Interview'Persecution starts with small steps. So does reversing it'

US envoy to query Poland over its demand for reparations for Jews killed by Poles

Lipstadt tells ToI she’s ‘disappointed’ with Warsaw’s stance. Also voices support for Iran protesters, says she monitors US antisemitism, not sure if Trump rally salutes echo Nazis

Jacob Magid

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)

NEW YORK — The Biden administration’s special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism says she will press the Polish government over a recent “disappointing” report it commissioned demanding reparations from Germany for Jews who were killed by Poles during World War II.

Poland has demanded 1.3 trillion euros ($1.29 trillion) in reparations from Germany for the damages, primarily for the human toll of the war. Included in that list are a number of villages that saw pogroms by ethnic Poles in which hundreds or even thousands of Jews were massacred. The government report argues that Warsaw is owed reparations for these attacks because they took place while Nazi Germany was occupying Poland.

After coming under fire for the demand, the report’s author Arkadiusz Mularczyk defended its inclusion, saying that “international conventions state that occupiers are responsible for the population’s safety.”

The justification did not convince US Ambassador Deborah Lipstadt, who condemned the report during a Wednesday interview, “I think it’s quite disturbing to say that the Germans should have stopped what happened.”

“Part of the greatness of a country is its willingness to look at where it succeeded and where it failed,” the US antisemitism envoy argued. “America has to do that. And I think Poland has to do that.”

Lipstadt said she hadn’t yet been made aware of the Polish report when she met with Warsaw’s ambassador to Washington earlier this month. However, she plans to travel to Poland in the coming months and “this is certainly something I would address.”

The ambassador made a point of crediting Poland for several appointees to an advisory council for the Auschwitz-Birkenau museum, namely the chairman of Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust museum, Dani Dayan. However, she said this latest stance by Warsaw “was disappointing, to say the least.”

Lipstadt weighed in on a variety of foreign and domestic affairs during the conversation with The Times of Israel on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly’s annual high-level week, including Iran, her recent trip to Saudi Arabia and the Palestinians.

Sounding off on Iran

She quickly expressed her solidarity with those protesting in Iran against the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who was allegedly beaten to death while in custody after being arrested by the Islamic Republic’s feared morality police for wearing a hijab headscarf in an “improper” way.

“One can’t help but be outraged,” Lipstadt said. “In case anybody needed to be told, that shouldn’t happen.”

“As a woman who has dedicated her life to understanding and fighting intolerance, ignorance and tyranny, I stand in solidarity with the women of Iran who are marching in the streets decrying a brutal regime’s vile treatment of girls and women. The Iranian people deserve better,” she later tweeted.

Two days earlier, the envoy called out Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi on Twitter, after the latter sought to cast doubt on whether the Holocaust happened, during an interview with 60 Minutes.

“Historical events should be investigated by researchers and historians. There are some signs that it happened. If so, they should allow it to be investigated and researched,” Raisi said upon being probed on the matter.

Lipstadt tweeted that Raisi’s remarks were “ludicrous and dangerous” as well as forms of “Holocaust denial [and] antisemitism.”

The post was widely shared, including by White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, US special envoy for Iran Rob Malley and State Department Spokesman Ned Price.

Lipstadt admitted to being surprised by the tweet’s wide reception. “This is one of the things that I didn’t fully understand… when I took the job — [my] impact — maybe in a small way… [on] American foreign policy.”

Small steps in Saudi

Lipstadt made her first foreign trip as ambassador to Saudi Arabia earlier this summer and met with a variety of government officials, journalists and members of civil society.

While she has recently lauded Riyadh for reported improvements in textbooks’ depiction of Jews, the US envoy clarified “that there’s a lot wrong” with the country’s record on antisemitism.

Still, she expressed appreciation for the country’s commitment to addressing the issue, asserting that it’s “genuine.”

