The Honorable Elan S. Carr was appointed in 2019 to serve as the United States Special Envoy for Monitoring and Combating Anti-Semitism. Of Iraqi Jewish heritage, Carr’s mother and stepfather are immigrants to the U.S. His grandfather was prosecuted during Iraqi show trials against Jewish community leaders in the late 1940s. Carr is a JAG Corps officer in the U.S. Army Reserve. He served in Operation Iraqi Freedom as leader of an anti-terrorism team and prosecuted terrorists who attacked American troops. He also assisted in efforts to establish an independent Iraqi judiciary. In an appropriate moment of irony during Carr’s Iraq War service, he led U.S. soldiers in lighting a Chanukah menorah in Saddam Hussein’s former presidential palace. This interview comes from a formal presentation held in March 2020 that has been edited for space and clarity.
Elan Carr: I grew up hearing stories, not only of Israel, but of what Israel means to the Jewish people and to my family personally. My mother was a young girl in Iraq, and one day, she remembers there was a knock at the door early in the morning; my grandfather still had shaving cream on his face. It was soldiers. They said, “Mr. Somekh, you’re coming with us.” They took him away, paraded him through the streets in leg irons, and threw him in prison. My mother visited her father, my grandfather, in prison – something no young girl should have to do. Finally, after two years, he said, “Flee. Don’t wait. Run.”
So, my family – my mother, my uncle who was a toddler at the time, and my grandmother – fled across the border to Iran, to a very different Iran from today. In Iran, the Shah was helping Jews escape, literally giving Jews asylum and rescuing them from persecution in Iraq. With Iran as a way station, my family made aliyah.
The fulfillment of the Zionist dream by leaving a diaspora that suffered enormous persecution, arrests, divestment of resources, and in some cases pogroms, and coming to the country that was the representation of Jewish sovereignty and Jewish self-determination was a remarkable, moving, deeply impactful experience. Even though I didn’t make that transition because I hadn’t been born yet, those stories of my family’s experience are emblazoned on my memory as though I myself were there.
March of the Living
For that reason, it was all the more moving to be part of President’s Trump’s first official U.S. delegation to March of the Living. There were seven of us, ambassadors to Israel and Poland and Germany and Spain, to name a few. It was an amazing delegation. We walked through gas chambers, saw the ruins of crematoria, and made that horrific march from Auschwitz to Birkenau. And we marveled at the inhumanity represented by that place.
Many people grow up learning about the Shoah. Sure, we’ve seen the pictures a million times. But to walk it, to be there, was dramatically different. Then, after we walked arm-in-arm and shoulder-to-shoulder in solidarity with the Jewish victims in the worst period of the history… we boarded a plane and the next evening, were again shoulder-to-shoulder and arm-in-arm, but this time not in a march of mourning. We were shoulder-to-shoulder and arm-in-arm at the Kotel [Western Wall] in celebration of Am Yisrael Chai.
Going from the hell of Jew-hatred and persecution to the light and joy and beauty of the modern State of Israel, at that moment it was very clear that the Jewish state was humanity’s most beautiful answer to history’s greatest evil. And that contrast was what this is all about. I will tell you that these ambassadors are senior people. One of them broke into tears because the contrast was impossible to digest without breaking down. Israel is not only a refuge from persecution, God forbid, but a representation of Jewish self-determination and excellence.
The Job and its Priorities
How would you describe your job as the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat anti-Semitism?
Carr: Anti-Semitism is rising across the world, so some of what we do is reactive. We have to react when there are attacks against Jews and anti-Semitic statements being made in various places around the world. Social media, for example, is boiling over always. But it’s very important in any operation not to be so reactive that you lose your strategic focus.
We are militantly focused on the number of initiatives that are absolutely critical to the fight against anti-Semitism. First is security. If you don’t feel safe, if you don’t feel that you can leave the house and return home safely, or send your kids to school on the bus and know that they’ll come back in one piece, you can’t have a good quality of life.
Not all countries defray the cost of security for the Jewish community. The United States does. Our administration has increased that funding. The Department of Homeland Security, to the tune of many tens of millions of dollars, supplements security in grants all around the country. Not every country does this. The United Kingdom does a great job. One of my top diplomatic tasks overseas is to work with countries that don’t help their Jewish communities defray the cost of security and encourage them to do so.
