Lantos, State Department at odds over bill combating global anti-Semitism

An incensed Rep. Tom Lantos (D-San Mateo) sent a harshly worded letter to Secretary of State Colin Powell earlier this month, accusing the State Department of “shocking and offensive ignorance about the nature of anti-Semitism.”

The letter came in response to State Department opposition to a Lantos bill proposing the creation of a government office to monitor and combat global anti-Semitism.

In a three-page assessment, the State Department worried that implementation of Lantos’ bill could “erode our credibility by being interpreted as favoritism in human rights reporting” — as well as create an “inappropriate stand-alone situation for one group when so many others involving severe abuses are treated in [the] established manner, which demonstrates equal respect for all groups.”

What’s more, it said, “anti-Semitism is a broad human rights issue, but offensive acts involve private or non-governmental perpetrators, and acts of anti-Semitism are often characterized as discrimination and not persecution.”

That assessment infuriated Lantos, the ranking Democrat on the Congressional Committee on International Relations, who told j. he was “outraged.”

“I’m unaware of a global upsurge of anti-Episcopalian feeling. Since there is a wave of anti-Semitism from Denmark to Australia, [that] the State Department won’t take a strong stand on this, I find it outrageous,” Lantos said.

Lantos contended that the State Department’s dismissive attitude toward the bill undermines Powell’s strong statements against anti-Semitism at a recent conference in Berlin.

Powell “gave a good speech and I’m glad he went, but the people in his department still don’t get it.”

Calls to the State Department’s press office were not returned by press time.

In his July 19 letter, Lantos repeatedly chided the State Department, noting that, “after all the work that has been done to confront governmental complicity in encouraging hate and intolerance toward Jews in school curricula and in state-controlled and/or state-influenced media around the world, it is mind-boggling that the department would make such a dismissive and ignorant assessment of global anti-Semitism.”

Lantos was also perplexed at the charge that an office focusing on anti-Semitism would constitute a “stand-alone section.”

There are already special analyses singling out “other vulnerable groups that our nation cares about, including women, children, persons with disabilities, laborers and human rights nongovernmental organizations,” as well as “mandated offices on Tibet, women, human trafficking and religious freedom,” he wrote.

And, even in nations where the government doesn’t foment anti-Semitism, Lantos said, it is the burden of leadership to take a stand against such behavior.

“The whole essence of the role of government is to speak and lead the way toward a more rational society. You may remember that when black churches were burned down in the South a few years ago, Bill Clinton went down there the next day and participated in rebuilding them,” Lantos said.

“The fact the government was not responsible doesn’t remove the obligation for leaders to lead the parade denouncing anti-Semitism and similar forms of persecution.”

Lantos described his relationship with Powell as “cordial,” and said he expects to make his points to the Secretary of State in a face-to-face conversation, or, failing that, receive a “formal letter” from Powell.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.