Former U.S. Special Envoy: Civic Support Key to Ensuring Human Rights 

By Jim Smilie 

Standing up for human rights isn’t always the popular choice, but it is always the right thing to do. That was the primary message shared by Ira Forman, a former special envoy with the U.S. Department of State, during a presentation Tuesday to the Rotary Club of Alexandria. 

“You don’t win friends in foreign service when you go in and tell them you don’t like the way they are treating the Jews, or how they are treating Muslims or how they are treating Christians,” Forman said. “You’ll get Prime Ministers to call and say very nasty things.” Despite the potential for backlash, Forman said it is critical to continue to push for human rights. “We can’t repeat the history of the 1940s,” he said. 

Forman learned first-hand how nations react during his time serving as the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism for the U.S. Department of State from May of 2013 to January of 2017. During that time, Forman traveled to more than 30 countries and five continents to advocate on behalf of Jewish communities. He was also responsible for proposing and coordinating government strategies to counter anti-Semitism in more than 50 countries. 

He currently serves as the Visiting Professor of Contemporary Antisemitism at Georgetown University and Senior Fellow at Georgetown’s Center for Jewish Civilization. 

“I’m not a professional diplomat,” he said. “I was told when I was a student that there is inherent tension in U.S. foreign policy.” On the one hand, some people think of foreign policy primarily in terms of working with allies, managing trade and other administrative and governmental management processes. On the other hand, some people think of foreign policy as being focused on advocating for human rights and advocate for doing what is right. “The reality is, it has to be both,” Forman said. 

One of the first situations Forman encountered during his time as a special envoy with the U.S. Department of State came in 2014. In response to fighting in the Middle East, there were numerous protests in Europe against Israel. It was bad enough that there was talk that the majority of Jews in France were planning to leave the country. 

Forman met with a local leader of the Jewish community in France who confirmed that many were saying they would leave, but in reality he expected very few would actually move. He estimated that only 10 percent would leave because it is simply too difficult for people to move from their homes even when they are subject to persecution. 

Children were among the most affected by antisemitic persecution. Forman said he learned that roughly one third of the Jewish children in France attended public schools. Another third attended Jewish schools while the final third attended Catholic schools. “They told me that the students in the public schools were subjected to harassment. The ones in the Jewish Schools were targets of terrorists,” he said. For many Jewish children, the safest option was to attend a Catholic school. 

“In reality, this was not about the Jewish community. It was about the values of French society,” Forman said. “If a democracy can’t take care of its minority communities it’s not going to last as a democracy.” 

Forman said the United States and other nations can use tools like economic sanctions to persuade countries to support human rights, but it is hard to get sanctions approved and to gain constant pressure. 

A more effective approach is to “name and shame” countries or individuals when they get out of line. Forman cited an example from Hungary where there was a plan to erect a statue to honor someone who had worked to deport Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust.  

Human rights activists from nations around the globe came together for a meeting in Budapest to protest the planned statue. “What we said was you can do this. We can’t stop you. But you will pay the price,” Forman said. Based on the public outcry and international publicity, the Prime Minister dropped the plan for the statue. “Ostracizing bad actors may be the most powerful tool,” Forman said. 

When it comes to ending antisemitism or the persecution of any group, Forman said governments can’t do it alone. “We need the help of the civic society. We need the help of churches. We need clubs like Rotary to say ‘enough is enough’,” he said. 

“It’s a soft power when we stand up for what is right,” he continued. “We don’t always need more troops to enforce human rights. We need more diplomats to keep from needing more troops.”