Biden Taps Holocaust Historian Deborah Lipstadt as Antisemitism Envoy

Ben Samuels
Ben Samuels
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Holocaust expert Deborah Lipstadt has researched the Holocaust for 30 years, and has eight publications on the topic
Holocaust expert Deborah Lipstadt has researched the Holocaust for 30 years, and has eight publications on the topic Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Ben Samuels
Ben Samuels

WASHINGTON - The Biden administration announced on Friday that it will appoint renowned Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt as Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, the highest-ranking public official in the country tasked with combatting anti-Jewish prejudice. 

Lipstadt, who has taught at Emory University for nearly 30 years and has authored eight works on antisemitism and the Holocaust, came to international prominence in the 1990s after she was sued by author David Irving for accusing him of Holocaust denial. Lipstadt won the case, and she was eventually portrayed by actress Rachel Weisz in the 2016 film "Denial" about the trial.

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The appointment comes amid growing pressure on the administration from Congress and U.S. Jewish organizations to appoint an envoy. The role was elevated to an ambassadorial-level position last December, adding weight to its mission of combating antisemitism at a global level. 

Demands to appoint an envoy only grew in recent days after a swastika was found etched into the wall of an elevator in the State Department this week — vandalism that was swiftly condemned by Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other senior U.S. officials.

The debate over the envoy's background has been a topic of fierce debate within the U.S. Jewish community — particularly between establishment organizations and progressive Jewish figures over whether criticism of the State of Israel constitutes antisemitism.

While progressives have advocated for an envoy who treats the fight against antisemitism as part of a larger battle for a just multiracial democracy, establishment figures, hope Lipstadt will rely on the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance's working definition of antisemitism, which had been adopted by the Trump administration in 2018

The administration recently doubled down on its support of IHRA as "the gold standard" despite progressive concerns that it improperly conflates criticism of Israel and advocacy for Palestinian rights with antisemitism. Several House Democrats had urged Blinken to use other definitions of antisemitism at his disposal to combat antisemitism while not outright rejecting IHRA. 

These definitions include the Nexus Document and the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism, which induce references to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and allow for free speech to discuss Israeli policies and actions, though they have been criticized by Jewish American establishment organizations that have embraced IHRA's definition.

Addressing the IHRA definition, Lipstadt told Haaretz earlier this year that "you won’t find right-wing antisemitism there: you won’t find Pittsburgh there; you won’t find Poway there; you won’t find Halle, Germany, there; you won’t find what we saw from some of the groups on January 6 at the Capitol there," concerning the definition. “If I call someone an antisemite, it should have the sting of a thousand cuts,” she said about the definition's potential application. “It should never be used lightly, it should never be used frivolously.”

Lipstadt also said that arguing over a definition is "not the best expenditure of [the Jewish community's energy]," saying that "What should be getting our attention is antisemitism coming from different places on the political spectrum." Lipstadt also acknowledged the "major thrust" of antisemitism is coming from populist groups and QAnon.

Lipstadt has been forthright in criticizing the Israeli government under former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, particularly after Likud's 2019 alignment with the far-right Otzma Yehudit party as well as his alignment with right-wing European nationalists like Hungrian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. She, however, has also criticized progressive lawmakers such as Rep. Ilhan Omar, saying her recent alleged equating of the U.S. and Israel to Hamas and the Taliban was "beneath contempt."

She will have to be confirmed by the Senate prior to assuming the position.

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