President Barack Obama's ambassador to Belgium has given Republicans heavy fodder for criticism by linking Israeli government policy with rising anti-Jewish sentiment among Europe's Muslims _ an argument that has angered Jewish groups and given the Obama administration a new headache as it seeks to counter Republican claims that it is anti-Israel.
Ambassador Howard Gutman forewarned a gathering of European Jews last week that he would challenge their assumptions on anti-Semitism. He started by recounting his own personal history as the Jewish son of a Holocaust survivor, and then explained why he felt it was important to differentiate between older forms of anti-Jewish hatred and a newer, growing anti-Semitism in Europe stemming from the tensions of the Israeli-Arab conflict.
"Classic bigotry" is being held in check, he said. But, citing the recent resignation of a Belgian professor and a racially motivated attack by several students on a young Jewish girl in Belgium, Gutman spoke of 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," he said, according to a prepared text. A full transcript of Gutman's remarks wasn't made public and few journalists were in attendance.
The story gained momentum over the weekend, prompting the White House on Saturday to condemn anti-Semitism in all forms. Gutman issued a similar statement, but some Jewish groups expressed outrage. Republican presidential candidates including Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney demanded Gutman's resignation.
Gutman's critics have argued that by drawing a distinction between different types of anti-Semitic hatred, he implied the newer form was somehow less heinous or excusable. Others contested whether it was fair to point to Israel's policies as a cause for the growth of anti-Semitism.
Still, Gutman described Muslim anti-Semitism as well as a "serious problem" that demands counterstrategies.
He said much of the responsibility lies with Israel and Arab governments to establish peace.
"The largest part of the solution remains in the hands of government leaders in Israel and the Palestinian territories and Arab countries in the Middle East," Gutman said. "It is the area where 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."
Gutman said this situation was unfortunate in that it affects people in Europe a continent away from the problem. But he argued that was fortunate because, unlike with the older anti-Semitism, a remedy exists. "Peace in the Middle East would indeed equate with a huge reduction of this form of labeled `anti-Semitism' here in Europe," he said.
His comments, which weren't cleared by the State Department, have put the Obama administration in a bind. Officials have refused to condemn or endorse Gutman's argument, repeating only its condemnation of anti-Semitism in all its manifestations. After the resignation calls from Romney and Gingrich, the State Department said it had full confidence in Gutman.