Biden antisemitism envoy nominee faces GOP criticism at confirmation hearing

Sens. Rubio and Johnson raise old tweet by Deborah Lipstadt calling out Republicans for bigotry; Holocaust scholar insists she speaks out against both sides of the aisle

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Deborah Lipstadt, nominated to be the US special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism, with the rank of ambassador, speaks during her Senate Foreign Relations nomination hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, February 8, 2022. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Deborah Lipstadt, nominated to be the US special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism, with the rank of ambassador, speaks during her Senate Foreign Relations nomination hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, February 8, 2022. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

WASHINGTON — US President Joe Biden’s nominee for special envoy to combat and monitor antisemitism Deborah Lipstadt vowed to speak out against antisemitism, regardless of the political affiliation of its origin, as she came under attack from Republican lawmakers during her Senate confirmation hearing on Tuesday for old tweets in which she sounded off against racism in the GOP.

Lipstadt’s hearing had been delayed for months by Republicans, who were put off by her past comments and partisan affiliations. But pressure to hold the session, particularly from Jewish groups across the political spectrum, rose in recent weeks following the hostage standoff last month at a synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, where a gunman held four worshipers hostage, convinced Jews were powerful enough to free an infamous terror convict being held at a US federal prison nearby.

Lipstadt, a well-known Holocaust scholar, began her opening statement by reciting a Hebrew blessing thanking God “who frees the captives.”

She asserted that the Colleyville standoff was “not an isolated incident” and that attacks targeting Jews are on the rise.

The Holocaust scholar lauded the Senate decision to elevate the position of antisemitism envoy to the rank of ambassador, demonstrating the seriousness with which the US takes the topic. Notably though, the purview of the post only allows the envoy to address antisemitism abroad and not within US borders.

Lipstadt is best known to the wider public for her appearance in a landmark British legal case in which she fought a libel suit brought by Holocaust denier David Irving. That experience was portrayed by superstar actor Rachel Weisz in the Hollywood feature film “Denial.”

Deborah Lipstadt (right), professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust studies at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, with Penguin books chief executive Anthony Forbes Watson (left), arriving at London’s High Court, on Tuesday, January 11, 2000, to attend her libel case brought on by David Irving against her and Penguin books for claiming he is ‘one of the most dangerous spokespersons of Holocaust denial.’ (AP Photo/Max Nash)

She mentioned the experience among three “life-changing moments” during which she “confronted real-world antisemitism,” qualifying her for the post.

“If confirmed, I shall fight antisemitism worldwide, without fear or favor, and with that one goal emblazoned before me to make a difference,” she said.

She was then pressed by Republican Senator Marco Rubio over her old tweets.

Lipstadt acknowledged that she should not tweet “in the middle of the night” and that her posts “have sometimes not been as nuanced… as I like.”

However, she argued that when viewed “holistically,” her record shows criticism of members of her own Democratic Party. Lipstadt accused Rep. Ilhan Omar of engaging in antisemitic tropes after she suggested that pro-Israel Americans have allegiances to a foreign country in 2019. Omar has since apologized.

Lipstadt also said Tuesday that her criticisms never descended to personal attacks.

Republican Senator Ron Johnson did not accept her assertion, however, and insisted that Lipstadt’s public criticism of him had crossed a line and disqualified her for the position of antisemitism envoy.

Last March, Lipstadt tweeted an article about a statement Johnson made in which he said he would have been more concerned by the January 6 insurrection had the rioters been “Black Lives Matter and Antifa protesters” as opposed to Trump supporters. Lipstadt wrote, “This is white supremacy/nationalism. Pure and simple.”

Johnson said Lipstadt lobbed “malicious poison” at him and should have gotten to know him and his partnership with a Black pastor in Wisconsin before accusing him of being a white supremacist.

Lipstadt has apologized for the post and Johnson said Tuesday that he accepts the apology, but concluded his questioning by declaring that he could not support her nomination before walking out of the hearing.

Before adjourning the Senate confirmation hearing, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez made a point of defending Lipstadt.

“If we cannot call out comments for what they are, if we don’t understand that words have power to them — sometimes very negative, powerful consequences — then we can never challenge whether it be antisemitism or racism or other elements,” Menendez said.

Menendez then asked Lipstadt whether, if confirmed, she’ll continue calling out antisemitism regardless of where it sprouts.

“Absolutely,” she responded. “Because after I’ve stopped this position, I’ll still have to live with myself.”

Asked by Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen if she considers criticism of Israel to be antisemitic, Lipstadt said that she does not.

“I don’t think any rational-minded person would think that criticism of Israeli policies is antisemitic,” she said.

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., questions Deborah E. Lipstadt, nominated to be special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism, with the rank of ambassador, about comments she made online, during her Senate Foreign Relations nomination hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Feb. 8, 2022. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

However, Lipstadt acknowledged that in some instances, criticism of Israel does “cross the line” into antisemitism.

She pointed to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism as a “helpful tool.” The classification provides a number of examples for when Israel criticism does cross that line, such as when Israel’s policies are compared to those of the Nazis.

The definition has become more controversial in recent years though, with progressive, pro-Israel groups arguing that it is being used to stifle legitimate criticism of Israel.

Lipstadt urged practicing caution with the matter, saying “a lot depends on the context” and that “it’s important to be nuanced” because “if you call everything antisemitism, when you have a real active antisemitism, people aren’t paying attention.”

Asked by Rubio about the recent Amnesty International report accusing Israel of practicing apartheid, Lipstadt said she found the determination to to “ahistorical and unhistorical.”

Despite the pushback from some Republicans, Lipstadt is expected to be voted out of committee in the coming days, given the Democratic majority. She is then expected to be confirmed through a full vote in the Senate as well.

The antisemitism monitor is responsible for reporting on antisemitism overseas and pressing governments to adopt measures to mitigate antisemitism.

Lipstadt, 74, is the Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish History and Holocaust Studies at Emory University in Atlanta, where she was the founding director of the Institute for Jewish Studies.

A picture made available by the Italian online news portal Open, showing people gathered around a swastika-covered casket outside the St. Lucia church, in Rome, on Monday, January 10, 2022. (Open Via AP)

She is the author of “Beyond Belief: The American Press and the Coming of the Holocaust 1933-1945”; “History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier”; “The Eichmann Trial” and “Holocaust: An American Understanding” and “Antisemitism: Here and Now.”

She has also served in several roles at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, including twice as a presidential appointee to the museum’s council, and was asked by former US president George W. Bush to represent the US at the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the White House noted in its biography of Lipstadt.

The historian received a BA from City College in New York and an MA and PhD from Brandeis University. She is also fluent in Hebrew.

In 2020, during the election, she broke a longstanding taboo on comparing present-day American politicians to the Nazis and endorsed an ad by the Jewish Democratic Council of America likening the Trump administration to 1930s Germany. Lipstadt said Holocaust analogies were still off-limits, but she could see parallels to the rise of the Nazis.

Lipstadt will be the first nominee who will need to be confirmed by the Senate since the post was first created in 2004. Last year, Congress moved to elevate the position to ambassador level, with more funding and easier access to the secretary of state and the president. If confirmed, Lipstadt will be the fifth individual in the post.

A diverse array of Jewish organizations were quick to laud the nomination, from Americans for Peace Now, to the Jewish Federations of North America and the Orthodox Union. Israel’s Ambassador to the UN Gilad Erdan also welcomed her nomination.

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