Deborah Lipstadt during her Senate nomination hearing to become special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism, February 8th, 2022.Andrew Harnik/AP
Scarcely had four Jewish hostages escaped from a gunman at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas, in January when American Jewish commentators began beating the drum for a governmental response. In The Washington Post, columnist James McAuley urged the Senate to confirm Deborah Lipstadt, President Biden’s nominee to the post of US State Department special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism, calling her appointment “a prime opportunity for our leaders to show they actually care” about antisemitism. In The Forward, editor-in-chief Jodi Rudoren made the same demand, using her weekly column to blast Senate Republicans who had delayed voting on Lipstadt for more than six months—allegedly because she had tweeted that Senator Ron Johnson’s comments denigrating Black Lives Matter activists while celebrating January 6th protestors amounted to “white supremacy.” In The Hill, Anti-Defamation League (ADL) CEO Jonathan Greenblatt wrote, “Now more than ever, we need a straight-shooter like Professor Lipstadt who will battle antisemitism wherever the source.”
None of the articles specified how Lipstadt might use the envoy post to prevent attacks like the one in Texas. The position was created 18 years ago to address antisemitism overseas, and nothing in its purview bears directly on domestic incidents like Colleyville (though, it should be noted, gunman Malik Faisal Akram was a British citizen). Still, the publicity reflected the post’s newfound prominence. Lipstadt, who was finally confirmed on March 30th after an eight-month delay, is by far the most well-known appointee in the position’s history, and—thanks to a legal victory more than 20 years ago over a notorious Holocaust denier—the closest thing the academic field of Jewish studies has to a celebrity. Her longtime commitment to Jewish and Zionist causes has endeared her to much of the political center; the fact that Trump-aligned Republicans like Johnson consider her an enemy has only increased her standing among liberals.
Lipstadt assumes the role at a moment when most American Jews believe antisemitism is on the rise. In the last five years, they have witnessed unprecedented violent attacks on synagogues: the 2018 massacre at Tree of Life in Pittsburgh; the 2019 shooting at the Chabad of Poway in California; and, of course, the recent attack in Colleyville. Yet rather than inspiring communal cohesion, the threat of antisemitism has become a locus of controversy and confusion. “When you talk about antisemitism, depending on what you’re talking about and who you’re talking about, it can be used for totally different political agendas—in fact, opposite political agendas,” said Omer Bartov, a leading Holocaust scholar at Brown University. The left tends to raise the alarm about white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and antisemitic Q-anon conspiracists emboldened by the Trump administration, calling for solidarity among marginalized groups and measures like community safety patrols. The right insists that the primary danger comes from pro-Palestine activists, and therefore that Israel-advocacy efforts—such as crackdowns on Palestinian campus activism and legislation preventing boycotts of Israel—constitute a righteous anti-antisemitism crusade. The center prides itself on opposing what it sees as threats from all sides.
Lipstadt’s supporters argue that she’s the ideal person to serve as “antisemitism czar” in this contested environment. The author of five books on antisemitism, Holocaust denial, and American responses to the Holocaust, Lipstadt is seen as a sober voice in an often melodramatic conversation: She generally eschews sensationalism—she avoids conflating contemporary antisemitism with state-sponsored antisemitic regimes like Nazi Germany, for example—and says she opposes infringements on free speech in campus debates over Israel/Palestine. “Deborah is a brilliant academic who has spent an enormous amount of her life thinking about and acting on these issues,” said Nancy Kaufman, a former CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women who was also in contention for Biden’s nomination. “I have no doubt that she will not just talk to the chorus, but talk to the naysayers as well.”
