After being vacant for nearly a year, the role of America’s top representative for religious freedom in the world soon will likely be occupied by a leader well known to the D.C. Jewish community.
President Barack Obama on July 28 announced in a statement that he is nominating Rabbi David Saperstein, director and chief counsel of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, to be the United States’ ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom.
“I am grateful that Rabbi Saperstein has chosen to dedicate his talent to serving the American people at this important time for our country,” the president wrote in a statement. “I look forward to working with him in the months and years ahead.”
Named the most influential rabbi in the United States by Newsweek’s annual list of “Top-50 Influential Rabbis in America” in 2009, Saperstein has been in the forefront of the Reform movement’s campaign for social justice and a prominent voice in the First Amendment-religious freedom debate in the United States.
If confirmed by the Senate, his new position will put Saperstein at the head of the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom, which was created by the overwhelmingly bipartisan passing of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998.
The act was designed to combat growing religious persecution around the world, with the ambassador’s main role being to promote religious freedom, while monitoring and holding violators accountable. The ambassador is also principal adviser to the president in religious-freedom matters and can make policy recommendations for the United States to enact toward nations violating the individual’s right to freedom of religion, belief and practice.
Changes in the level of aid a country receives from the United States, economic cooperation and even sanctions can be recommended by the ambassador, although all are subject to presidential decision.
Despite Saperstein’s liberal political views putting him at odds with more conservative Jewish organizations on some issues, most believe that his experience in the international religious freedom issues make him a good fit for the positon.
“He, although obviously on the liberal, progressive side of the political spectrum, has excellent relationships across the religious spectrum both in terms of different religions and denominations but also in terms of liberal to conservative [people] in many faith communities,” said Nathan Diament, executive director of public policy at the Orthodox Union. “That wealth of experience and that wealth of knowledge is unsurpassed in someone who could fill this position.”
Diament highlighted Saperstein’s efforts to pass the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act of 1993; the International Religious Freedom Act, which created his future position; and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act in 2000. Diament said that his organization would disagree with Saperstein on issues relating to the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, in the fight over what constitutes excessive entanglement between religion and the federal government, but rarely disagree on religious freedom issues.
Saperstein and Diament both served on the president’s Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships and, said Diament, “in many of those discussions, [Saperstein] and I were on the same page.”
Daniel Mariaschin, executive vice president of B’nai B’rith International, called the nomination an “outstanding choice” and noted the decades he has witnessed Saperstein’s work with religious freedom. “I think David got nominated to this position because of his experience, his expertise, his caring, his sensitivity to these issues, and his being able to speak out,” Mariaschin said. “The commendatory part of this here is that someone who was so deserving and who can do so much good, has been nominated for the positon. David is very well connected internationally and his reputation, his writings, his speaking – all of those things are known in so much of the world in which we operate and we’re going to operate, so I think that’s a big plus.”
So far, there have only been three others who have held the post, and Saperstein will become the first rabbi to occupy it. Although the post had broad bipartisan support on Capitol Hill when it was created – something Ambassador Robert Seiple, the first person to hold the post, said was unusual at the time – its creation was not initially supported by the State Department and still lags on the priority list compared to other ambassadorships.
“The State Department’s concern was: ‘Look, we have these bilateral relationships that are complex at best and now you’re going to throw in this huge new issues of religions,’ ” said Seiple. “Well, 95 percent of the world’s problems today take place at the intersection of politics and religion, so the State Department very definitely has to understand these issues.”
Seiple said that he was close to Saperstein and said that like many across religious lines, considers him his favorite rabbi. Seiple recalled that during his tenure, he and Saperstein joined each other on a trip to Africa and Europe. From his interactions, Seiple said that Saperstein was the right choice and should have been announced sooner.
He also said that Saperstein’s experience could help raise the position’s profile and effectiveness. “He understands Washington. He’s not intimidated by it. He understands the issue and can articulate it. He’s a listener which will make him a good negotiator when tough issues have to be confronted in other countries. He’s not a grandstander, he can work quietly behind the scenes, but he’s very effective,” said Seiple. “And I think in terms of his moral courage and the ethical dimension of the man, he’s the gold standard.”
Seiple nevertheless believes that the task appears more daunting than ever, in the post-9/11 world, made more unpredictable by the Arab Spring and the increased strength of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Meanwhile, according to Seiple, American influence has declined in much of the world making it harder for the ambassador to be persuasive.
“When I was there, I think the U.S. flag had a lot more power and commanded a lot more respect. So in that sense, it’s going to be a little bit harder today,” said Seiple. “The world is a lot more dangerous today that it was when I was there.”
Yet, he holds out hope for Saperstein.
“I think David will change all of that because he’s not a small thinker and he’s not a small-ball player,” he said. “I think he’ll have some visionary approach to the issue, and I think it’s possible that in the next few years you’ll see some real changes.”
A new religious freedom ambassador “is going to be welcomed in a lot of places and in those places where religious freedom is being abridged, they should know that they’re going to have in our [ambassador] someone who is keeping a very close eye on what they’re doing,” said Mariaschin.
He listed the proliferation of violence against Christians in Iraq, Syria, Africa, South Asia and Iran as top priorities for Saperstein. “It’s almost as if you don’t know where to start, and unfortunately the list is long and it is growing longer,” he said. Seiple’s advice to Saperstein for his new position would be keep his goals to around two to three.
“The thing that can sink you pretty quickly if you have a 12-item agenda, and you’re trying to operate, sort of like John Kerry, and you end up getting criticized by everybody,” said Seiple. “So find a few things that you want to change during the time that you’re there, it may only be two years, and during that time what you think you can change realistically, and go for it. “So setting the agenda, not somebody else’s but your own with two or three items I think that would be the first thing [Saperstein should do],” Seiple said.
The United States “has worked 230-some years to get to its present level of imperfection and we shouldn’t expect other countries to do it in a five-year program. So again, be humble. We don’t have the clout we once did. It’s unfortunate, but we just don’t. “At the same time, be aggressive in the things that put us on the right side of history.”
JNS.org contributed to this story.
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