Antisemitism envoy nominee Deborah Lipstadt poised to battle scourge on all fronts

“I know of no other time in American Jewish history where Jews had to escape through the back door with a Torah [scroll] because of physical danger,” said Lipstadt.

By Dmitriy Shapiro, JNS

U.S. President Joe Biden’s nominee to serve as Special Envoy for Combating and Monitoring antisemitism Deborah Lipstadt said on Thursday that she was most worried about the rise in casual antisemitism and the questioning of the importance of the Holocaust among today’s society more than overt demonstrations of antisemitism.

As calls to end the delay in her confirmation process were increasing this week, Lipstadt appeared in a Zoom presentation by the Los Angeles-based American Jewish University (AJU), speaking with Professor Michael Berenbaum, director of the Sigi Ziering Institute there.

Lipstadt appeared from the University of Virginia campus, where a day earlier she gave expert testimony in the civil trial of the deadly 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va.

She related some of the testimony she heard at the trial, of the trauma Jews reported seeing white-supremacist marchers with tiki torches chanting “Jews will not replace us.”

The route of the march went by a synagogue during Shabbat-morning services on Aug. 12. Concerned for their physical safety, the rabbi told the congregation to sneak out of the synagogue through the back door in small groups, along with the Torah, fearing physical danger.

“I know of no other time in American Jewish history where Jews had to escape through the back door with a Torah [scroll] because of physical danger,” said Lipstadt.

Berenbaum noted that some current antisemites don’t deny the Holocaust but think it was not successful enough and asked her to assess the phenomenon.

“What scares me more is the people who say it wasn’t important. ‘Enough about the Holocaust,’ ” she said.

‘What are they complaining about?’

There were 18 million Jews in the world prior to the Holocaust and 12 million after the war, meaning that one-in-three perished, she said. However, she added, it’s difficult for contemporary society to view Jews as victims because “we don’t present as some of our traditional victims of discrimination and deep-seated prejudice.”

“We recovered; we have a State of Israel. Jews have been very successful certainly in this country and in many other countries. We have strong communities,” said Lipstadt. “So other people look at us and say, ‘What are they complaining about? Oh, stop. Don’t talk to me about that Holocaust anymore.’ ”

Lipstadt noted that it’s important to call out antisemitic actions, but labeling someone an antisemite should be rare in order to preserve the impact of that accusation.

“I would say this about the Holocaust and about antisemitism: We have to cut with a scalpel and not with an ax,” she said. “Someone may say something negative, let’s say, about Israel, and we may think it’s utterly unjustified, and it may be utterly unjustified, but it may not be antisemitic. … I’m very rare to call someone an antisemite because I don’t know what’s in their heart.”

Berenbaum asked Lipstadt why she decided to accept the ambassadorship position despite having the freedom of her current position as Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish History and Holocaust studies at Emory in Atlanta.

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Lipstadt replied that after people began mentioning her name as a candidate for the position, she didn’t think she wanted the job. But a friend convinced her that she could make a difference in the role.

Antisemitism, she said, was like playing whack-a-mole, coming from the political extreme right and the extreme left.

On the far-right, it represents itself as replacement theory, she said; on the far-left, it represents itself as Jews are white, rich, privileged, and therefore, cannot be victims.

“I am an equal-opportunity hater of antisemitism. If it’s coming from people next to me whose other political views I share or it’s coming from people whose political views I share not a wit, if they’re expressing the antisemitism, I want to fight it with the same degree of strength and courage and intensity. I don’t care where it comes from—wherever it comes from, it must be fought,” she insisted.

‘It starts with the Jews, but doesn’t end with the Jews’

Lipstadt said that she thinks that with an increasing number of Muslim-majority countries normalizing relations with Israel as part of the Abraham Accords—namely, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco—it’s a good time to help those countries better get to know Jews and define antisemitism.

She also said she was very concerned by other countries making antisemitism part of their national agenda for winning political power.

“No healthy democracy has ever tolerated the existence of antisemitism and remained a healthy democracy,” she said. “If you care about being a healthy democracy, you have to care about antisemitism because, as we often say, it starts with the Jews, but doesn’t end with the Jews.”

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AJU president Jeffrey Herbst presented Lipstadt with questions from viewers, one of which asked how social media has impacted antisemitism.

Lipstadt said it acts as an accelerant.

“I don’t know if it was Maimonides—Rambam—who talked about a knife as a neutral instrument. In the hands of a killer, it’s a weapon. In the hands of a surgeon, it can save a life.

“Social media has done great things: Look, we’re having this seminar on social media with hundreds of participants,” she said. “At the same time, it can be used for very evil things. And so I think it definitely accelerates what’s going on. People who would never have had a voice before—some of those people, it’s good that they have a voice, but it can also be used for evil.”

Hatred on social media, she said, had been brewing for years, but the open platform allows it to be revealed, and once it’s out of the box, it’s hard to put it back in.

Berenbaum added that the strategy for combating antisemitism used to be to quarantine it. With social media, he said, that’s hard to do because antisemites can find their support system.

“We’ve got to figure out; we’ve got to invest in studying the Internet and social-media platforms,” emphasized Lipstadt. “I don’t think anybody quite knows [how]; it’s a different ball game.”