As the United States special envoy for monitoring and combating antisemitism, Ambassador Deborah Lipstadt knows that antisemitism is on the rise in a dramatic way. A renowned Jewish historian perhaps best known for her books Denying the Holocaust and History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier, Lipstadt was confirmed to the State Department position in March with the rank of ambassador and says she values the power of the larger megaphone she now has. On one of her first days on the job, Lipstadt sat across from the CEO of a large corporation that had engaged in what she said were overt antisemitic actions against American citizens. After sharing her concerns, Lipstadt recalled, “I looked at his face and I knew that he heard the United States government speaking.”
Lipstadt relayed this and other stories during an interview with former senior host of NPR’s All Things Considered and current Moment Special Literary Contributor Robert Siegel. The interview was part of the magazine’s annual gala, held virtually with a reception at the German Ambassador’s residence in Washington, DC, on Sunday evening. Lipstadt was the recipient of Moment’s 2022 RBG Human Rights Award.
On the international stage, Lipstadt said she’s keenly aware that attitudes toward Jews are tied to what she called the geopolitical situation between Israel and the Palestinians. But, she argued, “they can be seen and should be treated as two separate issues.” Irrespective of how you feel about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Lipstadt stressed, it “doesn’t give you license to go around hating Jews or fomenting hatred of Jews.”
In her role combating antisemitism, Lipstadt does see signs of progress, including the Abraham Accords that normalized relations between Israel and a number of Arab countries. She talked about her hope that Saudi Arabia would one day join the Accords and of a meeting she had with a deputy foreign minister there. “When I entered his office, he put out his hand and said, ‘I come from a city of Jews.’ ‘Medina?’ I asked. ‘That’s correct,’ he said.” (Until the era of the Propher Muhammad, the city of Medina was largely controlled by three Jewish tribes.)
Lipstadt spoke of the power of opening a line of communication like this. “That’s affirming,” she said. When told by the Saudi official that antisemitism would vanish if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were solved, she avoided arguing about the entire history of antisemitism before the founding of Israel and instead simply noted that hatred of the Jews predated the modern era.
In the United States, Lipstadt pointed to social media as a clear amplifier of antisemitism and of its power to embolden white supremacist and separatist militia groups that feed on antisemitism. She put the onus on technology companies to monitor and control hate, using an analogy of social media as a knife. “A knife in the hands of a surgeon can save your life. A knife in the hands of murderer can take your life.”
When Lipstadt learned that President Joe Biden was going to nominate her for the position of special envoy for monitoring and combating antisemitism, she told a friend she was hesitant. She had a very full career as an author and professor of modern Jewish Holocaust studies at Emory University. “Did I want to leave a cushy, better-paying job for the bureaucracy of the State Department?” she recalled thinking. Lipstadt had previously served two terms on the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, having been appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1994, and in the years since had come to value her freedom in academia “to say what I wanted, go where I wanted.” Her friend, however, was emphatic; she had to take the new position. “Why?” Lipstadt asked. “Because,” came the reply that Lipstadt says brought her full stop, “you can make a difference.”
Of the award’s namesake, the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Lipstadt remarked that “her story and her deep-seated commitment to equality, to fairness come out of Jewish roots.” While the two women didn’t know each other, it can be said they share those roots along with the distinction of those who make a difference.