Yet critics say that her analysis of antisemitism leaves her ill-equipped to assess or address its threat. Beginning with her earliest work, which argues that the Holocaust was a unique, incomparable event, Lipstadt has tended to exceptionalize antisemitism as the most ancient, enduring form of prejudice—a constant transhistorical force, resurfacing across eras and continents. Many scholars say that this approach makes it harder to understand the phenomenon and propose solutions. Lipstadt’s most recent book on antisemitism “doesn’t really give us any insight into why antisemitism is growing today,” said Dov Waxman, a UCLA professor of political science who studies American Jewish politics and contemporary antisemitism. “She talks about it as the ever-present oldest hatred, which doesn’t really explain under which circumstances antisemitism may become more of a problem, or in which circumstances it might decrease.” Some scholars also lament what they see as a false equivalency between violent white supremacist activity on the right and legitimate political expression on the left. “I think that putting ‘antisemitism from the right’ and ‘antisemitism from the left’ in the same paragraph is really quite dangerous,” said Hasia Diner, a professor of American Jewish history at New York University. “It’s not the same as antisemitism to say, ‘I don’t think there should be a Jewish state.’ And I don’t see that she sees the nuance or subtlety there.” Indeed, Palestinian activists have long insisted that this conflation is responsible for measures to silence their political speech.
“Lipstadt talks about antisemitism as the ever-present oldest hatred, which doesn’t really explain under which circumstances antisemitism may become more of a problem, or in which circumstances it might decrease.”
Lipstadt’s views are not unique in the Jewish community; on the contrary, they place her squarely in line with much of the Jewish mainstream. But they don’t reflect the robust, innovative conversation on antisemitism currently taking place in the field of Jewish studies. As Barry Trachtenberg, a professor of European and American Jewish history at Wake Forest University, put it, her scholarly research and her advocacy “reinforce popular conceptions [of antisemitism] rather than challenging them or giving us new ways to understand them.” As anxiety once again surges about antisemitic threats, a new spotlight has fallen on the envoy position. Yet Lipstadt seems unlikely to offer a global Jewish community at odds on the issue any more than a well-worn status quo.
Deborah Lipstadt was raised in a modern Orthodox family on the Upper West Side and Queens in the 1950s. Though she knew growing up that Jews faced quotas at certain universities and restrictive real-estate covenants, such injustices did not preoccupy her: “We accepted it, I am embarrassed to say, as a fact of life,” she later wrote. (Lipstadt declined to be interviewed for this article, citing a request from the White House that she not speak to press.) Lipstadt has written that she was more focused on opposing anti-Black racism. Her formative memories include marching through Harlem with her mother in solidarity with civil rights protestors.
Lipstadt’s interest in antisemitism was awakened during a college year abroad at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. At the end of her exchange year in 1967, as Israel prepared for a possible invasion by Arab armies, she witnessed the preparation of mass graves and heard whispers about the coming of another Holocaust. When Israel won an overwhelming victory in the Six Day War—taking control of East Jerusalem, Gaza, and the West Bank—Lipstadt signed on for another year abroad to witness a buoyant new era in Israeli society. When she returned home, it was with a changed understanding of the “imprint of both the Holocaust and Israel on the psyche of the Jewish people,” she wrote in her 2005 memoir, History on Trial. She decided to begin a graduate degree in Jewish history at Brandeis University.
Back in the US, Lipstadt, who once drew ire at her parents’ Upper West Side synagogue because she showed up sporting a SNCC button, became disillusioned by the 1968 Ocean Hill–Brownsville teachers’ strike in Brooklyn, which arose from a conflict between Black parents seeking community control of schools and the majority-Jewish teachers union. Many Jewish observers believed the activists’ opposition to the union had antisemitic undertones, though new historical accounts have argued that the union itself strategically played up perceptions of “Black antisemitism.” More than 30 years later, Lipstadt told the journalist D.D. Guttenplan that the strike had opened her eyes to “overt anti-Semitism coming from people whose struggle you had always thought . . . cut to the core of America,” forcing her to re-evaluate her relationship to the left. Four years after the strike, Lipstadt’s turn toward a politics of Jewish particularism accelerated when she visited the Soviet Union and was detained and interrogated by the KGB for lending a prayer book to a woman at a synagogue in Ukraine.
Lipstadt’s personal story could be a synecdoche for the American Jewish postwar trajectory: Entering the ’60s as a committed liberal supporter of civil rights, she was electrified by Israel’s victory in the Six Day War, alienated by tendencies in the Black Power movement, and moved by the struggles of Soviet Jewry—all of which made her more attached to a politicized Jewish identity.
