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Sarah WildmanBack to OpinionSarah Wildman

An ambassador under siege

U.S. Ambassador to Belgium Howard Gutman. Photo: Flickr/U.S. Ambassador Gutman

One of the strange tropes of the current Republican campaigns for the presidency has been a concerted effort to fan anxieties around Israel, and Democratic Party loyalty to Jews and the Jewish State, among Jewish constituents and Christian supporters. Israel, candidates like Mitt Romney have opined, has been thrown “under the bus” by the Obama administration. Each candidate, in turn, has scrambled to proclaim his or her fealty to keeping the Zionist dream at the front and center of American foreign policy.

This past weekend that philo-Semitism took a peculiar, specific turn with the GOP candidates demanding the head of the U.S. ambassador to Belgium, Howard Gutman, for making what were dubbed “anti-Semitic” comments at a conference on anti-Semitism.  Newt Gingrich tweeted Saturday, “Pres Obama should fire his ambassador to Brussels for being so wrong about anti-Semitism,” and linked to a story published in the right-leaning Israeli news outlet Ynet. Mitt Romney’s campaign issued a release stating “President Obama must fire his ambassador to Belgium for rationalizing and downplaying anti-Semitism and linking it to Israeli policy toward the Palestinians. The ambassador’s comments demonstrate the Obama administration’s failure to understand the worldwide campaign to delegitimize Israel and its appalling penchant for undermining our close ally.” Rick Perry, late to the game, said on Tuesday that Gutman was part of the Administration’s “pattern of hostility towards Israel”

What was all the fuss about? Conservative bloggers pointed to a quote — pulled from that Ynet story and then reprinted in Ha’aretz, the Weekly Standard, and the Orthodox Jewish media — that seemed to prove the ambassador was privileging Muslims over Jews, at best, and holding Israel responsible for global anti-Semitism at worst. “A distinction should be made between traditional anti-Semitism, which should be condemned and Muslim hatred for Jews, which stems from the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians,” the ambassador was reported to have said, ostensibly setting up a loophole excusing attacks on Jews in Europe connected to the conflict in the Middle East. Except that that’s not what the ambassador said at all. The quote was a distillation, a paraphrase, of a story that originally ran in Yediot Aharaonot — in Hebrew.

What Gutman tried to do was articulate a nuanced conversation about what hate looks like in Europe now, where it comes from and how it spreads. He tried to draw a line that distinguishes the virulent anti-Semitism of the 1930s with the incidents that take place across Europe today that seem, often, to be reflections or refractions of what happens in the Near East. He tried to set up a conversation that showed Muslim Islamophobia and anti-Semitism, in modern Europe, are both deserving of our attention, and intimately connected to the wars and conflicts of the Near and Middle East. It’s not an easy or a pretty conversation, but it’s an honest one. One that we won’t engage in now at all, now that the scramble each party now has entered into to prove who hates anti-Semitism more.

The Obama administration, on Monday, announced in two separate statements that it condemned anti-Semitism in all its forms and that Gutman would be retained as ambassador.  Right-leaning Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin called it an “unnecessary and foolish” choice to retain Gutman, and called up Senator Joseph Lieberman and Representative Gary Ackerman of New York to pile on the vitriol. Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, never shy, called Gutman “wrongheaded” and accused him of offering an “unacceptable rationale” for Muslim anti-Semitism.

But what rationale? That’s not what happened here. Look at what Gutman said:

What I do see … is the problem within Europe of tension, hatred and sometimes even violence between some members of Muslim communities or Arab immigrant groups and Jews. It is a tension and perhaps hatred largely born of and reflecting the tension between Israel, the Palestinian Territories and neighboring Arab states in the Middle East over the continuing Israeli-Palestinian problem.

It too is a serious problem. It too must be discussed and solutions explored. No Jewish student — and no Muslim student or student of any heritage or religion — should ever feel intimidated on a University campus for their heritage or religion leading to academic leaders quitting in protest. No high school or grammar school Jewish student – and no Muslim high school or grammar school student or student of any heritage or religion — should be beaten up over their heritage or religion.

But this second problem is in my opinion different in many respects than the classic bigotry — hatred against those who are different and against minorities generally — the type of anti-Semitism that I discussed above. It is more complex and requiring much more thought and analysis. This second form of what is labeled “growing anti-Semitism” produces strange phenomena and results.

Ambassador Gutman himself a Jew, and the child of a Holocaust survivor, attempted to draw a distinction between rising anxieties over anti-Semitism in Europe today and the hate of the Nazi era. The speech would have gone unnoticed (How often to domestic audiences care about what our ambassadors say overseas?) save that the substance of the speech was immediately twisted and tweeted by the conservative blogosphere and the Republican presidential candidates.

There is a lot to be concerned about in Europe. Gutman mentioned, in his opening remarks, the recent vicious beating of a Jewish schoolgirl, Oceane Sluijze, at the hands of Muslim youth, and the resignation of neurosurgeon Jacques Brotchi, from the board of the Free University of Brussels.  On campus, recently, protestors had staged an Israeli military checkpoint, and invited the avowedly anti-Semitic French comic, Dieudonne, to perform. A campus publication had published texts that used Jewish stereotypes like those of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.  In the last several years there has been a new form of anti-Semitism that has arisen, a proxy war of sorts.

But no one in Europe denies that attacks on Jews have increased whenever the situation in the Middle East heats up.  In 2008, the Vienna-based European Union’s Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) published a report on anti-Semitism in Europe from 2001 to 2008.  After a significant decline in attacks, suddenly there was an upsurge of anti-Semitic violence across the continent.

“The Agency’s research shows that during 2007 and most of 2008, the number of anti-Semitic incidents in the EU declined, but that it has been on the rise again since December of 2008. While it is too early to draw conclusions, there are indications that this rise could partly be affected by the situation in the Middle East, as well as by the global financial crisis.”

Similarly, as Salon reported today, the British organization the Community Service Trust reported in its most recent (2010) study in anti-Semitism that “Clearly, it would not be acceptable to define all anti-Israel activity as anti-Semitic; but it cannot be ignored that much contemporary anti-Semitism takes place in the context of, or is motivated by, extreme feelings over the Israel/Palestine issue. Drawing out these distinctions, and deciding on where the dividing lines lie, is one of the most difficult areas of CST’s work in recording and analysing hate crime.”

The ambassador didn’t condone that violence, that hatred. He simply tried to explain that the events in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza reflect back on other communities. And one way to calm the populations elsewhere would be to address the problems in the Near East.

Sarah Wildman is a columnist for the International Herald Tribune, a regular contributor to the New York Times, Slate and the Guardian, and a contributing editor at the Forward. Follow her on Twitter: @sarahawildman