Professor Lipstadt gives tutorial on her first day as antisemitism envoy

Ambassador Deborah Lipstadt, left, and Museum Director Sara Bloomfield. | Photo courtesy U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum

In her first appearance as special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism, Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt said many people and organizations fail to include antisemitism in their “litany of legitimate prejudices” and don’t take it seriously until it is too late.

Antisemitism is a unique kind of prejudice, Lipstadt said at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum on May 12.

Lipstadt said one of the striking features of antisemitism is that it comes from many different places on the political spectrum. Additionally, many antisemitic people use Israel as a foil for their antisemitism.

While Lipstadt said criticism of Israeli policies is not antisemitism in itself, it is still important to find balance in the discourse.

“When there is an imbalance in the criticism, a failure to see the wrongs of others, attributing blame to only one party, and the use of double standards, one is compelled to ask, ‘What’s the basis for this imbalance?’” Lipstadt said.

President Joe Biden nominated Lipstadt for the post in 2021. But her nomination was delayed for eight months after Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.) objected to her nomination.

Following the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the Capitol, Johnson said that he might have been concerned for his well-being had those who broke into the Capitol been affiliated with Black Lives Matter instead of being a largely white, pro-Trump crowd.

In response, Lipstadt tweeted that his comments amounted to “white supremacy/nationalism.”

Lipstadt said another characteristic of antisemitism is the phenomenon of punching up and punching down. Most prejudices posit that the reviled group is “lesser than the rest of society.” A racist person might see a person of color as a “lesser value” than themselves. So they punch down to keep the person of color down.

“So, too, does the antisemite punch down, saying that Jews are dirty, Jews are revolting, Jews spread disease,” Lipstadt said. “But he also punches up. The antisemite is convinced Jews are richer than, more powerful than, more able to control matters than the rest of [society].”

Even after the spike in antisemitic events, Lipstadt said too many people, organizations and institutions still do not take antisemitism seriously.

“Conversely, when there is an act of antisemitism, those who condemn it cannot bring themselves to focus specifically on this particular prejudice,” Lipstadt said. “They condemn antisemitism together with all other acts of prejudice. It’s as if antisemitism is not a true outrage and cannot stand alone as something of real concern.”

Antisemitism doesn’t just happen between individuals on a local scale. Lipstadt cited antisemitic tropes used by Russia to stir nationalist sentiment and justify its war on Ukraine. Russia’s leaders have repeatedly engaged in “egregious” Holocaust distortion by accusing Ukrainian leadership of being Nazis themselves and making “fanciful assertions” about Adolf Hitler’s origins.

“What we are hearing from Russian leaders is a form of Holocaust denial,” Lipstadt said. “Maybe not hardcore denial of the facts themselves, but softcore denial. This twisting of the facts, this turning of victim into victimizer is equally dangerous as denial of gas chambers and mass annihilation.”

Still, Lipstadt said, there are “good developments” in the fight against antisemitism. Domestically, she said the Joe Biden and Kamala Harris administration is fully committed to fighting antisemitism wherever it occurs, whether in the classroom, on campus, online or in political venues.

Overseas, Lipstadt cited the Abraham Accords, a joint statement signed by Israel, the United States and several Arab nations as an important step in the normalization between some Muslim-majority countries and Israel. Lipstadt said the parties to the accords can address some of the violent extremism and antisemitism in the Middle East.

In late 2021, the European Union announced a strategy to combat antisemitism and foster Jewish life. The Netherlands and Romania joined Germany, France, the United Kingdom and other countries in appointing national antisemitism envoys and coordinators.

The Organization of American States also appointed its first-ever commissioner to monitor and combat antisemitism.

“These new and existing appointments are a welcome sign and we celebrate them,” Lipstadt said. “Even as we regret, deeply and profoundly, their necessity.”

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