Lipstadt’s personal story could be a synecdoche for the American Jewish postwar trajectory: Entering the ’60s as a committed liberal supporter of civil rights, she was electrified by Israel’s victory in the Six Day War, alienated by tendencies in the Black Power movement that many perceived as anti-Jewish, and moved by the struggles of Soviet Jewry—all of which made her more attached to a politicized Jewish identity. For some Jews, like the staff of the once-liberal magazine Commentary, the same historical events prompted a full political heel-turn away from the left to create the neoconservative movement. Lipstadt’s transformation wasn’t quite so dramatic: “I never went as far as Commentary and [Norman] Podhoretz,” she would later tell Guttenplan. She remained a staunch liberal, but one who now saw Jewish causes as central, rather than incidental, to her politics.
After graduating from Brandeis, Lipstadt taught at the University of Washington and UCLA before taking a tenure-track job in Jewish studies at Emory University in 1993, where she currently holds an endowed chair in Jewish history and Holocaust studies. That same year, the publication of her second book, Denying the Holocaust, transformed her career. In the 1970s and ’80s, Holocaust denialism had gained a new foothold as neo-Nazis and their fellow travelers adopted a political strategy of positioning themselves as respectable historians. Lipstadt’s study of this phenomenon was published just as a Roper survey inflamed public panic by suggesting that 22% of American adults believed it was possible the Holocaust never happened. (This turned out to be a product of the question’s exceptionally confusing wording; in a more clearly-worded Gallup poll released soon after, the number of doubters shrank to about 4%.) Against this backdrop, Denying the Holocaust became a mainstream success. A review ran on the front page of The New York Times Book Review, and Lipstadt appeared on the Today show to discuss it.
The book elicited more than glowing reviews, however: In 1995, Lipstadt learned that David Irving—a popular British chronicler of World War II who was increasingly bending facts to suggest that the gas chambers had never existed—was threatening to sue her British publisher, Penguin Books, because she had described him as a Holocaust denier. The eventual trial, in 2000, became world news: At the end of what proved a harrowing, time-consuming, and expensive ordeal for Lipstadt, the judge ruled that Irving had distorted facts to fit his political agenda. Preeminent Holocaust historian Christopher Browning told me that the trial’s impact on the denial movement was immense: “The last pretense of academically disguised Holocaust denial—to wrap it in the flag of being the other side of an academic debate or an attempt at free speech—went down when Irving was discredited.” Without the trial, Lipstadt—who is generally known among scholars more for her ability to translate historical concepts into an accessible idiom than for her archival research—might have remained a respectable but under-the-radar scholar of American responses to the Holocaust. As it was, she emerged as a popular hero; to this day, she commands speaking fees of $20,000 or more at Jewish federations and synagogues that recruit her to speak about the Holocaust and antisemitism. Her odyssey was even memorialized in the 2016 film Denial, in which she was played by Rachel Weisz.
Deborah Lipstadt outside the High Court in London during her trial against Holocaust denier David Irving, April 11th, 2000.
Rachel Weisz portraying Deborah Lipstadt in the 2016 film Denial.
With the book that catapulted her to stardom, Lipstadt laid out her schema for how Holocaust denial arises. Denial, in her view, did not always look like Irving’s egregious insinuations about the gas chambers; it could involve “relativizing” the mass murder of Jews—or refusing its “uniqueness” by equating it with other atrocities. Those who engage in denial of any sort were contributing to robbing a “certain moral authority” from Holocaust victims. Writing in the early 1990s, Lipstadt was responding primarily to right-wing nationalist trends, particularly the tendency among conservative German historians in to whitewash the severity of Nazi crimes by, for instance, comparing them to Soviet ones. But in other writing at the time, Lipstadt expressed broader opposition to studying the Holocaust alongside other historical atrocities. In a 1995 New Republic article, she criticized “Facing History and Ourselves”—a middle school curriculum that covers the Holocaust and asks students to draw larger conclusions about human morality and responsibility—for eliding the “differences between the Holocaust and all manner of inhumanities and injustices.”
