In recent weeks, the State Department watered down a report on North Korean repression, dropped China from its annual list of the world’s worst human rights violators, and conspicuously omitted the Palestinian Authority from its report on anti-Semitism around the world. Anybody notice a pattern here?
Last month, at the request of Assistant Secretary of State Glyn Davies, a U.S. report on conditions in North Korea omitted the adjective “repressive” and dropped a line noting that public executions are “on the rise.” Davies feared that telling the truth might adversely affect the ongoing U.S.-led talks with North Korea. He wrote: “[I] hope given the Secretary’s priority on the six-party talks, we can sacrifice a few adjectives for the cause.”
Two weeks later, the State Department’s annual human-rights report omitted China from its list of the world’s worst rights violators, a designation Beijing had received in previous years. Human rights groups were understandably up in arms. Human Rights Watch said it has found “a sharp uptick in human rights violations directed related to preparations for the Olympics,” while Reporters Without Borders warned that U.S. officials “are depriving themselves of yet another effective way to pressure China, without having achieved any goodwill gesture from Beijing.” What, then, was the State Department’s motive in rewarding the Chinese regime? Hard to say, because at a March 11 press conference, Assistant Secretary of State Jonathan Farrar offered no clear explanation and dodged questions about whether Foggy Bottom is helping China improve its image in advance of this summer’s Beijing Olympics.
Now it is the Palestinian Authority’s turn to benefit from the State Department’s excessive generosity. On March 13, State released an 84-page report on “Contemporary Global Anti-Semitism.” While describing anti-Semitic incidents in various countries around the world, the report was oddly reticent when it came to the territories controlled by the Palestinian Authority.
The report did include several references to Hamas, which rules Gaza. It noted that Hamas treats the anti-Semitic Protocols of the Elders of Zion as fact (p. 21); denies the Holocaust (pp. 23 and 24); and broadcasts hateful TV shows aimed at children (p. 56) “in the West Bank and Gaza.” From the latter reference, a reader might mistakenly assume that Hamas rules both areas. In fact, Hamas rules only Gaza while the Palestinian Authority, under Mahmoud Abbas, controls the West Bank region. Yet Abbas and the PA, whom the U.S. favors and finances, managed to escape blame for the anti-Semitism that it promotes with no less energy.
The omission is especially surprising because just a few days ago, the American Jewish Committee released a study showing the PA’s schoolbooks characterize Jews in “hateful” and “derogatory” language, cite the Protocols of Elders of Zion as a legitimate source of historical information, and omit any mention of the Holocaust. (State’s report did contain one vague mention of the fact that in the 1990s, Holocaust denial “became commonplace in popular media in the Middle East, particularly in the Palestinian Authority” — without any acknowledgment that most of that so-called “popular media” is government-controlled).
The State Department’s report defined anti-Semitism as including “allegations about Jews such as . . . Jews controlling the media” and “drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to the Nazis” (pp. 6-7). Yet among the numerous anti-Semitic cartoons that the report reprints, one did not find, for example, the August 13, 2007 cartoon in the official PA newspaper, Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, of a hook-nosed Jew with prominent side-curls controlling the Arab media, or the March 4 cartoon, titled “Gaza’s Holocaust,” featuring an Israeli attack helicopter with its propeller in the shape of a swastika. (Expanding on that theme, a new Holocaust Exhibit has just opened in Gaza, featuring depictions of Israel throwing Arab babies into crematoria.
Those who are familiar with the State Department’s policies during the actual Holocaust may be tempted to recall its habit of employing linguistic sleight-of-hand for the sake of political objectives.
In December 1942, the British government, in response to domestic pressure, suggested to Washington that the Allies issue a joint statement verifying and condemning Nazi Germany’s mass murder of Jews. The State Department at first resisted the proposal, fearing that “the various Governments of the United Nations [the Allies] would expose themselves to increased pressure from all sides to do something more specific in order to aid these people.” Telling the truth or saving innocent lives was less important than avoiding pressure to help refugees.
Ultimately the Roosevelt administration decided to go along with the proposed statement, but only after watering down the language. For example, the proposed phrase “reports from Europe which leave no doubt” (that mass murder was underway) was whittled down to just “numerous reports from Europe.”
In a similar vein, the statement issued after the Allies’ tripartite summit in Moscow in October 1943, drafted by the State Department, threatened postwar punishment for Nazi war crimes against conquered populations, mentioning “French, Dutch, Belgian or Norwegian hostages . . . Cretan peasants . . . the people of Poland” — but not Jews. The State Department feared that giving too much attention to the suffering of the Jews would increase pressure on the U.S. to take them in.
Today some State Department officials apparently fear that focusing too much negative attention on North Korea, China, or the Palestinian Authority might undermine U.S. relations with those regimes. But the experience of the 1940s demonstrates that downplaying abuses by totalitarian regimes does little to persuade those regimes to improve their behavior. Today, despite the State Department’s kid-gloves approach, Tibetan monks are being beaten by the Chinese police and Palestinian Arab schoolchildren are still being taught with anti-Semitic textbooks. Will the State Department now finally learn from the mistakes it made 65 years ago?
Rafael Medoff is director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies and author of the forthcoming Blowing the Whistle on Genocide: Josiah E. DuBois, Jr. and the Struggle for an American Response to the Holocaust.