WASHINGTON — The ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has offered to give appointment suggestions to the Trump administration to fill two positions vacant since President Obama left office: the White House liaison to the Jewish community and State Department Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat anti-Semitism.
The Jewish liaison dates back to the Carter administration; Mark Siegel resigned his post in frustration with that White House’s position toward Israel. The post was strengthened under President Reagan, when Marshall Breger, now a law professor at the Catholic University of America, was appointed to the role. President Clinton had two liaisons to the Jewish community during his terms, while President George W. Bush and President Obama also rotated through several liaisons.
The last liaison was Chanan Weissman, a modern Orthodox former State Department staffer.
The Office to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism and the special envoy were mandated by Congress in 2004. The omnibus spending bill for fiscal year 2017 specifically states, “The Secretary of State is directed to fill the position of Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism authorized by Public Law 108-332 in a timely manner.”
In April, a State Department spokesman said the envoy slot would be filled, but now a different note is being sounded.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was asked at a June 15 House Appropriations subcommittee hearing when the post would be filled. “One of the things that we are considering, and we understand why they were created and the good intentions behind why they were created, but one of the things we want to understand is, by doing that, did we actually weaken our attention to those issues because the expertise for a lot of these areas lies within the bureaus and now we’ve stripped it out of the bureau?” he replied.
“And so right now, we’re kind of holding on these things until we can understand and, again, get back to redesign. Those that are mandated by statute, we will be back to talk with you about those as to whether we think it’s good to have it structured that way or whether we really think we can be more effective on those issues in a different way,” Tillerson added. “So this will be a conversation for us to have and we fully intend to grapple with the issue in discussion with the members of Congress.”
“Is it your position that a special envoy to combat antisemitism is not necessary?” asked Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.), to which Tillerson replied, “We’ve made no determination on that.”
Multiple news agencies last week reported that the remaining two employees in the office were reassigned on July 1.
Asked about the vacant office last week, White House deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders blamed Senate Democrats for obstructing presidential nominees, even though there has never been a Trump nominee for anti-Semitism envoy.
Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), whose 2004 amendment created the office and the envoy position, said at a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing last week that “rightly so, the American Jewish groups are very, very upset by that omission” of an envoy nominee.
“Fill it. Put the people in there. Don’t double-hat it, I would ask respectfully. There is so much of a rise in anti-Semitism, and it’s needed now, and that person, whoever he or she may be, can walk point on trying to stop this — this terrible hate that is on the rise around the world,” Smith said.
In a letter today to President Trump, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), the top Dem on the Foreign Relations Committee, reminded him of the “increase in incidents of anti-Semitism in the United States and in some other countries, as well as a rise in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement,” and stressed his concern that the administration “has failed to designate points of contact for Jewish international and domestic communities.”
“Beyond being a liaison to American and global Jewish communities on issues ranging from the BDS movement and addressing anti-Semitic hate crimes, these positions have been critical for working with officials at all levels of government, including multilateral organizations, to facilitate the protection of, address stereotypes and prejudice towards, and provide educational and community and coalition building tools for the wider public on and with Jewish communities, including celebrating Jewish-American heritage,” Cardin wrote, adding he was concerned about Tillerson’s statements at the House hearing last month.
“Given continuing incidents of anti-Semitism, including over a hundred threats to Jewish institutions in this country since the beginning of the year, and significant incidents abroad, I urge you to comply with the FY17 Omnibus and Public Law 108-332 and select a qualified individual to serve as the SEAS, and also appoint a qualified White House Liaison,” the senator added. “Should it prove helpful, I am happy to assist you in identifying qualified persons.”