Ex-envoy: Causes of rise in anti-Semitism are ‘complex’


Ira N. Forman, a State Department official in President Barack Obama’s administration, will discuss the current state of anti-Semitism and ways to combat it during a talk Jan. 9.

Forman served the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism (SEAS) from 2013 to 2017. He is the distinguished visiting professor in anti-Semitism at the Center for Jewish Civilization at Georgetown University. 

Forman will discuss “Anti-Semitism: How Bad Is It and What Can be Done About It?” as part of the Sh’ma:Listen!  Speaker Series at United Hebrew Congregation (see infobox for more event details). 

The Jewish Light caught up with Forman for an interview prior to his talk.


Borrowing from the title of your talk, just how bad is the increasing anti-Semitism in America?

Unfortunately, there is no easy or simple answer to this question. If I learned anything in my four years at the State Department, it is that anti-Semitism is very complex. Worldwide, we face multiple forms of anti-Semitism, often in the same country, and there is no one data set or measurement that can definitively answer the question. 

For example, the ADL data on anti-Semitic incidents in the United States showed an increase in 2015 and 2016 and a trend in 2017 of even higher numbers of incidents. However, the number of incidents in those years is actually significantly lower than they were 10-12 years ago. The FBI Hate Crime statistics show similar trends.

Yet we would be foolish to ignore the warning signals we saw in the past year. Charlottesville, the bomb threats at Jewish institutions and the rise of anti-Semitic trolling on the internet should make us sit up and take notice.

In your experience combatting anti-Semitism, racism and all forms of bigotry, do you recall a period in which so many horrific acts have occurred in such a short time span?

I must admit that I was one of those individuals who until the Durban Conference in Durban, South Africa, in 2001 tended to believe that anti-Semitism was not a major problem, at least not in the United States.However, if you go back in American history, there are many periods where anti-Semitism and racism were more virulent than they are today.What American Jews faced in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s was much more serious than anything in 2017.

When we recall the Charlottesville Nazis of 2017, we must also remember the huge uproar surrounding the attempt by Nazis to march in Skokie, Ill., in 1977. What African-Americans faced in past decades (nearly 3,500 lynchings in the years 1882-1968) dwarfs the still serious problems of bigotry minorities face in our country today.

Yet we should be worried about the developments we have witnessed in America over the preceding two years. The prevalence of anti-Semitism on social media, the vandalism to Jewish cemeteries, the bomb threats, the vitriol aimed at Israel/Jews on college campuses worries me.

Why was the position that you held in the Obama administration not continued in the Trump administration? 

The office of the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitismwas authorized by Congress in 2004 and therefore can’t be abolished by the administration but only by the passage of new legislation. Secretary of State (Rex) Tillerson has not yet appointed a new SEAS but has announced that he will do so at some point.

Did you have any major successes during your tenure?

I believe each of the three special envoys who have held the office since 2006 have had a positive impact on constraining worldwide anti-Semitism. For example, at the end of 2015, our office led a State Department effort to mobilize a successful coalition of government and non-government actors to support the Hungarian Jewish community in its efforts to convince the Hungarian government to withdraw funding for a statue honoring a leading anti-Semitic World War II political leader.  

In 2015 and 2016, the State Department also lobbied (with significant success) European nations and multilateral organizations to adopt aworking definition of anti-Semitism, which helps describe when criticism of Israel can become anti-Semitism.

What was your greatest frustration?

The work of the SEAS is so personally rewarding that I can’t honestly say that we experience serious frustration. That’s not to say thatcombating anti-Semitism is easy nor that everything we set out to do was accomplished. Realistically, we are not going to eradicate evil in our lifetime or anytime in the foreseeable future. However, the rewards of helping Jewish communities who are under pressure from anti-Semitism far outweigh any disappointments encountered on the job. 

What do you want your audience to take away from your talk in St. Louis?

First, I hope to convey the importance of good, objective analysis in combatting anti-Semitism.In this era of deep partisanship, all of us must reject our political bias to understand the nature of each type of anti-Semitic incident we encounter. 

Anti-Semitism is not exclusively a problem of the left or the right. Anti-Semitism is not and can’t become a partisan issue. Rather, anti-Semitism is a very complex phenomenon that requires each of us to be brutally honest about its origins, its perpetrators and countermeasures.