The Janus Face of the Department of State

La Verne, California

“The World is not bound by borders ultimately, it is bound by a moral order. If we do not lead by moral force, we are by acquiescence the followers of those who fail to act and subjects of those who impose their will.” from A Time to Know)

Two recent reports issued by the U.S. Department of State, “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices” and the “Report on Global Anti-Semitism,” deserve attention in light of the Department’s professed declaration that “a central goal of U.S. foreign policy has been the promotion of respect for human rights, as embodied in the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” promulgated by the United Nations and asserted by the Department as it “seeks to (a.) Hold governments accountable to their obligations under universal human rights norms and international human rights instruments; (b.) Promote greater respect for human rights, including freedom from torture, freedom of expression, press freedom, women’s rights, children’s rights, and the protection of minorities; and ©.) Promote the rule of law, seek accountability, and change cultures of impunity.” ( The “Universal Declaration of Human Rights applies equally to all humans wherever they live or, as expressed by Martin Luther King Jr. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Should we apply this moral stance to the Department’s two reports, we Americans face a conundrum: in the words of Shamai Leibowitz, an Israeli human rights attorney from Tel Aviv and a reserve sergeant in the Israeli tank corps, “For years, American taxpayers money has funded the occupation ­ the torture chambers, the military apparatus, the bulldozers used in house demolitions, the building of settlements and now the construction of the West Bank wall, declared illegal by the International Court of Justice (ICJ). Americans should be held accountable for where their money is going” (The Nation: 3/16/2005). Our Department of State, despite its more than fifty years of monetary support to Israel, more than that given to any other nation on the planet, does not hold the state of Israel “accountable to their obligations under universal human rights norms and international human rights instruments,” nor does it “promote respect for human rights” in Israel, or “freedom from torture,” nor does it “promote the rule of law” regarding Israel’s wall, and these are only the allegations as noted in Leibowitz’ article. A more thorough review of these reports reveals the Janus face of the Department of State.

The “Report on Global Anti-Semitism,” released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor on January 5, 2005 notes “The increasing frequency and severity of anti-Semitic incidents since the start of the 21st century, particularly in Europe, has compelled the international community to focus on anti-Semitism with renewed vigor.” No analysis is offered to explain why these incidents erupted since 2000. No mention of the Intifada and Israel’s occupation of Palestine, no mention of the million bullets fired by the IDF in the opening days of the Intifada, a bullet for every Palestinian child according to Noam Chomsky (“Anti-Semitism, Zionism, and the Palestinians” 3/22/05), no mention of the military crackdown in the West Bank or Gaza, the destruction of homes, the torture chambers, the wanton killings of civilians, the checkpoints and humiliation of the indigenous population, or the illegal continued construction of settlements to mention a few items identified interestingly enough in the “Country Report,” though buried in an appendix. No mention of the Bush administration’s rise to power in that year and its acquiescence to Sharon’s dictates concerning his invasions into Jenin or Rafah, or his adding to the settlements or to the continued construction of the Wall, all items at deviance with the “Road Map” designed by the U.S. and its three accomplices. No mention of how the U.S. protects Israel’s outrages in the UN Security Council, the vetoes it uses to deflect world opinion as it wishes to assert that Israel return to the demands of Resolution 242 and to remove the illegal wall. In short, while the report reflects a renewed anger and frustration against the Israeli state beginning in 2000, it does not address what may have caused this rise in what it terms anti-Semitism; it merely lists the incidents and denies the possibility that people across the globe, including member states of the EU, which it condemns outright, could have as much reason to express resentment and outrage at the government of Israel as they do about the government of George W. Bush.

What is anti-Semitism as defined by the Department of State? “For the purposes of this report, anti-Semitism is considered to be hatred toward Jews ­ individually and as a group ­ that can be attributed to the Jewish religion and/or ethnicity. An important issue is the distinction between legitimate criticism of policies and practices of the State of Israel, and commentary that assumes an anti-Semitic character. The demonization of Israel, or vilification of Israeli leaders, sometimes through comparison with Nazi leaders, and through the use of Nazi symbols to caricature them, indicates an anti-Semitic bias rather than a valid criticism of policy concerning a controversial issue.” The Department’s definition of anti-Semitism resides in the first sentence, “hatred toward Jews attributed to the Jewish religion and/or ethnicity.” The remaining two sentences attempt to draw a distinction between “legitimate criticism of policies and practices of the State of Israel and “veiled” hatred that demonizes Israeli leaders especially as they are compared in their behavior to leaders in Nazi Germany.

How legitimate is the distinction? If anti-Semitism is hatred expressed against the Jew as a person or against his/her religion or ethnicity, how does criticism of Israeli political and foreign policy, determined by its elected or appointed leaders, fit that definition? When I criticize George W. Bush and various members of his administration for their policies, domestic or foreign, I do not criticize individual Americans for being American nor do I criticize their religions or their ethnicity. If I place Bush’s National Strategic Security Report objectives, its expressed empirical goals, in context with those of former leaders with visions of empire, including Hitler, I do not criticize an American for being American or convey a veiled hatred for Americans because they voted Bush into office. I criticize, rather, policies that are anathema to democratic principles and America’s expressed values and morals as a nation. The distinction is at root subterfuge; it forces legitimate criticism of a state’s political and human rights actions into a category that stops the criticism in its tracks, thus, in effect, legitimizing the undemocratic, illegal, and abusive state actions should they exist.

