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Remarks at the B’nai B’rith International Policy Conference

Washington, D.C.



Thank you, Roberto, for that kind introduction. It’s a pleasure to be here with you this afternoon as you begin to celebrate your 170th year.  B’nai B’rith is not only the oldest continually operating Jewish service organization in the world, it is perhaps also one of the first leading human rights organizations as well.

I welcome the opportunity to speak here today. I have worked on human rights and religious freedom issues for many years, mostly outside of government. I’ve seen firsthand and have admired greatly the invaluable work that you do..

Sadly, more than a century-and-a-half after the founding of your organization, the scourge of anti-Semitism persists. And in some respects, it may be worsening.

President Obama and Secretary Clinton have committed this administration to confronting and combating anti-Semitism and other forms of religious, racial and ethnic intolerance and discrimination. As Secretary Clinton said when she recently spoke at the Holocaust Museum, and I’m quoting here, “We must remain vigilant against those deniers and against anti-Semitism, because when heads of state and religious leaders deny the Holocaust from their bully pulpits, we cannot let their lies go unanswered.

When we hear Holocaust glorification and public calls to, quote, “finish the job,” we need to make clear that violence and bigotry will not be tolerated. And, yes,” she said, “When criticism of Israeli government policies crosses over into demonization of Israel and Jews, we must push back.”

The bureau I lead is responsible for translating that call to arms into action, by shaping and integrating U.S. polices to combat anti-Semitism around the world into vigorous American diplomacy. We also work to amplify and provide support for foreign individuals and groups who lead the fight to expose and challenge anti-Semitism in their own societies.

Over the last three years, we have been very fortunate to have Hannah Rosenthal lead the charge for us on these issues, as the Obama Administration’s Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism.

Hannah has been here to speak to you the last two years and I am sure those of you who have seen her share my view that she is one of the most passionate, effective and articulate of advocates. The child of Holocaust survivors, she has travelled around the world urging governments to address anti-Semitism. She led a delegation of Imams to Dachau. She went to the Vatican. And this summer, she went to the Olympics, which I’ll tell you more about in a moment.

At the same time, Hannah has also generated greater attention within our government to the struggle against anti-Semitism.

Next month, Hannah is heading back home to Wisconsin where she will become director of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation. We’re going to miss her greatly, but our efforts to combat anti-Semitism will carry on, our commitment undiminished.

Like Hannah, members of my family in Hungary perished in the Holocaust, so these issues have a special personal resonance to me.

It is deeply disturbing to read the reports of anti-Semitism coming from around the world. We are all too familiar with reports of the desecration of cemeteries, defacing of property, the hateful graffiti on the walls of Jewish neighborhoods, and the poisonous rhetoric that permeates official news outlets and social media throughout the Middle East. Even in 2012, there are still accusations of blood libel and places where schools teach the Protocols of the Elders of Zion as fact.

These incidents, unfortunately, are not relegated to one part of our globe.

In Iran, President Ahmadinejad refers to the Holocaust as a “lie” and to the Jewish state a “tumor.” He has referred to the quote “European” assertion that “Hitler killed innocent Jews in furnaces” and says, “We don’t accept that claim.”

The Obama administration has consistently condemned these outrageous statements as well as those by other Iranian leaders, and we will continue to do so.  We were also pleased that U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, during his recent trip to Tehran, was outspoken on many of the issues we all care about.

In Venezuela, we have seen numerous anti-Semitic statements in official media and by President Chavez himself.  Last year, Jewish community leaders filed a formal protest with the Prosecutor General’s Office over the “incitement to hate” contained in an April 4 broadcast on the government-owned Radio del Sur whose host promoted the Protocols of the Elders of Zion as a quote “must-read.” The host was switched but she continued to broadcast on other state-owned media.

Last year, President Chavez, in a letter to the U.N. Secretary General, criticized Israel for committing “genocide” and “ethnic cleansing” against Palestinians, and called Zionism “racism.”

In a range of Middle Eastern countries, editorial cartoons and articles were published depicting Jews as demonic figures, comparing Israeli leaders to Nazis, and denying or glorifying the Holocaust.

And in Hungary, radical political groups like the Jobbik party in Parliament used anti-Semitic rhetoric to play on fears of economic uncertainty. One of its leaders recently resigned following internal pressure after it was discovered he had Jewish heritage.

