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5 August 2021updated 07 Sep 2021 11:16am

How will Deborah Lipstadt define anti-Semitism in the US?

Joe Biden’s nominee for anti-Semitism envoy will represent a country without consensus on what the oldest hatred looks like.

By Emily Tamkin

How should a US envoy responsible for monitoring and combating anti-Semitism approach their role when Americans don’t even agree on what the term anti-Semitism entails? That is the challenge before Deborah Lipstadt, US president Joe Biden’s pick for the position.

The long-awaited nomination, which came on 30 July mere days after a swastika was found carved into an elevator in the State Department, was received warmly by prominent figures from across the American Jewish community.

“Lipstadt is well placed to expose, confront and address the alarming rise in anti-Semitism we have witnessed both at home and around the world these past few years,” J Street, a “pro-Israel, pro-peace” nonprofit, said in a statement. For Halie Soifer, CEO of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, the renowned Holocaust historian “is absolutely the right person at the right time for this critical role”. Bill Kristol, a conservative never-Trump commentator, tweeted that the “courageous” Lipstadt “should have broad bipartisan support”. 

Religious leaders had kind words, too. “Her smarts and fearlessness will help us stem the surging tide of anti-Jewish hate. TY ⁦@POTUS⁩!” tweeted Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, North America’s largest Jewish movement.

Lipstadt’s professional experience is extensive. A professor of modern Jewish history and Holocaust studies at Emory University, and a founding director of its Institute for Jewish Studies, Lipstadt is the author of several books, including the recent Antisemitism: Here and Now. She is also the subject of the 2016 film Denial, in which actress Rachel Weisz portrayed her successful legal struggle against the notorious Holocaust-denier David Irving. 

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Lipstadt was not, however, the first choice of some progressive Jews, who instead rallied around Nancy Kaufman, former chief executive of the National Council of Jewish Women. It was Kaufman, they believed, who would work to bridge the divide between the Jewish left and more centrist Jewish spheres. IfNotNow, a progressive activist group dedicated to ending Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories, was particularly vocal in support of Kaufman – though Kaufman, in turn, has been accused by some of giving a pass toward antisemitism in progressive spaces.

I spoke to Kaufman in late July, shortly before news of Lipstadt’s announcement broke. She acknowledged she would have been an unlikely final choice for the role, citing the political pressures facing the Biden administration and the attacks against her. But she also said it was “outrageous” of her detractors to claim she would look the other way on anti-Semitism from those critical of Israel. “No one is going to question my ability to speak out against anti-Semitism… There is nothing about me that isn’t Jewish.”

Progressives such as Morriah Kaplan, a director of training and political education with IfNotNow, were not entirely defeated by the selection of Lipstadt, whom Kaplan acknowledges brings “tons of important expertise”. Furthermore, the job did not go to former Anti-Defamation League leader Abe Foxman, whom the group had argued would conflate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism.

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Kaplan did still feel a need to warn, however, against a tendency to draw equivalence between anti-Semitism on the left and the right. She even pointed to Lipstadt’s tweet about anti-Semitic symbolism on show at the storming of the Capitol on 6 January, in which Lipstadt seemed to feel a need to note anti-Semitism on the left alongside its demonstrable presence on the right among the mob members. 

Back in October of last year, when I interviewed Lipstadt for a piece on contemporary anti-Semitism, she spoke of a “normalisation of hatred” taking place across the United States. And while she noted there was anti-Semitism on the left and right alike, she also said that it was the far-right that had “done the most damage” in recent years. “Differing with Israel’s policies, even differing in the extreme, that’s not anti-Semitism,” she added on the difference between anti-Semitism and criticism of Israel. “It’s when you differ and then rely on stereotypes.”

These questions – over contemporary anti-Semitism’s ideological background, how connected it is to other hatreds, and the distinction between anti-Semitism and criticism of Israel – speak to a challenge that is at least as great as bridging divides between various strands of Jewish thinking in the US. American Jewish groups do not even necessarily agree on whether or how to use various definitions of anti-Semitism, or whether those definitions should be used to inform policy. 

After ice cream company Ben & Jerry’s announced on 19 July that it would no longer sell its products in the occupied territories, the leadership of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations railed against the decision. Meanwhile, Americans for Peace Now, a member of the Conference of Presidents, publicly defended the ice cream manufacturers’ decision. 

The disagreement is felt by people outside of leadership roles and institutions, too. According to a recent survey commissioned by the Jewish Electorate Institute, 90 per cent of American Jews are concerned about anti-Semitism. But while 61 percent of American Jews overall believe that the threat comes from the right, 69 percent of Orthodox Jews said that the threat of anti-Semitism is from the left. 

The reality is that it is unlikely that any one person can represent the United States on anti-Semitism in a way that is satisfactory to all American Jews, because so many disagree on what, exactly, the threat of anti-Semitism looks and feels like. What will be worth watching is which definitions Lipstadt herself embraces; who she listens to; and whose voices she echoes back to the wider world. 

[See also: Anti-Semitism in the time of Trump]