U.S. Jewish Groups Ask: Was It a Mistake to Elevate Antisemitism Envoy Post?

With Deborah Lipstadt’s approval as antisemitism envoy still held up in Congress, there are signs of buyer’s remorse among some Jewish establishment figures after the role became politicized

Ben Samuels
Ben Samuels
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Deborah Lipstadt, President Joe Biden's pick as antisemitism envoy, in 2019.
Deborah Lipstadt, President Joe Biden's pick as antisemitism envoy, in 2019.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Ben Samuels
Ben Samuels

WASHINGTON – Despite the near-universal praise Deborah Lipstadt received after U.S. President Joe Biden tapped her to serve as special envoy to combat and monitor antisemitism last July, the historian has yet to have her Senate confirmation hearing despite unprecedented support from the U.S. Jewish community.

Lipstadt would be the first envoy to serve at an ambassadorial rank since the position was formally elevated last year, at the behest of leading Jewish establishment organizations. However, her nomination has since become inherently politicized due to Republican obstinacy and a debate that had been limited to the margins is beginning to play out in public: was it a mistake to elevate the position and subject it to politicization?

Hannah Rosenthal, who served as envoy from 2009 to 2012, recalls her opposition to the move from the very start, describing it as a meaningless difference that only people in Congress care about.

“When I was special envoy, Rep. Chris Smith [a Republican from New Jersey] talked to me about ‘elevating the position.’ I explained to him at the time that it didn’t need elevating. Wherever I went in the world, people considered me the special envoy. They didn’t know I was representing the United States government. They didn’t care whether or not it was approved by the Senate,” she says.

She also warned Smith that this move would turn the position into a political football.

“I warned him, ‘What if someone’s nominated for this position and someone doesn’t like them and holds it up? Meanwhile, antisemitism rages around the world and there’s no one tasked with the responsibility to confront it, monitor it and combat it.’ And that’s exactly what happened,” she says.

Not only does Rosenthal believe her fears were validated, but that this should have been obvious to the Jewish establishment in real time.

“Why various organizations decided to support the idea is beyond my comprehension – this was so obviously going to happen,” she says, adding that she does “not understand why anyone would support something that to me, who held the position, was meaningless.”

‘Essential’ move

Despite Rosenthal’s sharp comments, many in the Jewish establishment maintain that the decision to elevate the position was correct, and remains so.

Hadassah President Rhoda Smolow says the move was “essential” because it gave the role both a significant influence in foreign policy and internally within the State Department. It also equates it with the position of ambassador of international religious freedom, enabling them to better complement each other’s efforts, she adds.

Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish American Organizations CEO William Daroff also highlights the key role of the envoy in furthering U.S. foreign policy in combating antisemitism’s “clear and present dangers.”

“The position plays a critically important part in the global fight against the increasingly urgent threat of antisemitism around the world,” he says. “The enhancing of this position to ambassador status represents further recognition by the U.S. government of the critical importance of having an official representative to lead in combating the scourge of Jew-hatred.”

Smolow notes organizations such as Hadassah have been pursuing the elevation for several years. “We were very proud when it passed in Congress. We understand that the process [with Lipstadt] has been long and we feel if you look at many of the appointments of our current president, the process has been long for them as well,” she says.

She notes, however, that Lipstadt is holding meetings with Republican senators in the face of growing bipartisan support, and her deputy, Aaron Keyak, is using his depth of knowledge and relationships in the Jewish community and the Biden administration to prep the office for Lipstadt’s eventual arrival.

Citing the exponential growth of antisemitism, Smolow says that upon approval, Lipstadt will “open doors, have very serious conversations, and be respected in a way that wasn’t [the case] before because that [role] was not approved by Congress.”

She is not worried about partisanship becoming the norm. “There are many very qualified, bipartisan candidates who will be able to step up and take that position,” she says. “We in the Jewish world really believe in inclusiveness; that this position will prove that, regardless of partisanship, no matter who is in the position it will be important.”

Despite these strong differences, a segment of the Jewish establishment believes the matter cannot be reduced to a binary.

Stacy Burdett, a former senior official at the Anti-Defamation League and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, doubts whether anyone could pinpoint a specific difference in how antisemitism could be reduced by a special envoy versus a special envoy with the rank of ambassador.

However, she says that blaming those who advocated for the upgrade is somewhat akin to victim-blaming. “I would look at any community targeted by hate and understand their desire to elevate the federal response to antisemitism or bigotry of any kind,” she asserts.

She echoes points made by both Smolow and Rosenthal concerning problems related to the politicization of the confirmation process, but says that antisemitism is one of the lesser politicized issues dealt with by the Senate.

“Fighting antisemitism is a priority for members of Congress in both parties,” she says. “They scramble looking for legislative responses that people can rally behind. Those initiatives frequently originate in congressional offices. That’s how the envoy position was first created, and that’s how it was enhanced in law,” Burdett explains.

She notes how lawmakers want to spearhead action when hate-violence against Jews and other groups increases, and advocates will rush to support it. “It’s a very human instinct. The problem is not with lawmakers or advocates who tried to elevate the position,” she says. For her, it’s “polarization in Congress that makes it impossible to just let the process move forward, even for such an eminent nominee like Deborah Lipstadt who has unqualified support from people across such a wide political spectrum.”

Burdett notes that Lipstadt has already had a profound impact and earned the respect of the international community due to her background alone, while stressing that broader questions remain on what public initiatives can be rallied around.

“There’s an ongoing challenge for advocates to try to foresee the upsides and downsides of different policy initiatives – and it can be very difficult when you’re stewarding a community that is scared,” she says.

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