Explaining her decision to kick off her work abroad in the Gulf, Lipstadt said improving the perception of Jews in one Mideastern country could have a “domino effect” felt throughout the region and could also “lessen tensions between Muslims and Jews.”

“Persecution and genocide start with small steps, reversing hatred also starts with small steps,” she said, describing her efforts.

Staying in her lane on the Palestinians

Last month, Lipstadt was one of several US officials who criticized Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas after he asserted in Germany that Israel has committed “50 Holocausts” against the Palestinians.

“Holocaust distortion can have dangerous consequences and fuels antisemitism,” she tweeted at the time.

Asked whether she planned to engage Ramallah on the issue as she has with other governments, Lipstadt appeared hesitant, recognizing the political sensitivity of the issue about which every word the administration offers is scrutinized globally.

“If there’s antisemitism, I speak out. If the opportunity arose on this particular issue,” she began before catching herself and saying, “you also have to be very careful.”

US Special Envoy to Combat and monitor Antisemitism Deborah Lipstadt is sworn in by US Vice President Kamala Harris at the latter’s office in Washington on May 24, 2022. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

Lipstadt did, however, take the opportunity to criticize the UN Human Right Council’s Commission of Inquiry into Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. She clarified that the probe isn’t inherently antisemitic but said the Geneva-based council placed “disproportionate attention” on Israel.

“By having this singular and completely out of whack focus on Israel as we’ve seen in the past, it makes legitimate criticism seem [illegitimate],” she argued.

Antisemitism both foreign and domestic

Last week, Lipstadt participated in a Washington ceremony put on by Lufthansa, which saw the airline formerly recognize the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition for antisemitism.

The gathering with several Jewish executives came four months after Lufthansa flight attendants booted all visibly Haredi passengers off a plane after claiming that a number of them had refused to wear masks. The US envoy joined a chorus of Jewish groups who lambasted the airline for antisemitism.

While adopting a definition of antisemitism appeared like an odd step for a commercial company to take, Lipstadt noted that it was done in tandem with several other steps, including the institution of a training program for staff to be educated on antisemitism and the appointment of a high-level executive who would be tasked with addressing the issue at the airline.

Jewish passengers who were kicked off a Lufthansa flight were greeted by police once they arrived in Frankfurt. (Courtesy via JTA)

“I don’t think something like this will happen again in the Lufthansa corporation,” she said. “It’s not like ‘Oh, we [adopted the definition]. Now we’re okay and can check off the box or wear the IHRA badge and are done.”

Lipstadt had an easier time weighing on the Lufthansa debacle, given that it involved a foreign airline. This is because the legal mandate of the special envoy is limited to combating and monitoring antisemitism that takes place outside of the US.

Lipstadt has weighed in on certain domestic matters though, including mass shootings that have been motivated by racism or antisemitism.

In a speech at a New York event on religious pluralism just before the Wednesday interview, she stressed the importance of recognizing the “interconnectedness” of different forms of hatred and the need to address them in unison, using examples of hate-inspired violence that have taken place in the US.

Illustrative: In this photo from August 11, 2017, multiple white nationalist groups march with torches through the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville, Virginia. (Mykal McEldowney/The Indianapolis Star via AP)

“You can’t fight the hatred that we saw in Charlottesville, or at the Tops supermarket, without recognizing the interlocking quality of antisemitism and racism,” she said, tying the white nationalist-fueled violence surrounding a 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Virginia to a racially-motivated mass-shooting in Buffalo earlier this year.

Lipstadt said that while the scope of her job in the State Department is limited to largely foreign affairs she has been in contact with Kristen Clark, who is the assistant attorney general for civil rights at the Justice Department. “She asked me to alert her to things domestically that may not make it to her [desk].”

But asked about the gestures made by Trump supporters at rallies over the weekend that critics likened to the Nazi salute, the antisemitism envoy said she wasn’t sure whether the comparison was accurate before joking that there were enough other “disturbing” matters on her plate that she’d rather focus on addressing first.

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