We should hire Deborah Lipstadt to combat antisemitism, not punish her for doing so

Congress appears to be holding up an antisemitism watchdog’s confirmation for pointing out antisemitism.

American historian and author Deborah Lipstadt in Rome, Oct. 17, 2016. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

(RNS) — It was a Republican congressman, Chris Smith of New Jersey, who, in the wake of a series of deadly antisemitic attacks, wrote the law creating the U.S. State Department Office to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, in 2004. It was Smith who worked to upgrade the office’s special envoy to the rank of ambassador. 

But now some of his fellow Republicans are holding up confirmation of Emory University professor Deborah Lipstadt, who was nominated by President Joe Biden to serve in that post.

Eminently qualified and highly respected, Lipstadt would seem a shoo-in for the job. She has served two terms on the United States Holocaust Memorial Council. She famously won the libel lawsuit brought against her in 2000 in the U.K. by fellow historian David Irving, whom she called a Holocaust denier for, among other things, his specious claim that the Nazis hadn’t gassed Jews.

More than 20 Jewish organizations have hailed her nomination, leading The Atlantic’s Yair Rosenberg to wryly observe: “These diverse Jewish groups can barely agree on where to set the thermostat, yet they agree on Lipstadt.”

RELATED: Jewish groups urge Senate to hold hearing on antisemitism envoy

The reason some Senate Republicans are preventing the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from scheduling Lipstadt’s confirmation hearing is that she has tweeted criticism of members of their party for various reasons, including her judgment that some had co-opted the Holocaust for political purposes.

In a particularly acerbic comment last spring, she called out Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson for tweeting that he “wasn’t concerned” during the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, but would have been concerned had the participants been “Black Lives Matter and Antifa protesters.” 

“This is white supremacy/nationalism. Pure and simple,” wrote Lipstadt.

She hasn’t been a wallflower with regard to Democrats’ excesses either. In 2019, she charged that some of Democratic U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar’s comments about Jews’ support for Israel were “textbook anti-Semitism.” 

“I am like an umpire,” she told Jewish Insider of her bipartisan slaps. “I call balls and strikes as I see them.”

Most egregiously, though, at least to some Republican members of Congress, she dared to call a foul against then-candidate Donald Trump back in 2016. 

She rejected the claims of some that Trump is an antisemite, noting that “This is a man who is exceptionally proud of his daughter, a traditional Jew who is giving her children a solid Jewish education. His son-in-law … is an Orthodox Jew. This is not the profile of an anti-Semite.” 

But, she continued, Trump “may be what I call ‘the inadvertent anti-Semite’ — the person who, while not a hater of Jews, has internalized some of the most pernicious stereotypes about Jews.”

Last year, Lipstadt defended a 30-second get-out-the-vote ad from the Jewish Democratic Council of America that juxtaposed imagery from 1930s Germany with footage of neo-Nazi marchers in Charlottesville, Virginia; Trump speaking at a rally; and the Pittsburgh synagogue where 11 Jews were massacred in 2018. A shul defaced with graffiti was presented alongside photos of 1930s graffitied Jewish shops.

She explained that she was not comparing the former administration to Nazis. “Had the ad contained imagery of the Shoah,” she said, she would not have defended it. But, she averred, “I would say in the attacks we’re seeing on the press, the courts, academic institutions, elected officials and even, and most chillingly, the electoral process, that this deserves comparison. It’s again showing how the public’s hatred can be whipped up against Jews.”

RELATED: To define or not to define antisemitism? That’s a good question.

That observation, as might be expected, did not sit well with, and remains troubling to, those who venerate the former president. 

New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has pointed out that the opposition to Lipstadt amounts to saying, “We don’t want the person nominated to advance our global efforts against antisemitism to call out antisemitism.”

Holding up Lipstadt’s appointment is indeed akin to a patient refusing to employ a renowned and accomplished medical professional because the doctor might find something wrong with him.

(Rabbi Avi Shafran is a frequent contributor to Jewish and general media. He also serves as director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America, a national Orthodox Jewish organization. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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