On Anti-Semitism and Human Rights for LGBT People

Hannah Rosenthal, U.S. Department of State's Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism

The following remarks were originally posted on the website of the U.S. Department of State and shared on May 30th with the Cream City Foundation in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

As a child of a Holocaust survivor, anti-Semitism is something very personal to me. I am the daughter of a man who was literally marked by a badge of “difference” – a yellow star that not only made him stand out as non-German in the eyes of the Nazis, but also placed a bounty on his head. A survivor of Buchenwald, my father experienced what hate, left unchecked, can do. As a result of his experiences, he instilled in me an urgency to fight not only anti-Semitism, but also intolerance in all of its forms.

The Holocaust is one of the darkest chapters of human history – a democratically elected leader was allowed to turn hatred into genocide because good people didn’t stop him. Good people didn’t stand up and prevent the cattle cars from carrying their neighbors to the gas chambers. Good people didn’t say no when their neighbors were stripped of their German citizenship simply because they were Jewish. Yes, there were thousands of rescuers – a fact I talk about widely – but it was not enough. Society failed and millions of Jews, Roma, and LGBT individuals were the innocent victims of what the power of hatred left unchecked can achieve.

At the conclusion of World War Two, as the world was reeling from the devastation and loss of human life during the Holocaust, delegates from around the world met to form the United Nations and draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The purpose of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was to recognize “the inherent dignity and…the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family”. In short, the goal was to never again let hatred grow so much so that members of any society became willing executioners of their neighbors. But sadly, we have failed to realize this goal. We have not learned the lessons of the Holocaust nor have we absorbed the message of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In our lifetimes, we have seen genocides wreak havoc in Cambodia, Darfur, Rwanda, and Srebrenica, and we have allowed hatred to find sanctuary in every corner of the globe, including our own.

In my job as the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat anti-Semitism, I travel the world, trying to do my part in bringing the dream of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to life. It is often quite a sobering experience. I am seeing increases in anti-Semitism all over the world. There are places where Jewish communities feel so unsafe and threatened that they are either “closeting” their Judaism or simply moving away. There are countries where government-sponsored anti-Semitism abounds and there are corners of the globe where the old Tsarist forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is still being taught in schools as fact. Anti-Semitism did not die with Adolf Hitler. Sadly, and may I say terrifyingly, it is news every day.

But what I have realized most from all my travels is that hate is hate. We can not eliminate anti-Semitism alone without addressing intolerance in all its forms. Where hatred of one group exists, so too does hatred of other groups. And I am not surprised – although I am saddened – to say that anti-Semitism, homophobia, and transphobia are thriving in today’s world side-by-side. So when I travel to other countries, although my Congressional mandate is to fight anti-Semitism, I report on all forms of hatred I see. To that end, I make an effort to meet with representatives of all marginalized communities in every country I travel to, including the LGBT community.

The root causes of anti-Semitism, homophobia, and transphobia are really quite similar. They are rooted in fear of “the other”. In the case of anti-Semitism, it is the fear that Jews are different and therefore inherently evil and threatening. Over the centuries, hysterics have preached accusations of blood libel, warning children to stay away from Jews based on accusations by the Church that Jews killed Christian children to use their blood for rituals. Conspiracy theories continue to flourish, such as supposed Jewish control of the U.S. media and the world banking system, or that Jews were involved in executing the September 11 attacks. And demonization of Jews continues, perhaps most shockingly today in cartoons where Jews are portrayed as Satan or pigs.

This is not very different from the homophobic and transphobic rhetoric we hear. Rather than accusations of blood libel, hysterics warn people to stay away from members of the LGBT community based on an unfounded fear that they will be “corrupted” by their lifestyle. Conspiracy theories about LGBT individuals are all too easy to find today, from accusations that they are trying to change our culture to preposterous allegations that LGBT individuals – merely by virtue of their sexual orientation or gender identity – will physically and sexually harm our children and “recruit” them. Indeed, the idea that merely allowing LGBT persons to marry will result in the dismantling of the entire institution of marriage is a conspiracy theory simply based on fear of the other.

