Biden’s antisemitism envoy – meet Deborah Lipstadt

Deborah Lipstadt (Twitter)

Michael Arria

Mondoweiss  /  February 10, 2022

President Biden nominated the historian Deborah Lipstadt as the special envoy to combat and monitor antisemitism last July. This week she finally got a hearing before the Senate committee. Republicans had managed to hold up her nomination for months after she tweeted a commonsense observation about Senator Ron Johnson saying something racist.

At the hearing Johnson threw an embarrassing fit. He accused Lipstadt of engaging in “malicious poison” and said he had a close friendship with a black pastor. He then declared he wouldn’t vote to confirm, encouraged others to reject Lipstadt, and walked out of the hearing. These comical theatrics will seemingly end up falling flat. Even Sen. Marco Rubio, who Lipstadt also dissed on Twitter, said that he supported the nomination. “Despite my concerns about what she has said, I think she’ll be a very forceful advocate at a time when we need someone who’s very forceful and credible,” Rubio told Jewish Insider. “My guess is most people will arrive at the place that… she has a long and distinguished commitment to battling antisemitism. It certainly makes her very credible and strong in that way.”

Who is Deborah Lipstadt? She’s probably best known for her 1993 book Denying the Holocaust. It gained international attention after Holocaust denier David Irving unsuccessfully sued Lipstadt for libel and was turned into a movie in which she was played by Rachel Weisz.

In 2019 Lipstadt wrote a book called Antisemitism: Here and Now, where she refers to Zionism as a “national liberation movement” and claims that “negation of Jewish nationhood is a form of antisemitism.” The work also contains some thoughts about Jewish people who support the BDS movement.

“Anti-Zionist Jews who are opposed to Israel’s existence believe that they are expressing universalistic Jewish ‘values’ such as support for the downtrodden and for victims of injustice,” writes Lipstadt. “It’s unfortunate that they have bought in to the anti-Israel narrative and are proud of the fact that they have the “courage” to counter what they feel is a deluded, omnipotent, organized Jewry. I feel sad and frustrated that these people have internalized these antisemitic motifs. They may not be personally antisemites, but they facilitate it.”

Back in 2007 Lipstadt was a harsh critic of Jimmy Carter’s book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. She even accused the former president of “soft-core” Holocaust denial for omitting the years 1939–1947 from the book’s chronology. Lipstadt expanded on these thoughts in a Washington Post op-ed, where she claimed Carter had repeatedly “fallen back — possibly unconsciously — on traditional anti-Semitic canards.”

Lipstadt provides some examples to back up her incredible charge. Her first piece of evidence: in an op-ed Carter said it could be “politically suicide” for a lawmaker to advocate a “balanced position” on Israel. It’s unclear why this would be a controversial statement, as Palestinian self-determination has long been a third rail topic within Washington. There are now a handful of House members with the courage to criticize Israel, but they’re all regularly attacked by Republicans and/or members of their own party. They also generally represent districts that lack viable primary challengers. However, it’s worth remembering that Carter wrote his book 16 years ago, before congress had such politicians.

Howard Dean was chairman of the DNC at the time and felt compelled to put out a statement distancing the Democrats from Carter’s book.  “While I have tremendous respect for former President Carter, I fundamentally disagree and do not support his analysis of Israel and the Israeli–Palestinian conflict,” said Dean. “On this issue President Carter speaks for himself, the opinions in his book are his own, they are not the views or position of the Democratic Party. I and other Democrats will continue to stand with Israel in its battle against terrorism and for a lasting peace with its neighbors.”

Lipstadt also takes Carter to task for saying that many of Jewish-American organizations criticized his book and that there had been “tremendous intimidation” to silence pro-Palestine sentiment within the media. On what planet are these things not true? The AJC’s David Harris wrote that the book was “a crude polemic that compromises any pretense to objectivity and fairness.” The Central Conference of American Rabbis canceled a visit to Carter’s human rights center after it was published.

As for the media, anyone old enough to remember the era can presumably recall the firestorm that the text generated. The op-ed I am currently writing about wasn’t the Washington Post’s only example of backlash, Michael Kinsey bashed the book in a piece titled “It’s Not Apartheid.” Carter was also attacked in the New York TimesThe Economist, and denounced by Dennis Ross on CNN.

Has the media gotten better on this issue over the last 16 years? It’s impossible to imagine the New York Times running photos of dead Palestinian children on their front page back then, but massive problems obviously remain. At the time I’m typing this, the NYT still hasn’t covered Amnesty International’s historic report on Israeli apartheid despite the fact it was published over a week ago.