Unfortunately, you will find many other examples in both the State Department’s annual Human Rights Report and our report on International Religious Freedom. I encourage you to take another look at these reports, which we have streamlined and made searchable, at www.humanrights.gov.

But as you know, monitoring and reporting anti-Semitism is only a first step.

Under Hannah’s leadership we have begun a major training initiative for Foreign Service officers in the State Department to teach them not only how to monitor but also how to respond appropriately to various forms of anti-Semitism. And we are seeing that many countries are now doing the right thing, challenging anti-Semitism and other forms of racial, religious and ethnic hatred.

Most recently,  I was pleased to see that Austria’s president publicly condemned a politician for posting on his Facebook page a cartoon widely perceived to be anti-Semitic.

According to news reports, the president had two words to say about efforts to rekindle that country’s Nazi history: “No way.”

That is responsible leadership, and I encourage others around the world to follow suit.

Those who turn a blind eye to escalating hatreds undermine the stability of their own societies. Conversely, government figures and religious leaders who denounce any and every form of hatred and work together to combat it build the foundations for a more peaceful and prosperous society in which all citizens can contribute.

Under Secretary Clinton, the United States has made it a priority to support non-governmental groups, which are indispensable to progress all over the world. She calls civil society one of the three legs of a stool, the other two being government and business. Civil society groups – often not Jewish ones – are at the forefront of efforts to combat anti-Semitism as well as other forms of hatred.

In the difficult places, we help amplify these voices. These front-line activists put themselves at risk through their advocacy, and when they get in trouble, as they too often do, we seek to provide a lifeline of protection to them.

So the first thing we’re doing to combat anti-Semitism is partnering with civil society. Second, we’re focusing greater attention on young people around the world because we know that their values and opinions are being shaped at an early age. We scrutinize the curriculum they’re taught and the textbooks they read.  And so we know that in 2012 there are children who are taught hatred.

We need to redouble our efforts to challenge schools that inculcate hate and glorify violence — and those who fund them.

Third, our government is providing training to a wide range of foreign law enforcement agencies. Part of that training focuses on crimes committed against vulnerable populations, including in countries where there are embattled Jewish communities.

Fourth, we are ramping up our cultural and educational exchanges to showcase what civil society groups in this country are doing to confront racism, discrimination, stereotyping and other forms of hate, and how they draw on successful initiatives from other countries.

And fifth, we are trying to appeal to the idealism of young people of many faiths who want the world they’ll live in to be less blighted by hate. As many of you also know, two years ago Hannah and Farah Pandith, who was appointed in 2009 as the State Department’s first Special Representative to Muslim Communities, launched a virtual campaign on Facebook to ask young people from around the world to give an hour of their time to serve someone who doesn’t look like them, live like them or believe as they do.

That campaign is now called “2012 Hours Against Hate,” and it has generated an amazing outpouring, a generosity of time and spirit. Young people don’t have money, but they do have time. And they have given their time.

Hannah often says that the goal is for young people to “walk a mile in another person’s shoes.” This summer the London Olympics chose 2012 Hours Against Hate  as its tolerance initiative, and corporations, led by the athletic company SoFit, established an app that actually lets people track their walking miles to fight hatred. And it connects them to people in other countries who are walking with them at the same time.

Tens of thousands of people have already logged on to “Hours Against Hate and the Walk A Mile app. These people forge deeper connections within their own communities and they connect with others around the world who are also inspired to work against hate.

But despite these and many other efforts, we all know that anti-Semitism has not been vanquished. In many places it is a harbinger of an escalation in extremist hate and violence – a leading indicator of social strife. Where such hatred is born of ignorance, we must teach and inspire. We must show a better way forward. Where such hatred is fomented by political ambition, we must challenge it both diplomatically and politically.

The Obama administration is committed to meeting these challenges, but we cannot do it alone. Organizations like the B’nai B’rith have an essential role to play, and we are proud to be your partner. We must brace ourselves for a long struggle. The fight against anti-Semitism is a marathon, not a sprint. In that spirit, let us work together and renew our commitment to Tikkun Olam — to heal this world– and pursue justice and freedom everywhere.

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