Second, we insist on the absolute, unequivocal condemnation of hate speech. Sometimes that doesn’t happen because governments placate the far right or the far left in their countries. Sometimes it is vocal members of religious and other minority group that are being placated. My answer to all of this is don’t placate evil. Don’t coddle it. Don’t apologize for it. Condemn it. Because at the end of the day, not only is that the right thing to do, but appeasing evil is always a recipe for more and more malignant evil to come.
The First Amendment
Keep in mind that condemnation does not mean censorship, We have broad First Amendment protections. The Supreme Court ruled that even Nazis had a right to march in Skokie, Illinois.
But don’t be fooled when anti-Semites yell about their First Amendment rights in response to condemnation. The First Amendment protects you from censorship and punishment. It doesn’t protect you from condemnation. And those of us who are decent also have a First Amendment right to condemn despicable, violent speech, and we have to exercise that right.
Third, a major policy initiative of ours is the adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism. This is the standard definition and it is not controversial. More and more countries are adopting it. If a country hasn’t adopted it, it’s one of my top diplomatic asks that it be adopted.
We’re also working on anti-Semitism on college campuses because in too many cases campuses are a disaster. Here in this country vile, unvarnished anti-Semitism is allowed to lead to harassment and discrimination against Jewish students, and it’s no different in Europe. I’ve met with Jewish student leaders in England and France and other places, and they say the same thing. “You want to be safe? You want to go unmolested as a Jew on campus? You have to completely divorce yourself from Zionism and Israel. Don’t mention Israel, and don’t mention the ‘Z’ word. Check that aspect of your Jewish identity at the door.”
You can’t tell Jews to divorce themselves from a core aspect of their Jewish identity, and if you do, that is anti-Semitism, plain and simple.
For that reason, we are so proud and delighted that President Trump, in a game-changing move, signed an Executive Order that basically says, “Enough is enough.”
I was at the White House when he signed the order, and after he signed it, he looked at the camera and he said, “Let me make this clear. If you are a university, and you are promoting discrimination and harassment of Jewish students, you are going to lose a lot of money.” He said, “This is going to be very expensive for you.” And I promise you, every university president and chancellor in the country heard that. That’s an earthquake. And we are beyond grateful for this game-changing move by the President.
Lastly, we have to go on the offense as well. Not just defense. Of course, we have to fight the manifestations of anti-Semitism – the attacks, the vandalism, the hate words and all that. But strategically to win the war, you have to fight anti-Semitism itself. And what is anti-Semitism apart from its manifestations? It’s a worldview. It’s an idea, and ultimately, it’s a spiritual sickness.
Education is the Key
How do you fight that?
Carr: Through deep, impactful, values-based education. When are we going to start to educate people in the beautiful and indelible and profound contributions that Jewish communities around the world have made to their countries? Can you tell the history of the United States without talking about what Jews have contributed to our country? Can you tell the history of England or France or Germany or Russia or Poland without talking about Jewish history? You can’t.
I was just in Germany, which, in 2021 will commemorate 1,700 years of Jewish history. The Germans are doing marvelous work to fight anti-Semitism. The German Bundestag has mandated that “BDS is anti-Semitism.” I sat down with our German interlocutors, and said, “This commemoration is great. Where is the curriculum? What are you doing so that every kid in every classroom in every city in the country knows what Jews have brought to Germany for the last 1,700 years? And also what Germany’s brought to Jews.”
By the way, how many German kids know that the vernacular language of Ashkenazi Judaism, from Russia to England, is a form of German?The answer is that virtually no German kid knows that. Let’s change that.
This goes for us, too, in the United States. The month of May is Jewish American Heritage Month. How many people know that? Very few. Everyone knows about African American Heritage Month, right? Because the African American community actually does something. They program. They have festivals and posters in schools. They have curricula. We have had a month devoted to Jewish American Heritage for 25 years now and we do absolutely nothing. If we really want to get serious in this fight against anti-Semitism, we have to go on the offense and educate.
“I’m Just Anti-Israel”
People say, “I’m not anti-Semitic, I just oppose Israel.” Where does anti-Israelism cross the line into anti-Semitism?
Carr: That’s where the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism is so important. It allows us, here in the United States and around the world, to point to an objective, independent definition, to say, “What you said is anti-Semitic.” In addition to defining anti-Semitism as you’d expect, basically as Jew hatred, the IHRA definition gives eleven specific examples of manifestations of anti-Semitism and a twelfth that is kind of over-arching. Those examples not only include the kind of traditional medieval anti-Semitism, the canard of the Protocols that Jews control the world in a malicious cabal that’s pulling all the strings, but it also makes it clear that anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism.
