Who is Deborah Lipstadt, Biden's pick for antisemitism envoy?
US President Joe Biden recently nominated historian Professor Deborah Lipstadt to the post of Special Envoy for Monitoring and Combating anti-Semitism. The position took on extra prominence this year, due to a sharp rise in anti-Jewish sentiment and violent incidents during the Trump years and a spike in reported anti-Jewish incidents in the United States in the wake of Israel's latest episode of destruction in the Gaza Strip.
Biden’s decision to tap Lipstadt is an interesting one. She is a well-known historian specializing in modern Jewish history and Holocaust studies. In that role, she gained a measure of fame for being sued for libel by another professor, David Irving, who took issue with her description of his claims that Adolf Hitler was not even aware of the Holocaust and that Jews were not murdered in gas chambers as "Holocaust denial".
"Lipstadt has said that she does not believe Holocaust denial should be illegal"
Lipstadt's successful defence in that suit was a landmark case in demonstrating the false scholarship and bigotry at the heart of Holocaust denial. Notably, despite this experience, Lipstadt has said that she does not believe Holocaust denial should be illegal.
"I still am a firm opponent of laws against Holocaust denial. First of all, I'm a pretty fierce advocate of the First Amendment," Lipstadt told The New Yorker Magazine in 2019. "I also don’t think that these laws are efficacious. Forget the morality - I don’t think they work… I don’t want politicians making a decision on what can and cannot be said. That scares me enormously."
These are encouraging words in an atmosphere where antisemitism is rising but is simultaneously being used to stifle debate on Israel's policies against Palestinians, and to stigmatize and even criminalize support for the Palestinian cause. But there is also some cause for concern on that score.
"These are encouraging words in an atmosphere where antisemitism is rising but is simultaneously being used to stifle debate on Israel's policies against Palestinians"
The so-called "Antisemitism Envoy" is an ambassadorial position and, as such, is primarily meant to focus on anti-Jewish incidents abroad. But with the increasing effort to conflate antisemitism with anti-Zionism, or even more moderate criticism of Israel, Lipstadt is very likely to play a significant role in that debate as well. And her history there is spotty.
In 2019, when Omar Barghouti, a prominent leader of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement and an outspoken anti-Zionist was slated to speak at a Labour Party event, Lipstadt tweeted, "Here's antisemitism on the left. Founder of BDS speaking at a Labour conference. On the right it's violent. On the left it's institutional. Both are dangerous. Let's not have a food fight about which is worse."
Here, Lipstadt compared an ideology rooted in violence and explicit, historical genocide to a movement for liberation for a people who have, for over seven decades, suffered dispossession, exile, occupation, violence, and the loss of the most basic human, civil, and collective rights. Worse, she made it clear that she considered debating that false equivalence to be out of bounds.
In the New Yorker interview, Lipstadt stated that BDS calls for the "destruction" of Israel because one of the core demands is the full right of return for Palestinian refugees and the diaspora. The violent connotations of the word "destruction" are employed to imply fatal violence, even though BDS is an explicitly non-violent movement.
In Lipstadt’s vision, a Jewish state, "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, where the state acknowledges its identity as a Jewish state while giving all minority groups within that state full and equal rights and equal protection. No rights by sufferance or rights by kindness. Rights by rights. And it's a tricky thing. I am very much a believer that Jews have a legitimate right to a state, and they have to maintain that state, and that state has to be a democratic state.”
Lipstadt seemed to have some vague sense of the inherent contradiction and ahistoricity of her statement but seemed to also avoid grappling with it. The creation of Israel as a Jewish majority state was accomplished by the expulsion of between 800,000 and 1.2 million Palestinians from 1947-49, and a further displacement of some 250,000 in 1967. The Jewish majority is sustained by depriving the millions of Palestinians under occupation since 1967 of basic rights, let alone citizenship. Yet she called Barghouti, a Palestinian who calls for a reckoning with those conditions, antisemitic.
But despite these issues, it is impossible to imagine Joe Biden or any American president selecting someone who would be preferable to Lipstadt from the point of view of equal rights for all in Israel-Palestine. In 2011, for example, Lipstadt criticized both American and Israeli politicians for their frequent invoking of the Holocaust for political purposes. "When you take these terrible moments in our history, and you use it for contemporary purposes, in order to fulfil your political objectives, you mangle history, you trample on it," she said.
"Despite some disturbing statements when it comes to the question of Palestine and Israel, she is a defender of free speech, and has been a critic of equating support for BDS with antisemitism"
Lipstadt explicitly called out former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu's friendship with far-right figures, themselves accused of antisemitism, such as Hungary's Viktor Orban, and also blasted Netanyahu’s promotion of far-right Israeli Jewish parties.
There was a strong sense of trepidation that Biden would appoint a dedicated ideologue such as former head of the Anti-Defamation League Abraham Foxman to this post. Lipstadt is clearly a more thoughtful and balanced choice. Despite some disturbing statements when it comes to the question of Palestine and Israel, she is a defender of free speech, and has been a critic of equating support for BDS with antisemitism and the cynical employment of antisemitism for political purposes.
It is worth noting that Biden also nominated Rashad Hussain, a former US representative to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation as the first Muslim Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom at the same time he nominated Lipstadt. One can hope this indicates there will be room for progressive groups to influence these actors in the next few years.
Mitchell Plitnick is a political analyst and writer. He is the former vice president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace and former director of the US Office of B'Tselem.
Follow him on Twitter: @MJPlitnick
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