Having made that point, let me extend the analysis even further to explore the rationale behind the use of the term “anti-Semitism.” Joseph Massad, Professor of modern Arab politics and intellectual history at Columbia University, published an article on this very term in Al-Ahram Weekly On-Line, (2004/720/op63.htm) wherein he presented the evolution of the term and its various misunderstandings in different countries of the world. He marks the philological basis of the term, the “positing of modern European Jews as direct descendants of the ancient Hebrews,” the identifying of Jews as Semites because their ancestors spoke Hebrew a Semitic language (a mistaken fact since they spoke Aramaic, the language of the Talmud), the subsequent transformation of the Jews into a racial category based on this understanding (as noted in the State Department’s definition), and the resulting hatred of European anti-Semitism as directed against European Jews. As Massad notes, “The claims made by many that any manifestations of hatred against Jews in any geographic location on Earth and in any historical period is ‘anti-Semitism’ smacks of a gross misunderstanding of the European history of anti-Semitism.” Yet this is precisely what the State Department definition does; it applies one understanding of anti-Semitism to all peoples everywhere judging their actions as derived from the same context.

Noam Chomsky questions even the need for such a document in the United States directed at anti-Semitism, “You find occasional instances of anti-Semitism, but they are marginal. There’s plenty of racism, but it’s directed against Blacks, Latinos, and Arabs that are targets of enormous racism. Those problems are real, but anti-Semitism is no longer a problem, fortunately. It’s raised (by privileged people) because they want to make sure there’s no critical look at the policies the US supports in the Middle East”

Given that context, consider the very fact that the State Department has singled out only maligned and discriminated Jews for its report when the world is filled with people who have endured hatred and discrimination worldwide: in Rwanda, Darfur, Bosnia, Iraq, India, East Timor, the United States, and Palestine to name a few, and all since 2000. Should the State Department publish a report identifying hatred and discrimination against the Jews? Yes. Should it also publish a report that identifies such abuse against all others who suffer such animosity, such disrespect, such indignity, such humiliation, such dehumanization, such suffering and death? Yes. Indeed, this is the point. Our State Department declares that it has responsibility to uphold the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” thus stamping its actions as pluralistic, objective, and sincere. And while the Department issues the “Country Reports on Human Rights,” it does not extract from those reports the human rights abuses as they are directed against individuals or groups because of hatred of that group whether perpetrated by leaders of the state or hate groups within the state.

Unless our State Department demonstrates its impartiality across the world, it presents to the people of the world a Janus face that claims equality of treatment even as it looks away from those in torment. Dr. Massad closes his piece with these observations: “Today we live in a world where anti-Arab and anti-Muslim hatred, derived from anti-Semitism, is everywhere in evidence. It is not Jews who are being murdered by the thousands by Arab anti-Semitism, but rather Arabs and Muslims who are being murdered by the tens of thousands by Euro-American Christian anti-Semitism and by Israeli Jewish anti-SemitismAnti-Semitism is alive and well today worldwide and its major victims are Arabs and Muslims and no longer Jews. The fight should indeed be against all anti-Semitism no matter who the object of its oppression is, Arab or Jew.”

How just have been the efforts of our Department of State as reflected in these documents? Here’s the wording that characterizes Israel’s practices regarding human rights as described in the “Country Report”: “The Government generally respected the human rights of its citizens; however, there were some problems in some areas. Some members of the security forces abused Palestinian detainees. The Government detained on security grounds but without charge thousands of persons in Israel. The Government did little to reduce institutional, legal, and societal discrimination against the country’s Arab citizens. The Government did not recognize marriages performed by non-Orthodox rabbis, compelling many citizens to travel abroad to marry. The Government interfered with individual privacy in some instances. Discrimination and societal violence against women persisted. Trafficking in and abuse of women and foreign workers continued to be problems.” This constitutes the summary paragraph on human rights abuse in Israel.