Lipstadt was careful to note that other atrocities were not necessarily less grave or painful than the suffering visited on Jews. But taken together, her various arguments suggested a tendency to jealously guard the sanctity of the Holocaust. “She comes pretty close to saying that the world gives special capital to victims of genocide, and that the Holocaust was the worst genocide and therefore, essentially, Jews are entitled to the most moral capital—[including] the state of Israel,” said Donald Beachler, a professor of political science at Ithaca College who wrote about debates over Holocaust uniqueness in his 2011 book The Genocide Debate. Guttenplan, who covered the Irving trial in his 2001 book The Holocaust on Trial, echoed this criticism in an interview with me: “She’s interested in protecting the currency of the Holocaust as a Jewish resource, which is often deployed to suppress or silence critics of Israel.” Reviewing Jimmy Carter’s 2006 book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid for The Washington Post, Lipstadt wielded the Holocaust to invalidate Carter’s complaints about Israeli human rights abuses. By failing to foreground the Holocaust in his evaluation of Israel’s policies, she suggested, Carter himself was arguably abetting denial, giving “inadvertent comfort to those who deny [the Holocaust’s] importance or even its historical reality, in part because it helps them deny Israel’s right to exist.”
“She comes pretty close to saying that the world gives special capital to victims of genocide, and that the Holocaust was the worst genocide and therefore, essentially, Jews are entitled to the most moral capital.”
In 2004, not long after Lipstadt faced off against Irving in a London courtroom, Tom Lantos—the only Holocaust survivor ever to serve in Congress—introduced a bill to create the antisemitism envoy position. The Global Antisemitism Review Act, signed that year by President George W. Bush, responded to Jewish communal anxiety about recurring violent incidents in Europe—including, for example, a 2002 mob attack on a synagogue in Kyiv and the brutal beating of two American Jewish teens in Berlin that same year. The Oslo Process in Israel/Palestine had collapsed, which many worried would further aggravate antisemitism—a fear they believed was borne out by the especially strident rejection of Israel at the UN’s 2001 Durban World Conference Against Racism. (Lantos was part of the US delegation to Durban, which pulled out in protest.)
The bill creating the position was vague about what, exactly, the job would entail, and envoys’ activities have varied: Gregg Rickman, Bush’s appointee for the role, helped coordinate the 2007 evacuation of Jews from Yemen; Hannah Rosenthal, Barack Obama’s appointee from 2009–2012, enlisted a Swedish government minister to condemn antisemitic comments by the mayor of the city of Malmo, and took Holocaust-denying imams on a tour of Auschwitz. According to James Loeffler, a professor of Jewish history at the University of Virginia who has written about the history of Jews and human rights advocacy, the envoy’s work has typically consisted of “mild and modest efforts,” including “basic, mid-level diplomatic representation.” Even so, the position has “represented something important to American Jews, who have felt like their concerns were being recognized.” (Last year, the office was elevated to the status of “ambassador-at-large,” which added prestige and resources but also resulted in Lipstadt being subjected to the long Senate confirmation process.)
The position has also played a role in shaping the State Department’s definition of antisemitism. While in office, Rosenthal oversaw the creation and adoption of a definition, based on one used by the European Monitoring Center on Racism and Xenophobia, for use in training foreign service officers and tracking international antisemitic incidents; it bore substantial similarity to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) “working definition” of antisemitism, which was ratified by the IHRA in 2016. (In 2017, the State Department officially replaced the Rosenthal definition with IHRA on its website.) The IHRA definition—adopted by institutions and governments across the world, often at the urging of mainstream Jewish organizations and Israel-advocacy groups—has attracted substantial opposition for including what many consider to be valid criticisms of Israel and Zionism among its examples of antisemitism. “It can be used to claim that those demanding the right of Palestinian refugees to return or advocating for equal rights in a single state should be considered antisemitic,” said Yousef Munayyer, a fellow at the Arab Center Washington DC. ACLU executive director Anthony Romero argued in 2019 that using IHRA to evaluate civil rights complaints on college campuses could result in “chilling constitutionally protected speech by incorrectly equating criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism.”
