WH backs ambassador to Belgium despite criticism of anti-Semitism comments

Neil Munro | White House Correspondent

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.

In contrast to Gutman, the administration’s special envoy on anti-Semitism, Hannah Rosenthal, has publicly lobbied Muslims in Europe to moderate their anti-Semitism.

“At a soccer match in the Netherlands, soccer fans chanted, ‘HAMAS, HAMAS, all Jews be gassed’ … on Middle East satellite TV watched by tens of millions of Europeans, Sheikh Qaradawi — founder and president of the Dublin-based European Council for Fatwa and Research — called for a new Holocaust to finish the job,” Rosenthal testified in a Dec. 2. hearing held by the multinational Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

However, Rosenthal did not discuss the origins of Islamic anti-Semitism.

Gutman’s decision to blame Islam’s ancient anti-Semitism on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a match for recent statements from other top officials, including Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Panetta recently blamed the Israelis for the failure of peace talks with Hamas, and Clinton compared Jewish fundamentalists in Israel to the Iranian theocrats who shot street protesters in 2010.

Obama has also pressured Israel to make a deal with Islamist groups such as Hamas, which believes Israel has no right to exist.

He also repeatedly downplayed Muslim anti-Semitism, and has attributed Muslims’ poverty to Israel. “Just as [Israel] devastates Palestinian families, the continuing humanitarian crisis in Gaza does not serve Israel’s security; neither does the continuing lack of opportunity in the West Bank,” Obama declared in a June 2009 speech in Cairo.

“Progress in the daily lives of the Palestinian people must be part of a road to peace, and Israel must take concrete steps to enable such progress,” Obama said in 2009. Since then, anti-Israel and anti-Semitic Islamic political parties have claimed power in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya.

The administration’s anti-Israel policy isn’t driven by anti-Semitism, said Rubin. “It is worse than that,” he said. The White House has decided that “Muslims are more important than the Jews, therefore ‘we have to keep them happy, and it doesn’t really matter what the Jews think,'” he said.

But that conciliatory policy won’t change the attitudes of Hamas, the Iranian theocracy or the increasingly powerful Muslim Brotherhood groups in Egypt and other Muslim countries, he said.

After his speech, Gutman offered an apology, in which he blamed the listeners for misunderstanding his words, and cited his Jewish father’s survival in Nazi-occupied Poland for his opposition to anti-Semitism, but did not withdraw his decision to include Israel as one reasons for Muslim anti-Semitism.

“I deeply regret if my comments were taken the wrong way [and] 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,” he said.

“We condemn anti-Semitism in all its forms,” Carney said Monday. “Our record on this speaks for itself,” he added.

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