The body of the report identifies the areas of concern that constitute “Respect for Human Rights.” For example, section 1 “Respect for the integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from (a). Arbitrary or Unlawful Deprivation of Life.” “There were no reports,” according to the report on Israel, “of politically motivated killings by the Government or its agents during the year.” And, indeed, there are no listings of politically motivated killings in section (a) of the report. However, if one turns to the “Appendix” at the back of the report where Human Rights abuses are reported in the occupied territories, areas ostensibly under Palestinian Authority control (though since 2000, the report indicates, Israeli forces have resumed authority in the greater part of the occupied areas), we find on page 27, under section (g) “Excessive Force” the extrajudicial assassinations of Sheikh Ahmad Yassin and Abd al-Azziz al-Rantisi, high ranking political figures of the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, and this does not include the 33 innocent bystanders killed as these two political figures were eliminated by missiles and explosives. An oversight? Deception? No other listing in (g) refers to political figures of this sort. There’s reference to the 800 Palestinians killed during the course of Israeli military operations during the year including 452 innocent Palestinians and another 4,000 wounded. There’s notation that Israeli forces used tank shells, heavy machine gun rounds, and rockets from aircraft at targets in residential and business neighborhoods. There’s mention of the Israeli invasion of Rafah and the Human Rights Watch condemnation of Israel’s destruction of 50% of Rafah’s roads, water, sewage, and electrical systems. There’s a litany of dates and deaths, mostly of children: on May 18, two 16 year old kids, on July 6, a university professor, on September 7, a girl sitting in school shot in the head, on September 19, an 11 year old shot and killed while standing in a doorway, on September 28, Human Rights groups listed as many as 130 Palestinians killed and 430 wounded including 26 under the age of 18, on October 5, a 13 year old girl shot and, then, repeatedly shot at close range as she lay in the dust, and on and on through the rest of October, November and into the following year.

Here, in an appendix devoted to the only two remaining areas of Palestine left to the indigenous population, buried at the back of the report, not included in the section devoted to the Israeli Government, we find horrendous acts of Human Rights abuse committed by the Government of Israel, some deceptively misplaced, scattered among Palestinian abuses executed by Hamas or the PA. And I would note that the above paragraph is only a sampling of this deception. In each section of item 1, “Respect for Human Rights,” ­ a, Arbitrary or Unlawful Deprivation of Life; b, Disappearance; c, Torture and Other Cruel Punishment; d, Arbitrary Arrest or Detention; e, Denial of Fair Public Trial; f, Arbitrary Interference with Privacy; g Excessive Force ­ the Israeli Government’s acceptance of Human Rights abuses is itemized, by the U.S. Department of State, page after page: Israeli settlers murder of Palestinians; Physicians for Human Rights in Israel reporting on torture, “techniques prohibited by law,” used against Palestinian detainees; 8,300 Palestinians held as security prisoners; the admission that “Israeli military courts rarely acquitted Palestinians of security offenses”; recognition that virtually no resolution to any allegation of wrongdoing by an Israeli, whether military or settler, has occurred during the year of the report; admission that the Israeli Government has destroyed over 6,900 acres of Palestinian land to construct the illegal wall; and 15,000 Palestinians have been made homeless by demolition. Each and every one of these abuses cry out for action by the Department of State, based on its own declaration, that it will “hold accountable governments to their obligations under universal human rights and international human rights instruments.”

But there is no action by those who act in our name. I would revert back to Shamai Leibowitz’ admonition, “Americans should be held accountable for where their money is going.” But he does not stop there; he offers us a legitimate means of curtailing these abuses to human rights endorsed by our Government: “According to the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 (22 USC &2304), ‘No security assistance may be provided to any country the government of which engages in a consistent pattern of gross violations of internationally recognized human rights.” The State Department can act, it can stop all sale of arms and military equipment to Israel. It can act in our name; it can turn its shameful face from the mirror of deception and confront the American people openly, forthrightly, and honestly.

The moral foundation that supports individual action does not reside in the laws of a state, such laws can be discriminatory and hence unjust; an individual’s conscience determines obedience to the state dependent on a conscious understanding that all are equal before the law and receive due recognition, respect and dignity as individuals. Neither states, groups or individuals have a right to impose their beliefs on others to achieve their respective ends if those ends incarcerate others, express open hatred of others, wantonly destroy the property of others, physically abuse others even unto death, enslave others, exploit others, or indoctrinate others. Abduction of children into youth armies, indoctrination of youth to be suicide bombers, intentional indoctrination of civilians, exploitation of girls into prostitution, sanctioning torture all belong in this category. States that employ weapons of wanton destruction resulting in the deaths of innocent civilians belong in this category.

Morality abides no borders drawn by man; it recognizes the singleness of the soul that gives rights to every human anywhere. The oppressor never willingly withdraws; freedom to live with dignity and respect must be demanded by those opposed to oppression. Our State Department, speaking and acting in our name, must oppose oppression, not condone it, not stand silently in its presence, and not become the oppressor. Our responsibility is to ensure that it acts in accordance with true morality, a morality that applies justice equally to all. Recognition of that reality and acceptance of it requires that we deplore the inhumane acts of savagery used by the fanatical elements in Palestine as well as the fanatical elements in Israel. Our support for justice must engage the Muslim faithful to constructively confront the fringe groups to cease and desist acts contrary to Islamic teaching, and to bring together the powerful moderating voices of the Christian and Jewish faiths to stand against the Zionist zealots in both religions to halt the savagery they inflict on God’s children.

“If we do not lead by moral force, we are by acquiescence the followers of those who fail to act and subjects of those who impose their will.”

William Cook is a professor of English at the University of La Verne in southern California. His new book, Psalms for the 21st Century, was published by Mellen Press. He can be reached at: cookb@ULV.EDU











William A. Cook is the  author of Decade of Deceit and Age of Fools.