I am proud to work in an administration which takes both of these issues very seriously. Under the Obama Administration, my position as the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat anti-Semitism has been elevated and fully integrated into the State Department. Combating anti-Semitism is a part of our foreign policy agenda from the top down. Although I know I will never eliminate anti-Semitism on my own, I have seen some positive movements by some governments to address these serious issues. I am proud to say that the U.S. Government attaches great importance to identifying these problems and brainstorming about how to solve them. And with no less vigor, combating homophobia and transphobia is also part of our foreign policy agenda. President Obama and Secretary Clinton made history when they explained on the international stage that protecting LGBT rights is part and parcel of our international human rights agenda. Our LGBT community is a diverse one, made up of individuals of different races, religions, and genders. When Secretary Clinton boldly stated that “gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights” it was in recognition of the fact that not only do LGBT individuals care about and need protection from hate crimes based on their sexual orientation and gender identity, but they need and deserve the pantheon of all human rights guarantees. This has not been an empty promise. Staff resources have been dedicated to this fight, funds have been allocated and programs created to assist LGBT human rights defenders and civil society groups in times of crisis, and our embassies around the world have begun programming on the cause of LGBT rights as human rights. The fact that fighting anti-Semitism, homophobia, and transphobia are all a part of our foreign policy agenda is a big deal, because when the United States Government speaks out, people listen.

And while we at the State Department will continue to engage with government officials at all levelson human rights issues, we recognize that combating hatred and securing international human rights will require a society-wide approach. Therefore, last summer, Secretary Clinton launched an initiative to strengthen civil society across the globe. She instructed all of us at the State Department – in Washington and at our overseas posts — to treat civil society as strategic partners. Partnering with opinion leaders from civil society as well as government–and building bridges among ethnic and religious groups — is the way to change a culture from fear and negative stereotyping to acceptance and understanding, from narrow mindedness to an embrace of diversity, from hate to tolerance.

In line with Secretary Clinton’s vision, my colleague Farah Pandith, the Special Representative to Muslim Communities, and I last year launched a virtual campaign called “2011 Hours Against Hate,” using Facebook and Twitter. We are asking young people around the world to pledge a number of hours to volunteer to help or serve a population different than their own. We ask them to work with people who may look differently, pray differently or love differently. For example, a young Jew might volunteer time to read books at a Muslim pre-school, or a physically capable student might volunteer to help a disabled student in her class, or a heterosexual college student might volunteer to help organize a college campus pride event. We want to encourage them to walk a mile in another person’s shoes.

Farah and I have met hundreds of young people – students and young professionals – in Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia. We traveled and met with students in Turkey, Azerbaijan, Spain – countries that in their histories celebrated Jews and Muslims co-existing and thriving together. We then went on to meet with youth and interfaith leaders in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Lebanon, Greece, the United Kingdom, and Albania. We discussed the importance of strengthening mutual respect and understanding among different religious, ethnic, and social groups. What we found everywhere we traveled was that these young people wanted to DO something. The campaign took off quickly when it was launched in 2011. It has since developed a life of its own, with mayors from Cordoba, Spain, to Istanbul, Turkey, to Montevideo, Uruguay, adopting it for their own communities as an organizing tool to promote coexistence.

The campaign was, in fact, so successful that we continued it into 2012. Thanks to a group of British non-governmental organizations, we are now also partnering with the London Olympic and Paralympic Games! In January, the London Olympic and Paralympics approved their application to have 2012 Hours Against Hate branded with the Olympics logo. We can now leverage the energy surrounding the 2012 Olympics to encourage athletes and fans alike to participate in combating hate and pledging their time to help or serve someone who is different from them.

I am proud of the impact that this campaign is making. I am proud of the work the Obama Administration is doing to secure human rights for all peoples –regardless of race, religion, gender, disability, sexual orientation, or gender identity. As Secretary Clinton reminded us this past December, “we are called [on]…to make real the words of the Universal Declaration [of Human Rights]”, that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and in rights.

There is much left to be done to make those words a reality in our world – and fighting anti-Semitism, homophobia, and transphobia are all necessary elements of our work. I ask you to join Secretary Clinton and me in fighting for the rights of all those who are marginalized and discriminated against simply by virtue of who they are. Because only by working together and by forming a coalition of tolerance can we ever hope to rid our world of hate.

Hannah Rosenthal is the U.S. Department of State’s Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism.