Critics See ‘Blame Israel’ Mindset in U.S. Envoy’s Remarks on Anti-Semitism

December 5, 2011 - 11:03 AM
Panetta

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta takes part in a news conference at the Pentagon, Thursday, Nov. 10, 2011. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

(Update: State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Monday that U.S. ambassador Howard Gutman “was expressing his views on an issue,” but when pressed about whether the envoy had been speaking as a private citizen,added, “anytime an ambassador speaks, he is representing the United States.” Asked about calls to fire Gutman, Toner replied, “We have full confidence in him.” He also said, “this administration has consistently stood up against anti-Semitism and efforts to delegitimize Israel, and will continue to do so.”)

(CNSNews.com) – The White House is distancing itself from remarks by an American ambassador and 2008 Obama campaign fundraiser suggesting that hatred of Jews was linked to Israeli actions, but some critics said the comments align with a “blame Israel” mentality in the administration.

Republican presidential candidates Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney said Sunday President Obama should fire U.S. Ambassador to Belgium Howard Gutman, and several U.S. Jewish organizations also are calling for him to be rebuked or recalled.

Adding to Obama’s troubles were comments Friday night by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who told a Brookings Institution event Israelis should “get to the damn table” and negotiate with the Palestinians. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has been urging Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas to return to peace talks for months.

The two incidents have turned the spotlight again onto Obama’s stance towards Israel as the presidential campaign moves forward -- and as Jewish partisan groups tussle over which party offers more reliable support for the Mideast ally.

“I try not to pat myself too much on the back, but this administration has done more in terms of the security of the state of Israel than any previous administration,” Obama told supporters at a New York fundraiser last week.

In response to the furor over the ambassador, the White House in a statement sent to Jewish organizations and published by Washington Jewish Week said, “We condemn anti-Semitism in all its forms, and that there is never any justification for prejudice against the Jewish people or Israel.”

Howard Gutman

U.S. Ambassador to Belgium Howard Gutman. (Photo from U.S. State Department)

Addressing a European Jewish Union conference on anti-Semitism in Brussels last Wednesday, Gutman warned that “generalizations about anti-Semitism in Europe are dangerous indeed – always at risk of oversimplifying and of lumping together diverse phenomena.”

He argued that “classic bigotry” against Jews – which he said he did not believe was on the rise – should not be lumped together with growing incidents of hatred and violence between Jews and Arabs or Muslims resulting from “the continuing Israeli-Palestinian problem.”

Combating the latter problem requires movement on the Israeli-Palestinian peace front. Gutman contended that “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.”

“It is crucial for the Middle East – but it is crucial for the Jewish and Arab communities in Europe and for countries around the globe – that Mideast peace negotiations continue, that settlements abate, and that progress towards a lasting peace be made and then such a peace reached in the Middle East.”

“Were a lasting peace in the Middle East to be reached,” he said, “this second type of ethnic tension and bigotry here in Europe – which is clearly growing today – would clearly abate.” (Gutman’s full speech can be seen here.)

Gutman’s argument put him at odds with a prevalent view in the Jewish world that anti-Zionism is increasingly a convenient cover for anti-Semitism.

“We continue to see anti-Zionism and anti-Israel animus used as a thin disguise for anti-semitism,” Anti-Defamation League government and national affairs Stacy Burdett said in testimony on Capitol Hill on Friday. “When Israel has taken action to defend its citizens from attacks in Gaza or Lebanon, we have witnessed a surge in attacks upon Jews around the world.”

The State Department’s own definition of anti-Semitism says ways that it manifests itself with regard to Israel include demonizing, delegitimizing and applying double standards to Israel.

Wednesday’s event in Brussels ended with a resolution establishing a legal taskforce to combat anti-Semitism in Europe, “in light of the increasing and constant growth of anti-Semitism in the whole of Europe and the campaign to delegitimize Israel using traditional and new forms as well as legal means.”

‘The problem is President Obama’

Gutman, himself Jewish and the son of a Holocaust survivor, evidently expected his comments to be provocative. As his speech began he offered his audience “an apology in advance for my not saying what you would expect me to say,” and then moments later added, “I likely will not just say fully what you expected and or maybe hoped to hear.”

The negative response was immediate. Israel’s Yediot Ahronot newspaper said the very next speaker at the event, a German lawyer, “offered a scathing rebuttal to the envoy’s remarks.”

Reaction was fast in coming at home too.

“Pres Obama should fire his ambassador to Brussels for being so wrong about anti-Semitism,” Gingrich said on his Twitter account.

Romney also said Gutman should be fired, saying in a statement that his “comments demonstrate the Obama administration’s failure to understand the worldwide campaign to delegitimize Israel and its appalling penchant for undermining our close ally.”

Emergency Committee for Israel chairman William Kristol called for Gutman’s recall, and in a statement also criticized Panetta’s remarks about negotiations – “as if Israel was refusing to talk, instead of the reverse.”

“Ambassador Gutman’s comments were not way out of line with Obama’s worldview,” Kristol said. “Nonetheless, we expect he will be recalled because the Obama administration won’t want to expend political capital defending him. He should be recalled, of course. But what the events of recent days emphasize is that the problem is not with one ambassador or with one cabinet secretary. The problem is President Obama.”

Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) executive director Matthew Brooks said it was good that the administration had distanced itself from Gutman’s comments.

“The linkage in the ambassador’s remarks, blaming Israel for anti-Semitism, is a short step from the linkage that President Obama has expressed several times himself, that Israel is to blame for the unrest and instability in the Middle East,” he said. “Both forms of linkage are fundamentally wrong.”

The Simon Wiesenthal Center urged Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to “immediately and unequivocally disassociate herself from” Gutman’s comments.

In a brief statement Saturday, Gutman said, “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.”

Attempts to get response from the RJC’s Democratic counterpart, the National Jewish Democratic Council, were unsuccessful Sunday. The NJDC’s Web site had no mention of the Gutman controversy. Its latest news posting highlighted an opinion poll showing that 54 percent of Israelis hold favorable views of Obama, up 13 points from a year ago.

Gutman, a lawyer named as ambassador to Belgium in June 2009 and confirmed by the Senate the following month, was a major bundler for the Obama presidential campaign in 2008.

In his speech last week, he said, “During the presidential campaign of Barack Obama, I participated in a lot of activities including policy, speechwork, press, fundraising and more. One of my efforts was working with the Jewish vote.

“Though there was much support in the Jewish community during the campaign, I combated significant suspicion and concern among the Jewish community as to whether a black man named Barack Hussein Obama could really be a good friend for Israel and the Jewish community,” he said.