powell, noting “the current eruption of the age-old disease of antisemitism is more pernicious than anything we have seen since the Holocaust.” Lantos added: “It is mind-boggling that the department would make such a dismissive and ignorant assessment of global antisemitism.”

In his letter, Lantos noted that State Department reports already have special sections on women, children, disabled people, laborers and human-rights nongovernmental organizations, and the department already has special offices on Tibet, women, human trafficking and religious freedom. He called upon Powell to “promptly disavow this bureaucratic document and direct your deputies to engage in a serious discussion with my staff on making the bill work.”

State Department spokeswoman Darla Jordan said the department “strongly agrees that antisemitism is a serious problem and one that the U.S. government is working vigorously to eliminate in a number of ways,” including direct diplomatic relations and participation in forums like the OSCE conference. “While we do not believe the additional reporting requirement is needed,” Jordan said, the State Department will not oppose a separate bill being pushed by two Republicans, Senator George Voinovich of Ohio and Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey.

That bill, which passed the Senate May 7, requires the State Department to deliver a one-time report on international antisemitism to Congress by November 15. It also directs the State Department to include the special report’s findings in its annual International Religious Freedom and Human Rights reports.

“I have no quarrel with the Voinovich-Smith legislation except it is a one-shot deal, it requires one report, and I am not naive enough to assume antisemitism is going to disappear after one report by the State Department,” Lantos said.

Lantos’s bill has 33 cosponsors, including Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the Florida Republican who chairs the International Relations subcommittee on the Middle East and Central Asia, and Rep. John Lewis, the Georgia Democrat and legendary civil-rights leader. “Clearly my legislation has attracted the broadest possible bipartisan support,” Lantos said.

American Jewish Committee spokesman Ken Bandler said his organization has not endorsed one bill over the other. “We’re supporting the whole principle that some bill should be passed in this session,” he said. “Whether it’s in the U.S. or in the European Union and hopefully in the fall at the United Nations, anything that’s done to increase the mechanisms for monitoring and reporting antisemitism is vitally important.”

Lantos’s bill asserts that “antisemitism has at times taken the form of vilification of Zionism, the Jewish national movement, and incitement against Israel.”

Some pro-Palestinian critics say the bill is more about curbing criticism of Israeli policy than about fighting true antisemitism. The president of the Council for the National Interest, Eugene Bird, said his group is “somewhat more negative than the Department of State” on Lantos’s bill. Bird said he does not want to “get to the point where criticism of Israel and right-wing Israeli policy, including the wall and destruction of homes, is equivalent to… antisemitism.”

Passing a bill for beefed-up monitoring and activity against persecution of all ethnic groups “would be American,” Bird said, while Lantos “is seen as a projection of Sharon in the Congress.… Just passing this antisemitism act, I think, will make a lot of people shake their heads and say, ‘There they go again.’”

Lantos countered that he has been critical of Israeli policy when appropriate. This bill, he added, is “unrelated to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

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