Facebook Twitter Tumblr Close Skip to main content
A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Soft on Anti-Semitism?

GOP presidential candidates Michele Bachmann and Mitt Romney claim that the U.S. ambassador to Belgium “justified” and “downplayed” anti-Semitism and blamed it on “Israel’s actions toward the Palestinians.” We find that to be a one-sided interpretation of what was actually said.

Others may view Ambassador Howard Gutman’s remarks differently than the Republican candidates when seen in full context. Gutman — who is Jewish and whose father survived the Holocaust — said, for example, that the “hatred” and “violence” that some European Muslims exhibit toward Jews is “a serious problem” that “must be discussed and solutions explored.”

The target of the GOP candidates’ scorn is a recent speech in which he said that the growing anti-Semitism of European Muslims springs “largely” from the unresolved feud between Israel and the Palestinians, and is fueled both by Palestinian suicide bombers and by Israel’s settlements and retaliatory military strikes.

Some Jewish groups reacted by saying that Gutman was getting things backward, and that Muslim anti-Semitism is the cause of Israeli conflict, not the effect. Both Gutman and the White House later issued statements condemning anti-Semitism in any form.

So were Gutman’s original remarks soft on anti-Semitism? Here we offer a more complete account of what Gutman really said, so readers may draw their own conclusions.

On Dec. 4, Romney released this statement:

Romney, Dec. 4: 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.

And in remarks to the Republican Jewish Coalition on Dec. 7, Bachmann said this (at about the 21:30 mark):

Bachmann, Dec. 7: He justified anti-Semitism because of Israel’s actions toward the Palestinians. And the president should fire him immediately for those irresponsible remarks.

There is certainly room for debate and discussion about the speech Gutman delivered on Nov. 30 during a conference on fighting anti-Semitism in Europe. Gutman acknowledged that when, toward the beginning of his speech, he provocatively stated, “I likely will not just say fully what you expected and or maybe hoped to hear.”

Gutman unequivocally condemned the form of anti-Semitism he attributed to “classic bigotry,” calling that form “pernicious” and saying it “must be combated”:

Gutman: There is and has long been some amount of anti-Semitism, of hatred and violence against Jews, from a small sector of the population who hate others who may be different or perceived to be different, largely for the sake of hating. Those anti-Semites are people who hate not only Jews, but Muslims, gays, gypsies, and likely any who can be described as minorities or different. That hatred is of course pernicious and it must be combated.

But then he turned to what he said is a second, growing form of anti-Semitism that is “harder and more complex” to explain.

Gutman Nov. 30: What I do see as growing, as gaining much more attention in the newspapers and among politicians and communities, is a different phenomena … It 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.

What triggered objections from pro-Israel groups was Gutman’s statement that solving this problem “remains in the hands of government leaders in Israel” as well as in Palestinian territories and Arab countries in the Middle East.

Gutman: It is the area where every new settlement announced in Israel, every rocket shot over a border or suicide bomber on a bus, and every retaliatory military strike exacerbates the problem and provides a setback here in Europe for those fighting hatred and bigotry here in Europe.

This refers to actions both by Israelis (new settlements and retaliatory military strikes) as well as Palestinians (rockets shot over borders and suicide bombers). And his comments met with quick rebuke from several Jewish organizations.

American Jewish Committee Executive Director David Harris wrote to Gutman, saying that his speech “confuses cause and effect.” Muslim anti-Semitism “predates not just Israel’s presence in the West Bank and Gaza, but also the creation of the Jewish state itself,” Harris wrote.

“Your comments also seem to ignore a basic moral principle, namely, to never rationalize, let alone justify, bigotry or violence against innocents,” Harris wrote.

Anti-Defamation League National Director Abraham Foxman also wrote to Gutman, stating: “This assessment of Muslim anti-Semitism, and your attempt to distinguish it from traditional or classical anti-Semitism, is not only wrongheaded but could undermine the important effort to combat the resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe. When one tries to attribute this anti-Semitism to outside forces – in this case the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict – one not only misunderstands the role of anti-Semitism in that conflict, but provides an unacceptable rationale for inaction.”

In response to the criticism, Gutman released this statement: “I strongly condemn anti-Semitism in all its forms. I deeply regret if my comments were taken the wrong way. My own personal history and that of my family is testimony to the salience of this issue and my continued commitment to combating anti-Semitism.”

The Obama administration issued a statement saying it “condemns anti-Semitism in all its forms.” Asked about the flap, a State Department spokesman noted that Gutman released a statement “expressing regret if his remarks were taken out of context,” and said the Obama administration has “full confidence” in Gutman.

— Robert Farley