US Ambassador Under Fire for Comments on Anti-Semitism*

The US Ambassador to Belgium, Howard Gutman, finds himself under fire this morning for comments he made about the roots of some Muslim anti-Semitism, comments from which the White House distanced itself.

Yedioth Ahronoth, an Israeli newspaper, reported Friday that Gutman told a Jewish conference on anti-Semitism organized by the European Jewish Union that — as the newspaper described it — “a distinction should be made between traditional anti-Semitism, which should be condemned and Muslim hatred for Jews, which stems from the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.”

According to the prepared remarks of his speech, Gutman distinguished between “anti-Semitism, of hatred and violence against Jews, from a small sector of the population who hate others who may be different or perceived to be different, largely for the sake of hating” from what he perceived to be a different phenomenon tied to Israeli policies.

“What I do see as growing, as gaining much more attention in the newspapers and among politicians and communities, is a different phenomena,” Gutman said. “It is the phenomena that led Jacques Brotchi to quit his position on the university committee a couple of months ago and that led to the massive attention last week when the Jewish female student was beaten up. It is the problem within Europe of tension, hatred and sometimes even violence between some members of Muslim communities or Arab immigrant groups and Jews. It is a tension and perhaps hatred 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.”

In July, prominent Belgian neurosurgeon and politician Dr. Jacques Brotchi resigned from the board of the Board of the University of Brussels Foundation “because I deeply deplored the absence of a strong and appropriate reaction from the university authorities to a succession of anti-Semitic incidents.” The “Jewish female student” to whom Gutman refers is a 13-year-old girl beaten up by five classmates of Moroccan origin who reportedly told her, “Shut up, you dirty Jew, and return to your country.”

While underlining that “no Jewish student – and no Muslim student or student of any heritage or religion – should ever feel intimidated on a University campus for their heritage or religion leading to academic leaders quitting in protest,” Gutman said that this phenomenon “is in my opinion different in many respects than the classic bigotry…It is more complex and requiring much more thought and analysis. This second form of what is labeled ‘growing anti-Semitism’ produces strange phenomena and results.”

Gutman said that “throughout the Muslim communities that I visit, and indeed throughout Europe, there is significant anger and resentment and, yes, perhaps sometimes hatred and indeed sometimes and all too growing intimidation and violence directed at Jews generally as a result of the continuing tensions between Israel and the Palestinian territories and other Arab neighbors in the Middle East…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.”

You can read the full prepared remarks HERE.

The Israeli newspaper described others at the event as being “visibly stunned by Gutman’s words, and the next speaker offered a scathing rebuttal to the envoy’s remarks.”

Asked to respond to the report, White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said, “We condemn anti-semitism in all its forms and believe there is never any justification for prejudice against the Jewish people or Israel.”

Gutman, a major fundraiser for President Obama’s 2008 campaign, issued a statement saying, “I strongly condemn anti-Semitism in all its forms. I deeply regret if my comments were taken the wrong way. My own personal history and that of my family is testimony to the salience of this issue and my continued commitment to combatting anti-Semitism.”

But opponents of the president, particularly those oppose to his handling of issues pertaining to Israel, pounced.

GOP presidential frontrunner Newt Gingrich, tweeted that: “Pres Obama should fire his ambassador to Brussels for being so wrong about anti-semitism:

On Sunday afternoon, another leading GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney issued a statement saying, “President Obama must fire his ambassador to Belgium for rationalizing and downplaying anti-Semitism and linking it to Israeli policy toward the Palestinians. The ambassador’s comments demonstrate the Obama administration’s failure to understand the worldwide campaign to delegitimize Israel and its appalling penchant for undermining our close ally.”

William Kristol, chairman of the Emergency Committee for Israel, took the opportunity to charge that this is part of a larger problem for the president.

“Pardon us for retaining our belief that Muslim anti-Semitism in the Middle East predates 1967, and even 1948 — and in any case is the fault of the anti-Semites, not of the Jews,” said Kristol. “Ambassador Gutman’s comments were not way out of line with Obama’s worldview. Nonetheless, we expect he will be recalled because the Obama administration won’t want to expend political capital defending him. He should be recalled, of course. But what the events of recent days emphasize is that the problem is not with one ambassador or with one cabinet secretary. The problem is President Obama.”

Republican Jewish Coalition executive director Matthew Brooks called the comments “outrageous.”

“The linkage in the ambassador’s remarks, blaming Israel for anti-Semitism, is a short step from the linkage that President Obama has expressed several times himself, that Israel is to blame for the unrest and instability in the Middle East,” Brooks said.

-Jake Tapper

*This post has been updated with the text from Gutman’s prepared remarks.