Preaching Tolerance Abroad, as Hatred Surges at Home
A year ago, Deborah Lipstadt, newly confirmed as the U.S. special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism, attended a White House reception and reintroduced herself to President Biden as he passed by.
“I know who you are,” Dr. Lipstadt recalled the president telling her. “And you have a big job.”
Mr. Biden was right, but for reasons neither of them fully imagined.
Dr. Lipstadt, whose role at the State Department for the first time carries the rank of ambassador, “leads efforts to advance U.S. foreign policy to counter antisemitism throughout the world,” according to her job description. But as she spreads a message of tolerance across Europe and the Middle East, an alarming rise of antisemitic attacks and rhetoric at home in the United States has changed her approach to the job.
“My predecessors could go to countries and say, ‘You have a problem, and we take this seriously, and you should take it seriously.’ I can’t do that. I have to go and say, ‘We have a problem.’”
Dr. Lipstadt, 76, has spent her career studying antisemitism. To take the envoy position, she took a leave from teaching at Emory University, where she is the founding director of the Tam Institute for Jewish Studies.
“Antisemitism is not a niche issue,” she said in an interview. “It is an existential threat to democracy.”
The special envoy’s role was created two decades ago, but Dr. Lipstadt, the highest-profile scholar to hold the position, serves a president doing something new: seeking Europe’s help in battling a 2,000-year-old prejudice resurgent in America.
In February, Doug Emhoff, the husband of Vice President Kamala Harris, hosted European special envoys at the White House to advise the United States on a national strategy for combating antisemitism. The move surprised some envoys more accustomed to the United States’ lecturing on the topic.
“This was an acknowledgment that antisemitism is a serious problem in the U.S. too, and an action plan has to be worked out in order to address it more strategically, not only as a reaction to antisemitic incidents,” said Felix Klein, a German government commissioner for Jewish life and countering antisemitism, who attended the conference. “It’s a much more cooperative approach.”
Last year there were 3,697 reported incidents of antisemitic assault, harassment and vandalism in the United States, according to an annual audit by the Anti-Defamation League. The figure, a 36 percent increase over 2021, is the largest number of incidents against Jews in the United States since the organization began its assessments in 1979.
Diplomacy is new to Dr. Lipstadt, a native of Queens, N.Y., who was once a rapid-fire voice on Twitter. Her Senate confirmation was held up for eight months, in part because a hard-right senator, Ron Johnson, Republican of Wisconsin, objected to her tweet denouncing his comments about the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol as “white supremacy/nationalism.”
Now, her staff vets her tweets.
Dr. Lipstadt’s office is relatively tiny, with a $1.5 million budget and several staff members, supplemented with contractors and diplomats on temporary assignment. Led by presidential appointees, the office changes leadership with each new administration and is subject to shifting priorities; President Trump took two years to name her predecessor.
While Dr. Lipstadt acknowledges domestic antisemitism in meetings abroad, the problems at home are not in her job description. And she must tread carefully in the nations she visits, leaving broader problems in foreign politics to her State Department colleagues.
Her narrow focus is notable in places like Poland, whose right-wing populist government is a frontline ally in the West’s efforts to counter Russia, and in Israel, whose far-right government has led to deep strains with the American Jewish community.
She also has been forced to navigate an often contentious debate about the very definition of antisemitism, which some fear can be used to shield Israel from legitimate criticism.
U.S. policy follows the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism, which was widely adopted by Western governments after lobbying by Jewish groups, E.U. leaders and the alliance itself.
But that definition has come under fire from scores of Israeli and Jewish scholars and human rights organizations, who say it wrongly casts criticism of Israel as antisemitic.
The alliance’s working antisemitism definition has examples related to criticism of Israel, including applying double standards by demanding it behave in ways not expected of other democratic countries, or denying Jews the right of self-determination by claiming that the existence of Israel is a racist endeavor.
Dr. Lipstadt touched on the controversy during her confirmation hearing.
“I don’t think any rational-minded person would think that criticism of Israeli policies is antisemitic,” she said, while adding that some criticism of Israel does “cross the line” into antisemitism.
The person who drafted the antisemitism working definition nearly two decades ago, Kenneth S. Stern, the director of the Center for the Study of Hate at Bard College in New York, is now one its best-known critics. He said the definition has been “weaponized” to stifle criticism of Israel and its conduct toward Palestinians. He is particularly concerned about the definition’s impact on college campus debate.
“This is trying to say what can and can’t be taught,” Mr. Stern said in an interview. “To fight antisemitism you have to preserve democratic institutions. You can’t use the state to put a finger on the scale.”
Dr. Lipstadt began her tenure as a special envoy with visits to Saudi Arabia, Israel and the United Arab Emirates. The choice to visit Saudi Arabia was criticized by some who cited the kingdom’s record of human rights abuses.
“I really think that there’s room to make progress with certain Muslim-majority countries,” Dr. Lipstadt said. “I want to demonstrate that the territorial crisis in the Middle East, which is now at a very tender point, is something separate and apart from prejudice and hatred.”
On the Saudi trip, she said, “I happened to be sitting with an imam who said to me, ‘If Israel solved the Palestinian issue, there would be no antisemitism.’”
The professor in her wanted to trace the history of antisemitism back to the 12th century.
Instead, she recalled the battle in New York City over a proposal for a Muslim community center, open to the public, several blocks from the former World Trade Center site. Tensions that lingered for years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks contributed to Islamophobia and an uproar that eventually scuttled plans for what its opponents called “the ground zero mosque.”
The imam agreed with Dr. Lipstadt that the community center opposition was an example of a broader prejudice. Likewise, she offered, the territorial dispute in Israel should not be a reason for prejudice against Jews in the wider world.
“Not to diminish the importance of the territorial conflict, but antisemitism is something that exists separate and apart from that,” she said. “As I said to an ambassador from a majority-Muslim country recently, now is the time more than ever to double down on the fight against prejudice.”
Last year, she met with executives of the German airline Lufthansa after the airline barred scores of passengers wearing the distinctive dress of ultra-Orthodox Jews from a connecting flight from Germany to Hungary, after some of the passengers refused to wear medical masks. In the meeting, Dr. Lipstadt again emphasized the link between antisemitism and all forms of bigotry. “This was at the very best unconscious bias,” she said. “Imagine if four Black kids had misbehaved and you took every Black person off the plane.”
Lufthansa publicly apologized, and said it would overhaul employee training with help from American Jewish Committee experts. The airline agreed to a $2.7 million settlement with the passengers barred from the flight.
She was in Israel in July when a group of ultra-Orthodox teens and young men disrupted bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies at the Western Wall’s egalitarian plaza. The extremists tore up prayer books, blew whistles and shouted “Nazis” and “animals” at the worshipers.
“Deeply disturbed by the troubling actions of a group of extremists last week at the Kotel,” Dr. Lipstadt wrote on Twitter, referring to the Western Wall. “Let us make no mistake, had such a hateful incident — such incitement — happened in any other country, there’d be little hesitation in labeling it antisemitism.”