Here is what the IHRA definition sets forth: Targeting the State of Israel as a Jewish collective is an example of anti-Semitism. Denying the Jewish people self-determination by claiming that the founding of the State of Israel is a racist endeavor is anti-Semitism. Comparing Israel to the Nazis is an example. Subjecting Israel to a double-standard to which no other democratic country in the world is held is an example. The IHRA definition is so powerful because it draws that line.
You ask, “Where does it cross the line?” Criticism of Israel, like criticism of any country, is okay. You can criticize the United States or Israel or any country’s policy, but the moment the criticism turns into demonization, to delegitimization, to a denial of legitimacy, to the questioning of the existence of the State of Israel – how many countries in the world have their right to exist questioned? One – and that’s when it becomes anti-Semitic. The moment Israel is treated differently from any other country, that’s when it crosses the line.
Not Everyone is in the Tent
People say, “I’m certainly not anti-Semitic. I’m working with Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), and they’re all Jewish.” Or, “Some of my best friends are Jewish.” Or Jews who use a part of their Jewish identity on the altar of anti-Israelism.
Carr: We have to have lines. “Big tent, big tent” – everyone’s focused on the size of the tent. But not everyone is in the tent. And when you have got a Jewish organization that openly traffics in anti-Semitism, they have to be called out for what they are.
Let me say this clearly and on the record: JVP is an organization that traffics in anti-Semitism. The fact that they have the word “Jewish” in their name should not get them any favors. It’s about what is being preached, not about the identity of the person.
Diversity of opinion is one thing, but there’s a red line, and when somebody crosses it, we cannot be afraid to call it out as anti-Semitism. And if we are afraid to do that, then we lose all of our moral weaponry in the fight.
Q: Why does anti-Semitism exist? Why has it been a scourge since the time the Jews left Egypt?
Carr: Anti-Semitism is a spiritual sickness because it grew up in a sense as a rejection of what the Jewish people are and the spiritual revolution brought to the world by the Jewish people. Ethical monotheism, the idea that there is no moral relativism. The fact that some Jews have fallen victim to moral relativism is the ultimate irony because the Jewish Revolution was that there is one standard. One God and one standard. That is the revolution that Jews brought to the world.
I think anti-Semitism is often a rejection of those contributions. When one hates those values, the result has to be a threat not only to Jews most immediately, but to everybody. Look at the human wreckage caused by ideologies that define themselves essentially through anti-Semitism.
Nazi Germany and Radical Islamic Ideology
Nazi Germany not only destroyed the Jewish people but destroyed the European continent. And let’s look more recently. What ideologies do we have in the world today that define themselves primarily, essentially, through anti-Semitism? The Islamic Republic of Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas, ISIS. Put aside the threat to Jews for a moment. Look at the amount of destruction and suffering and misery caused by these movements and regimes. Unfathomable. Half a million people murdered in Syria because of Hezbollah and the Islamic Republic’s allies. This is what we’re up against. We’re in a fight that is not only about protecting Jews, although that would be moral reason enough to do it, but this is a lot more. President Trump calls it the “vile poison of anti-Semitism,” and it’s an apt description because every society that has imbibed this poison has rotted to its core and produced human misery at a level that defies description.
What can individuals do in a practical way?
Carr: Speak with moral clarity, and we’ve got to be ambassadors for unity, all of us.
You don’t have to have a title or an organization. You don’t have to be a CEO of something. Every one of us can say, “Now is the time for us to forget what divides us.” We always have things that divide us, but we’ve got to get serious and stand together so that we don’t allow anti-Semitism to continue this appalling rise in our world, and so that we fight this evil and we do build a better future. That’s what each of us can do.
Some of that anti-Israel sentiment I see comes from Jewish people. Once I asked an Israeli Jew, “Where are you from?” and she responded, “Occupied Palestine.” It is complicated for me, a non-Jew and a Hispanic, to respond to that because you would expect them to say, “You are calling me, a Jew, anti-Semitic.”
Carr: I would say, “As a Hispanic student, I expect to be treated fairly and not based on the color of my skin or my ethnic background. I’m going to do you the same favor of treating you fairly, without regard for your ethnic background, and what you’re saying is anti-Semitic. I’m not going to treat you differently because you’re Jewish.” That’s how you do it. And then you let them have it!
How can you objectively measure the rise in anti-Semitism, other than just a sense that there’s an increase?
