Hannah Rosenthal Under Fire

January, 07 2010

By Symi Rom-Rymer

The mock outrage and cheap scoring of political points that has ensued in the wake of a Haaretz interview with Hannah Rosenthal, the new U.S. Special Envoy to Combat and Monitor Anti-Semitism, is quite a thing to behold.  Conservative American Jewish leaders made it clear from the moment that Rosenthal’s appointment was announced that they were upset with the Obama administration’s decision.  From writing open letters (Abe Foxman) to writing condescending op-eds, (Gregg Rickman) those who disagree with her views have sought to undermine her judgment and competence from the start.

It should be no surprise that Rosenthal reacted the way that she did to Ambassador Michael Oren’s comments regarding J Street.  As a former J Street board member and member of the left-wing organization Americans for Peace Now, it is clear where her sympathies lie and why her appointment so angered the conservative community.  Perhaps she was wrong to criticize Ambassador Oren when speaking in her new capacity, but the vitriol that has followed is hardly appropriate given her rather mild remarks.  Saying that Oren “would have learned a lot” had he attended J Street’s conference or that his comment that J Street is “fooling around with the lives of 7 million people” was “most unfortunate” hardly warrants the suggestion by Alan Solow, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, that her general support for J Street’s views “could threaten to limit her effectiveness in the area for which she is actually responsible.”  If anyone should be outraged by this dust-up, it should be the progressives.  Where were their shouts of dissent when their positions and actions were being publicly scorned by the Israeli ambassador?  Where were they when Jewish leaders were suggesting that Rosenthal was not up to the job?  They should be raising their voices in support of her—for she holds, after all, a prominent place in the Obama administration–and is clearly sympathetic to their cause.

What this incident demonstrates above all is that despite Jewish leaders’ insistence that right-wing voices don’t crowd out the others, they in fact do just that.  And if other voices do manage to be heard, those on the Right are quick to resort to any method possible to bring those voices down. One needs only to look at the reaction of some Jewish groups to J Street and its message.  But the more that people seek to shut down the discussion, the more those who disagree need to speak up.  J Street has attracted the visibility and the support that is has precisely because people feel that they are not being represented by established Jewish organizations.  To dismiss this phenomenon or accuse J Street and its followers of hurting Israel, as Ambassador Oren and others have done, is to negate the views and opinions of a significant swath of the American Jewry.  This group is as much a part of the Jewish mainstream as those who disagree with J Street and deserves a commensurate level of respect and consideration.

Supporters both within and outside the administration may privately suggest to Rosenthal that she temper future remarks.  But I appreciate her candor and forthrightness.  It is most unfortunate that Ambassador Oren chose not to attend J Street’s conference.  For, had he gone, he would have found over 1500 people of all ages struggling with how to demonstrate their deep love and support for Israel while still being open about their criticisms of Israel’s policies.  It may not have been the easiest discussion to be a part of, but he certainly would have learned a lot.

Symi Rom-Rymer writes and blogs about Jewish and Muslim communities in the US and Europe. She has been published in JTA, The Christian Science Monitor and Jewcy.

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