Controversial definitions notwithstanding, the envoy position typically flew under the radar until Donald Trump’s presidency, when his failure to fill the post until midway through his term outraged Jewish institutions and bolstered concerns that his administration harbored white nationalist sympathies. His eventual appointee, Elan Carr—a former Army counterterrorism officer in Iraq and gang prosecutor in Los Angeles who assumed the role in February 2019—attracted criticism for reconceptualizing the position to target domestic antisemitism. “It is not the role of the State Department to fight antisemitism or, frankly, racism or anything else domestically,” Ira Forman, an Obama-appointed envoy who served from 2013–2017, told me. While Carr, who did not respond to interview requests for this story, insisted in his speeches that antisemitism comes from all parts of the political spectrum, his work reflected a view that antisemitism was almost wholly a left-wing phenomenon, engineered by pro-Palestine activists on college campuses. He championed the expanded use of IHRA, supporting Trump’s controversial executive order mandating its application to federal civil rights claims—a change designed to make students’ complaints about anti-Zionism in higher education more likely to succeed in court. He used the official envoy Twitter account to attack critics of Israel, even once accusing the liberal Zionist lobby group J Street of antisemitism.
Lipstadt is likely to reject much of Carr’s example, turning the office’s attention back to international matters. Joel Rubin, a former deputy assistant Secretary of State in the Obama administration, said that Lipstadt has the opportunity to use the office to go after transnational white supremacist networks. Her scholarship might also prepare her to engage with countries where government-sponsored Holocaust minimization persists, like Poland and Hungary. But she will be unable to avoid weighing in on the nature of anti-Zionism’s relationship to antisemitism. She will have to decide, for example, whether to speak out against a growing tendency in Germany to condemn criticism of Israel: In the years since 2019, when the German parliament passed a resolution calling the BDS movement antisemitic, several German Palestinian academics and journalists have lost their jobs for anti-Zionist speech, while left-wing Jewish activists have had their talks canceled and their cultural projects defunded. In the UK, meanwhile, where many universities have adopted the IHRA definition of antisemitism, dozens of students and academics have been placed under investigation for old social media posts criticizing Israel, according to Giovanni Fassina, director of the European Legal Support Center, which defends Palestinian activists facing repression.
Lipstadt is likely to reject much of Carr’s example. But she will be unable to avoid weighing in on the nature of anti-Zionism’s relationship to antisemitism.
For Palestine solidarity activists, Lipstadt’s record on such issues is unlikely to inspire confidence: On BDS, she has written that although she does not consider everyone who adopts the tactic antisemitic, she believes the charge applies to the movement’s founders, since they call for the right of return of Palestinian refugees and therefore the end of Israel as a Jewish state. In her recent confirmation testimony, she described the IHRA definition as a “useful” tool for delineating between legitimate criticism and antisemitism. “This is not merely an academic debate at this point,” said Munayyer. “She will be seen as a validator for certain policies. Her position on IHRA will be used to further its implementation.”
FOR THE PAST DECADE, the field of Jewish studies has housed a rich debate between—to adopt the terminology of the British historian David Feldman, director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Study of Antisemitism at the University of London—“eternalists,” who understand antisemitism as a phenomenon united by persistent features across geography and time, and “contextualists,” who caution against drawing broad connections between historically distinctive periods of anti-Jewish activity. The two lenses are not necessarily mutually exclusive—Feldman told me he often uses both to analyze recurring antisemitic themes that appear in disparate contexts—but disagreements do arise between scholars leaning one way or the other. The historian David Engel, a foremost member of the contextualist camp, argued in his groundbreaking 2008 essay “Away from a Definition of Antisemitism” that the term “antisemitism” could itself be an obstacle to understanding, since different tendencies grouped under its heading sometimes bear little relationship to one another. Lipstadt, in contrast, uses eternalist arguments: In Antisemitism: Here and Now, a 2019 field guide to the subject written for a general audience, she describes anti-Jewish bigotry as a prejudice that circulates the globe “not unlike a stubborn infection.” She points to “basic ideas or illusions”—such as conspiracy theories about Jewish control of financial and political systems—that “remain constant,” arguing, “Medication may alleviate the symptoms, but the infection itself lies dormant and may reemerge at an opportune moment in a new incarnation, a different ‘outer shell.’”