“How long can the Times news blackout continue?,” wondered James North at the site this week. “Is it possible that the paper’s higher ups recognize that they will have to eventually publish something, but by the time they get around to it the news will have simmered down enough to pass with less notice? And will Times opinion writers like Thomas Friedman and Bret Stephens ever say anything? If they do, how can the paper in good conscience run editorial pieces about events that never appeared in its news pages?”

Rubio asked Lipstadt about the report during her hearing. Here’s what she said:

I don’t want to talk about the details of the report, but that kind of language, I found it more than ahistorical — I found it unhistorical. 

Branding Israel as an apartheid state is more than historically inaccurate. I believe it’s part of a larger effort to delegitimize the Jewish state. Such language, I see it spilling over onto campuses where it poisons the atmosphere, particularly for Jewish students. You have to ask why people are using that kind of language, what are they trying to accomplish? 

I know that the Biden-Harris Administration has taken a very strong position on this. In fact, last month, the State Department spokesman cited the department’s vehement disagreement with that language. And probably our ambassador to Israel, Tom Nides, said it best, albeit in a tweet. He said, “Come on, this is absurd.” And I second that.

No wonder Rubio, who has been trying to push a federal anti-BDS law for years, is going to vote for her.

Lipstadt was also asked whether criticizing Israel is antisemitic. “Criticism of Israeli policy is not antisemitism,” she responded. “If you want to hear criticism of Israeli policies, I suggest you sit yourself down in a cafe in Tel Aviv or in Jerusalem, whatever part of the country, depending who is in the government. It’s the national sport in Israel, second only maybe to soccer or maybe more than that.”

“So I don’t think any rational-minded person would think that criticism of Israeli policies is antisemitism,” Lipstadt continued. “I do think there’s certain things that cross the line into antisemitism, and criticism can often cross the line. The IHRA definition gives examples.”

The IHRA working definition is controversial because it strays far away from historical understandings of antisemitism. “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor” is one of its examples. Another is, “Applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.”

So you might be dubbed antisemitic if you say Israel is a settler colony that annexes native land, even though that’s obviously true. You might be antisemitic if you demand that the United States government stop giving Israel billions in military aid because that’s a double standard and you should be criticizing hundreds of other countries if you’re going to do that. It’s no surprise that the IHRA working definition of antisemitism is already being used as a weapon to stifle pro-Palestine sentiment around the globe.

Despite the GOP grumbling, Lipstadt is expected to clear committee and get confirmed. There’s nothing on her résumé that would potentially upset the apple cart, regardless of what Ron Johnson thinks.

Emma Saltzberg on Jeopardy!

IfNotNow co-founder Emma Saltzberg was recently a contestant on Jeopardy!, where she advanced for multiple episodes. Her connection to the progressive, anti-occupation group resulted in her being smeared online by some pro-Israel trolls. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) interviewed her about the experience. Here’s what she said about the online backlash:

There are trolls in IfNotNow’s Twitter mentions, a small and vocal group of people who say really negative things. That was priced in to my decision to do something public. I was totally expecting it.

I will also say that I got a real perspective into how messed up the kind of hate that comes our way actually is. The contestant who beat me on last night’s show messaged my fiance to say that he was just appalled at the things that he was seeing. And that actually he was going to be making a donation to IfNotNow in my honor.

It made my heart swell to see that kind of solidarity. I think it can be really difficult as Jews to really comprehend that there are people who are in solidarity with us. It’s something that comes up all the time that people feel really alone. And this was a moment when someone showed me in a really concrete and gracious way that we’re not.

JTA also asked Saltzberg what the Jewish community could learn from the gameshow. Here’s her response:

What makes the “Jeopardy!” world so great is this sense of curiosity and wanting to learn and being there for each other. And so much of the conversation that I’m seeing in the Jewish world right now is so deeply anti-intellectual in a way that I find really heartbreaking.

I see Jewish organizations — big and small, secular and religious — rejecting the painstakingly crafted research of a whole swath of human rights organizations just out of hand, without even bothering to make arguments about what it’s saying on the merits. They just reject it out of hand, and in a way that really sows confusion, for non-Jews and Jews alike, about what antisemitism is. So they’re calling things like this Amnesty International report antisemitic, or saying that it will increase antisemitism just to look squarely at what the Israeli government is doing to Palestinians.

This whole conversation is basically posing a false choice: that people can support Jews against antisemitism, or they can support Palestinian liberation from Israeli oppression. The idea that you have to pick one is so dangerous to me and so sad, because we actually can stand for Palestinian freedom and stand for our freedom and safety as Jews.

That sense of, we have to put ourselves in competition is the total opposite of the spirit that I’ve encountered in my brief time in the “Jeopardy!” world, which is that people are incredibly supportive. People want to learn and people are just decent to each other.

Michael Arria is the U.S. correspondent for Mondoweiss