Administration officials expressed support Monday for the U.S. ambassador to Belgium after he said that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was one reason for anti-Semitism that stretches back thousands of years.
“Ambassador [Howard] Gutman has expressed his regret, noting that he strongly condemns anti-Semitism in all its forms… This administration has consistently stood up against efforts to delegitimize Israel and we will continue to do so,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney, without condemning Gutman, who is Jewish and whose father survived the Holocaust.
“We have full confidence in him,” said State Department spokesman Mark Toner on Monday.
Gutman’s comments may exacerbate President Barack Obama’s loss of support among Jewish Americans. That loss of support could cut his vote in the critical states of Florida and Pennsylvania, and hinder fundraising.
“The comments by Ambassador Gutman were disgusting and outrageous,” said Ken Kurson, a New Jersey-based, GOP-aligned media and political strategist. “Jews are the victims of anti-Semitism, not the cause of it,” he said.
Since the summer, prominent Jewish allies of the administration have lobbied Jewish groups, saying the president’s pressure on Israel to strike a deal with radical Islamists is proof that he is a strong ally for Israel.
The administration did leave itself some room to fire Gutman.
The ambassador “made very clear in a subsequent statement that they were his thoughts or his remarks,” said Toner.
In his Nov. 30 speech to an audience in Belgium, Gutman said anti-Semitism exists in two forms.
“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 not only Jews, but Muslims, gays, Gypsies and likely any who can be described as minorities or different,” he said.
More importantly, he said, there’s a second form of anti-Semitism that is growing among European and Muslim communities in Europe and elsewhere. It is “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,” he said.
The cure, he said, lies in negotiations between the Israeli government and Arab leaders. But, he said, “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.”
Commentators ridiculed Gutman’s claim that Muslim anti-Semitism is caused in part by Israel.
“You have [Muslim] people writing [anti-Semitic tracts] in the 8th, 9th and 10 centuries,” said Barry Rubin, an expert on Islam. “I think it shows that anti-Semitism precedes Israel.”
The first generation of Muslims went to war with Jews. In 629, for example, the Muslim prophet Muhammad led an surprise attack on the Jewish town of Khaybar, which was located in current-day Saudi Arabia. The town was destroyed, and many of its inhabitants were killed, according to Muslim texts.
The attack is still celebrated by militant Muslims. For example, in 2010 a group of militant Muslims launched a flotilla to break Israel’s blockade of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. Prior to Israel halting the flotilla, a group of Muslim militants sang a song celebrating the Khaybar massacre. “Khaybar, Khaybar, O Jews, the army of Muhammad will return,” they sang in Arabic.