Critics of the eternalist conception argue that this theory—and the “virus” metaphor in particular—exceptionalizes anti-Jewish hatred, impeding solidarity with other racialized groups. “I think [it creates] a notion that Jews are somehow more persecuted, more special,” said Joshua Shanes, a professor of Jewish history at the College of Charleston. “It’s almost a religious worldview. Jewish tradition famously says that ‘Eisav sonei es Yaakov,’ ‘Esau hates Jacob,’ pathologically. This sense that it’s intrinsic to non-Jews to hate Jews can justify a hatred back.” Trachtenberg makes a similar argument: “If one accepts antisemitism to be eternal, and not a consequence of social or historical factors, then it is a fact of life that will forever push Jewish people into defensive postures. It will make us more nationalist, more reactionary, more militaristic, and more closed off from the rest of the world,” he said.
Though not all eternalist thinkers are Zionists, leading Zionists have long espoused eternalist views: In 1882, in one of the movement’s earliest pamphlets, the Russian Zionist activist Leon Pinsker described hatred of Jews as an “incurable” social disease that Jews could escape only by creating their own state. Lipstadt has also defended Zionism in those terms. Though she has emphasized that not all criticism of Israeli policies should be considered antisemitic, she writes in her recent field guide that criticism of Israel crosses the line into antisemitism when it involves the “negation of Jewish nationhood,” or in other words, when it challenges Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.
Lipstadt’s division between kosher criticism and antisemitic “delegitimization” reflects common liberal Zionist thinking. But as Israel’s government moves further to the right, the occupation becomes more entrenched, and the two-state solution drifts further out of reach, it becomes harder to argue that Israel’s status as a Jewish state can be separated from its human rights abuses—especially since many of the Israeli government’s discriminatory policies, like the Knesset’s 2018 passage of a law that gives Jews alone the right to “exercise national self-determination” in the State of Israel, are explicitly designed to uphold the state’s Jewishness at the expense of its democracy. “As someone born in Jerusalem who has dealt with living under Israeli apartheid, I clearly view opposition to Zionism and opposition to a state favoring Jews over non-Jews as distinct from hatred of Jews,” said Ahmad Abuznaid, executive director of the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights. “It’s concerning to me that [the envoy] position could further muddy the distinction between critiques of Zionism and antisemitism.”
Lipstadt appeared to struggle with these contradictions in a 2019 interview with The New Yorker’s Isaac Chotiner, in which she tripped over herself in the attempt to explain how a state could be both majority Jewish and democratic:
I certainly don’t mean a religious state. I mean a state where Jews are, as long as they maintain it, a majority, that they . . . You know, it would never be an artificial majority, in other words. ‘Uh-oh, those other people are multiplying too fast, get rid of them’—never that. But both a democratic state and, it is to be hoped, a state in which Jews are a majority.
To explain why she thinks that Jewish majority is important, she has sometimes resorted to Islamophobic generalizations: In a 2019 conversation with the pundit Bari Weiss at New York’s 92nd Street Y, she challenged those who advocate for a single democratic state in Israel/Palestine to “name for me one other state with a Muslim majority where a minority religion is thriving.”
This commitment to an even-handed approach sometimes leads Lipstadt to strange contortions, in which she appends reflexive criticism of the left to statements calling out the right’s misbehavior, as if to assure a distrusting audience that she’s unbiased.
