Vowing to be ‘equal-opportunity foe’ of antisemitism, Deborah Lipstadt woos senators

Biden’s selection for special monitor appears to secure bipartisan support at long-delayed confirmation hearing, even though some Republicans continue to grumble at her nomination

Deborah Lipstadt, US President Joe Biden's nominee to be antisemitism monitor, testifies in the Dirksen Office building near the US Capitol, on February 8, 2022. (Ron Kampeas/JTA)
Deborah Lipstadt, US President Joe Biden's nominee to be antisemitism monitor, testifies in the Dirksen Office building near the US Capitol, on February 8, 2022. (Ron Kampeas/JTA)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Deborah Lipstadt, US President Joe Biden’s nominee to be antisemitism monitor, brought two Jewish guests to her Senate confirmation hearing: one whose rabbi was held hostage by an Islamist, another who hid markers of her Jewishness to protect herself from American Nazis.

With Anna Salton Eisen, a congregant at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas, and Diane D’Costa, a recent graduate of the University of Virginia, looking on, the eminent Holocaust historian made the point that antisemitism poses a threat wherever it originates.

“I am an equal-opportunity foe of antisemitism,” said Lipstadt, who is under consideration for the job to be the US State Department envoy tracking antisemitism and meeting with foreign governments about combating the phenomenon. “Unless one is willing to fight Jew-hatred wherever one finds it, one should not be a nominee for this position.”

Lipstadt has the committee’s Democratic majority on her side, and Republicans appeared to be willing to move past their anger over her past statements critical of the party, meaning Lipstadt’s nomination appeared to be on track for approval… whenever she comes up for a vote. But no one in the Capitol seemed to know when that would be.

The lone exception to the nominee’s supporters was Sen. Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican who had made a statement last year about the January 6 rioters that Lipstadt had said equated to “white supremacy.” Johnson accused Lipstadt at the hearing of spreading “malicious poison.”

Nonpartisan Jewish organizations, noting the recent spike in antisemitism, have pressed for Lipstadt’s confirmation in the face of a bid by some Republican senators to block it. Though such groups are usually loath to weigh in on nominations, there was a full-throated push to get her confirmed following the January 15 hostage-taking crisis at a Texas synagogue.

Christians United for Israel, a conservative evangelical group that has the ear of many Senate Republicans, also endorsed her.

“As her confirmation hearing showed today, Dr. @deborahlipstadt is the right person at the right time for the position of Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat #Antisemitism,” the group said Tuesday in a tweet.

The pressure seems to have paid off: Questions from the Republican who took the lead at the hearing, Marco Rubio of Florida, were friendly, and another Republican, Rob Portman of Ohio, repeatedly said Lipstadt was qualified for the position.

Ranking Member Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla, left, speaks with Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis, right, after Johnson questioned Deborah E. Lipstadt, nominated to be Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, during her Senate Foreign Relations nomination hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, February 8, 2022. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

The two women seated behind Lipstadt at a COVID-safe distance in the cavernous Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing room were a visible representation of her argument that antisemitism could emerge from all corners.

Eisen, along with her 100-year-old Holocaust survivor mother, is a congregant of the synagogue where a British Islamist held the rabbi and three congregants at gunpoint for 11 hours in Colleyville, Texas, on January 15. The hostages managed to flee, and the assailant was killed in a shootout with federal agents. Elsewhere on the Hill, that synagogue’s rabbi, Charlie Cytron-Walker, was virtually testifying at another hearing advocating for increased synagogue security funds.

D’Costa was moving into her dorm room in August of 2017 when neo-Nazis marched on the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville, chanting, “Jews will not replace us.” She said she hid effects that could give her away as Jewish, such as a hamsa (palm-shaped amulet) necklace. The next day, a neo-Nazi drove his car into a crowd of counter-demonstrators, killing one and injuring at least another 20 during a march in Charlottesville, Virginia.

D’Costa and Lipstadt both testified at the lawsuit brought last year against the Charlottesville marchers. Integrity First for America, the group that organized the lawsuit, said Lipstadt’s testimony showed she had the chops for the job.

“She stood up to the defendants’ horrific attempts to normalize their extremism, so effectively, in fact, that most knew better than to try to cross-examine her,” the group said Tuesday in a statement.

Democrats on the panel repeatedly noted that the lead Republican, James Risch of Idaho, had delayed Lipstadt’s confirmation because of her past attacks on Republicans.

“It’s good to see you here, we’ve been trying to get you here for a while,” Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Maryland, who is Jewish, said to Lipstadt upon entering the room.

“I am truly disappointed it took this long,” the committee chairman, Sen. Robert Menendez, D-New Jersey, said in his opening remarks.

Risch acknowledged the delay, saying he had heard the “grumbling,” and said that it was a “learning” opportunity for nominees who attack members of the committee who may one day confirm them. (Johnson is a committee member.) Nonetheless, Risch hinted that he might be amenable to moving her forward: Her nomination, he said, was “important.”

Committee ranking member Sen. James Risch, R-Idaho, during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, September 14, 2021. (Jabin Botsford/Pool via AP)

Rubio, the chairman of the Western Hemisphere subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was the lead questioner.

Rubio alluded to Lipstadt’s past statements critical of Republicans but did not chide her, instead asking her to explain them. Lipstadt said she had learned not to tweet “in the middle of the night” and also noted that she had been “exceptionally critical of members of the Democratic Party.” (Lipstadt had in 2019 accused Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minnesota, of peddling the antisemitic “dual loyalty” trope.)

Rubio then pitched Lipstadt a softball, asking her opinion of the recent Amnesty International report accusing Israel of apartheid. The question gave her the opportunity to denounce the report and the usage of the term, which has become a red flag for centrist and right-wing pro-Israel communities.

Johnson dropped by the hearing long enough to make clear he would oppose Lipstadt’s nomination, saying she had been guilty of “malicious poison” in a tweet she posted last year. Johnson had told a talk show host last March that the January 6 rioters, who sought to stop Congress from affirming Joe Biden’s presidential election and who injured some 140 police in a deadly insurrection, did not pose a threat and “loved their country;” he would have been concerned, he said, if Black Lives Matters protesters had been in the Capitol.

“This is white supremacy/nationalism,” Lipstadt tweeted then, attaching an account of Johnson’s remarks. “Pure and simple.”

Lipstadt told Johnson on Tuesday that she regretted the tweet and said she was describing her views on an outlook, not Johnson personally. He would not have it, but he thanked Lipstadt for expressing her regret about the tweet, noting Menendez had never apologized for a similar accusation he made against Johnson on the Senate floor.

Menendez concluded the hearing by ridiculing Johnson for asking public officials not to state the obvious.

“When you … describe those who stormed the Capitol on January 6, as people who, quote, ‘respect law enforcement,’ they love this country, but you would have worried if they were Black Lives Matter, I think that’s deeply, deeply problematic,” Menendez said.

He noted the specific threat that some of the rioters posed to Jews. “It’s also worth pointing out that the rioters on that day literally wore Nazi symbolism,” he said. “Maybe the senator wasn’t afraid for his life, but every Jewish person in the Capitol certainly had reason to be concerned with their lives.”

Identifying antisemitism was critical to the monitor’s work, Menendez said. “If you can’t call out an antisemitic trope or prejudice, how in God’s name are you going to do this job?”

Lipstadt has also got some flack from the Israel-critical left for her attacks on Omar and others, but that chatter did not emerge during the hearing. Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Maryland, praised her for distinguishing between antisemitism and criticism of Israel. In her reply, Lipstadt embraced the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism, which some on the left reject because it includes some hardline anti-Israel criticism under the antisemitism rubric.

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