Carr: There are all kinds of things you could look to and we do look to. The problem is they’re almost all imperfect. For example, polls were done of Jewish fears in Europe. Ninety percent of European Jews surveyed said anti-Semitism is rising. There are other polls done of anti-Semitic attitudes. One in four Europeans fell into the most anti-Semitic category, meaning they subscribe to the majority of eleven anti-Semitic indicators that were tested.
The problem is polls change and polls are imperfect.
And then there are hate crime statistics. Attacks, vandalism. But there is widespread under-reporting of attacks. In fact, where anti-Semitism is the worst, under-reporting is also the worst. In the United States, someone uses an anti-Semitic epithet and it’s, “Oh, my goodness.” You tell 20 people, “You wouldn’t believe what happened to me today.” In some other places, it’s almost the case that if you don’t get stitches, it’s, “Well, it’s another day on the street.”
Exacerbating the problem is that some countries don’t drill down on the kind of hate crime it is. Every country has hate crime standards and reports it, but sometimes the source is not clear because the data is not sufficiently granular. You don’t know whether it’s a hate crime against somebody gay or a hate crime against somebody who is Jewish or somebody who is Muslim. In such cases one can’t even gather reliable data.
One thing we can look at is the volume of hate speech on the Internet. Here you have some very interesting work being done – especially by the Israeli Ministry of Diaspora Affairs. I work with them all the time; I’m in regular touch with them. They have done remarkable programming and work to measure the volume of hate speech on the Internet. That may have promise because it’s such a large volume that you can look at trends. Bottom-line – it’s difficult, but since no amount of anti-Semitism is acceptable, you don’t necessarily need to know where it sits in order to fight.
As a student, I never told my parents I was attacked. I was embarrassed. I had pennies thrown on the floor at me. What can we do to raise awareness in the schools and focus more on them?
Carr: First, don’t wait until one gets to university. This is now firmly entrenched in the high schools. I just spoke in New York, and a kid came up to me. He said, “I go to a private prep school and let me tell you what’s happening in my classroom. ‘Israel is a Nazi regime’ is being spouted by teachers in class.”
Don’t wait for high school. We’ve got to start educating our children from day one, first about what it means to be Jewish. Second, what it means to have a state of Israel. Third, how to fight on this subject. They have to be prepared. They have to know it’s happening. They have to be able to stand up even to professors, not only to their peers and to organizations on campus, even if they have a “J” in their title, but they have to be prepared to stand up to professors.
A student at a premier university in the country gave me the answer sheet to his math class. I still have a copy. After going through derivatives and integrals, it says, “Another day in the occupied Palestinian territory, Zionists forces murdering children.” Then it goes back to math. The kid said to me, “In math class? I can’t even escape this in math class?” That’s right, even in math class. Because, like the old, medieval anti-Semitism, the new forms are just as maniacal, just as insane, in their hatred of the Jewish people.
So we have to start early and educate our kids about their own identities, first of all, and give them the knowledge and the tools to understand why this fight is important. And then we have to teach them to lead.
I was raised as an anti-Israel activist. I had my mind transformed and I am now a proud, progressive pro-Israel. We can’t afford to leave out Left, liberal, progressives from our Zionist movement.
Carr: I couldn’t agree with you more. When I appear officially at a venue next to progressive leaders who stand against anti-Zionism in the progressive community, that’s a statement in and of itself. I’m embracing that as important. Second, I never say no to the chance to address left-of-center organizations and left-of-center audiences. I drop what I’m doing to do it. There are sometimes uncomfortable exchanges but you have to have them. What I say is look, when President Obama did something good on this issue, I stood up and I said, “Thank you, Mr. President. This is the right thing to do.”
You will never hear me talk about which party you should be in or how you should vote. I don’t talk about those issues. I’m just talking about policy. Why is that so hard? Regarding President Trump’s policies, stand up and say, “Mr. President. Thank you for this. You have our support on this issue.”
That’s called being rational. The idea that just because person A – who you may not like – does thing X, you should oppose thing X – which you might otherwise support – is truly, truly the height of irrationality and it’s dangerous. President Obama increased security cooperation and assistance for Israel. So, I’m going to oppose it? I’m going to say I don’t think we should be helping Israel defend itself just because a president I don’t generally agree with does it? That would be crazy.
But that’s what’s happening today, and we’ve got to stand up against it. Progressives have to stand up and say, “Look, I have my issues with President Trump, but on this issue, he’s fantastic. Thank you, Mr. President, and he has my support on this.”