Lipstadt’s eternalist views also inform her belief that antisemitism is a nonpartisan hatred, likely to appear on either side of the aisle—even as most recent incidents of deadly antisemitic violence in which political motive could be discerned, like those in Pittsburgh and Poway, have been linked to the right. At her confirmation hearing, she emphasized her desire to rise above the political fray, assuring Republican senators that she would be an “equal-opportunity foe of antisemitism.” Indeed, in a chapter of Antisemitism Here and Now on “antisemitism enablers,” she devotes a few pages to Donald Trump and his indulgence of the far right before turning to Jeremy Corbyn, the British Labour Party leader accused of enabling antisemitism on the far left. This commitment to an even-handed approach sometimes leads Lipstadt to strange contortions, in which she appends reflexive criticism of the left to statements calling out the right’s misbehavior, as if to assure a distrusting audience that she’s unbiased. Called to testify in a Charlottesville courtroom last year about the 2017 Unite the Right rally, she made sure to reference Karl Marx as someone who “adopted modern non-theological antisemitism” in her expert report. On January 6th, 2021, responding to an image of a Capitol Riot participant wearing a “Camp Auschwitz” sweatshirt, she tweeted, “There is antisemitism on the left, for sure, but it [sic] there on the right too.” Progressives responded angrily. “By employing the ‘both sides’ framework in a moment that required singular moral clarity, Lipstadt . . . gave credence to those voices claiming there is no difference between the Capitol riot and the Black Lives Matter protests last summer,” Jewish organizer Carinne Luck wrote in +972 Magazine. Morriah Kaplan, managing director of the Jewish anti-occupation group IfNotNow, said she finds this tendency concerning: “To fight antisemitism as envoy, you can’t just take a scattershot approach,” she told me. “You actually need to focus. And that requires being able to say, ‘the threat of X is greater than Y.’”
WHEN LANTOS introduced his bill to create the envoy position in 2004, he faced initial opposition from Bush’s State Department, which argued that it already monitored antisemitic incidents, and that the envoy would grant “exclusive status to one religious or ethnic group.” The pushback wasn’t necessarily surprising: The State Department tends to resist legislative interference across the board. Yet the principle—does it make sense to have an antisemitism envoy but no analogues for other communities? Would it be better to include anti-antisemitism efforts under the broader umbrella of anti-racism?—is still in debate.
The office may not be the only one of its kind for much longer: Last year, Representative Ilhan Omar led an effort to create an envoy to monitor and combat Islamophobia, which passed the House and received the backing of the Biden administration; it now awaits approval in the Senate. Still, some question whether the State Department should take this piecemeal approach: “Jews have it, now Muslims might have it, but what about Hindus, or Sikhs, or any other group that may face prejudice or persecution around the world? Personally, I prefer a universalist approach,” said Waxman.
Any State Department envoy is bound to be constrained by political realities: “If the US is interested in doing business with an antisemitic regime, it’ll do business with them,” Beachler said. “The position can allow [Lipstadt] to call some attention to it, but it’s not a powerful position—she’s not going to be a policymaker.” One senior Senate aide told me the position’s impact has been limited: “It’s important to signal that fighting antisemitism [matters to] the US, but I am not clear about what [the position] has actually achieved other than satisfying a particular political constituency.”
Indeed, the envoy has served a largely symbolic function over the years—reassuring an anxious Jewish community that the government cares about their concerns. Lipstadt has often played the same part for her audiences: validating their fears about antisemitism on both sides of the aisle, and assuring them that someone with scholarly bona fides wants to do something about it—even if it’s never entirely clear what that is. As Judah Bernstein, a scholar of Jewish history and antisemitism, has argued, anti-antisemitism advocates’ proposed solutions tend to be “underwhelming,” consisting of vague exhortations to “call out” hatred and maintain Jewish pride. Lipstadt has written that antisemitism “flourishes when anti-Semites . . . think that what they are doing will be welcomed and not looked upon askance”; it follows that she often exhorts audiences to identify and condemn antisemitism—but rarely goes beyond these name and shame tactics. At her confirmation hearing, Senator Ben Cardin asked what new strategies she could offer, given that previous governmental commitments to fighting antisemitism have not reduced rising concerns about its global reach. Lipstadt said that to some extent, she would pursue “more of what has been done.” And then she pivoted to the terrain she knows best: “I am an educator . . . I want to make [people] understand the pernicious nature of antisemitism . . . it has got to be addressed wherever you find it.”
Dylan Saba contributed research.