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Deborah Lipstadt: Finding ways to contain antisemitism at a time when hatred bleeds across nations

Deborah Lipstadt: Finding ways to contain antisemitism at a time when hatred bleeds across nations
Ambassador Deborah Lipstadt is sworn in by US Vice President Kamala Harris in her ceremonial office of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on 24 May 2022 in Washington, DC. (Photo: Anna Moneymaker / Getty Images)

Daily Maverick spoke to America’s Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism Deborah Lipstadt, who was in South Africa to meet NGOs and government officials concerned with xenophobia and human rights.

We met State Department Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism Deborah Lipstadt during her visit to South Africa as part of her two-nation Africa trip that also included Morocco.

The travel to these two nations represents the ninth and tenth countries she has visited already during her half year in office. As the State Department website says, her key task is “to advance American foreign policy to counter antisemitism throughout the world”. 

On her most recent visit to South Africa, she met with NGOs concerned with xenophobia and human rights, and engaged with government officials and Jewish community bodies, among other meetings.

Besides her current government position, Lipstadt holds an endowed chair professor position at Emory University (although she is now on sabbatical from that post). She has taught at the University of Washington, UCLA and Occidental College in the US. She has also served as a research director or research fellow at study and research centres in the US and abroad. 

Lipstadt’s books include The Eichmann Trial; Denial: Holocaust History on Trial; Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory; and Beyond Belief: The American Press and the Coming of the Holocaust, 1933-1945. She has written a biographical study of Golda Meir, which will be issued in 2023.  

As far as the larger public is concerned, Lipstadt may be best known because she was once sued for libel by British Holocaust denier David Irving. By the time the trial wrapped up in 2000, Irving was officially labelled “a right-wing polemicist”, engaging in antisemitism, racism and misogyny. That trial became the subject of the film, Denial.

Holocaust education

Fittingly, we meet at the Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre (JHGC), and our meeting has coincided with the 84th anniversary of the explosion of Nazi-perpetrated antisemitic violence known as Kristallnacht. 

On 9 and 10 November 1938, thousands of shops and homes owned by German Jews were ransacked and looted, synagogues were burned, German Jews were killed, and many more were arrested in the immediate wake of the looting.

The event gained its name from the sounds and images of the glass from all those storefronts shattered across the cities and towns throughout the nation. Through the lens of history, this event is now seen as the opening bell for what culminated in the genocide of the “Final Solution”. 

This year, marking what may well have been one of the most bizarre possible remembrances of that event, KFC in Germany invited its customers — through its push online marketing — to enjoy some deep-fried chicken and tangy cheese to commemorate that event of 84 years ago. There still seems to be some scope left for some Holocaust education activities with at least part of the global business sphere.

The JHGC is a “bricks and mortar” institution which focuses much of its exhibitions on the Holocaust and the society it devastated. But, given its physical location in Africa and a need to give its message about genocide a larger, more universal context, the centre pairs displays of a nearly extinguished European Jewish community with exhibitions documenting the Rwandan holocaust of 1994.

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In that cataclysm, hundreds of thousands of (perhaps nearly a million) Tutsis were murdered in that small African nation. Yes, this mass rising by Hutus to kill their neighbours was rooted in inter-ethnic antagonisms, but it had been substantially egged on (or led in some ways) by members of the government. 

While I waited for Lipstadt to finish another meeting, I walked through the centre with one of its schools educational programme docents. On our walk, we discussed the similarities — and differences — between the two genocides. One hope is the JHGC’s efforts will eventually extend to focusing on all the other genocides that afflict our contemporary world. 

For clarification’s sake, the word “genocide” is a portmanteau word coined by Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin in 1944, in the midst of World War 2, as evidence of the mass killings of Jews, Roma, homosexuals and others was becoming overwhelming, and finally reaching Allied governments. 

Specifically, the word means the deliberate killing of a large number of people from a particular nation or ethnic group (as opposed to, say, a natural calamity), with the aim of destroying that nation or group. 

Meanwhile, the term “the Holocaust” comes from ancient Greek, meaning a burnt offering to the heavens. Used in its capitalised form, it usually refers to the Nazi destruction of European Jewry and the others, although the word goes back to the early 19th century. Increasingly, the Hebrew word for the killing — the Shoah — appears in the Book of Zephaniah and the Book of Job. Increasingly, it has been coming into international usage as a description of this mass killing, especially after it was used as the title of a French film on the subject. 

Policy concerns

Even before tackling the specifics of our conversation with the special envoy, one important question that springs to mind is why the American government would designate a special envoy specifically on antisemitism.

One part of the answer is historical. Traditionally, the State Department was largely organised along its regional bureaus, offices dealing with relations with and issues pertinent to Western Europe, or East Asia, or the Middle East/North Africa, and so forth. 

But, over the years, various thematic bureaus have been added to the organogram to address policy concerns transcending one region of the globe — or even important to the entire world.

More recently, the State Department has been adding envoys and representatives for special purpose diplomacy on topics such as the law of the sea, global climate issues, or, in this case, antisemitism, as yet one more high-level office, within a larger array of human rights-related offices.

Nonetheless, it remains true that while antisemitism clearly is an important concern, it is not a core element in US foreign policy. It is not nearly as critical as, say, the growing threats of nuclear proliferation. It is also true there are other bigotries, equally compelling, perhaps, along racial, ethnic and religious lines in the world today. 

To be sure, the State Department, historically, also had its own share of embedded antisemitism. During World War 2, its consular officials often declined to issue visas to thousands of desperate Jewish refugees attempting to flee Europe — unless, perhaps, they were Nobel Prize-winning physicists. 

Resurgence

Still, antisemitism as a social pathology is staging a kind of resurgence. This is true in the United States as well where, among some people, it is undergoing a new normalisation. This is taking place along with other ethnic, racial or religiously related violence, especially as some politicians give off-hand approval of such talk — and behaviour — in their utterances. 

Anti-Defamation League head Jonathan Greenblatt, in commenting on the controversy over some of basketball star Kyrie Irving’s recent public statements, noted that in 2021 alone, there were 2,717 recorded acts of public anti-Semitic behaviour in the US. The New York Times reported, just before the 2022 US midterm election:

“‘When systems fail, whether it’s the government or the markets or anything else, leaders often look for someone to blame,’ said Jonathan Greenblatt… ‘Jews have historically played that role.’

“Antisemitism is one of the longest-standing forms of prejudice, and those who monitor it say it is now on the rise in America… On Thursday, the Federal Bureau of Investigation warned of a ‘broad threat’ to synagogues in New Jersey; by Friday the agency had located a man it said expressed ‘an extreme amount of hate against the Jewish community’.”  

In the public rhetorical space, this resurgence seems to come from the wilder spaces on the far right as well as on the left. For some, criticisms of US-Israeli relations bleeds into statements like US foreign policy is “all about the Benjamins”, while on the other extreme, there are lunatic charges about Jewish/Rothschild-controlled laser-equipped satellites responsible for the vast, destructive forest fires in the American west. 

As Vox described the loony right’s version:

“First-term Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s claim that the 2018 California wildfires were ignited by a space laser controlled by a corporate cabal, including the Rothschild banking firm, is objectively ridiculous. It’s okay to laugh about it.

“And yet it is, at the same time, kind of horrifying. It’s the latest in a long line of conspiracies about the Rothschild family, and those conspiracies are always, at root, anti-Semitic: Since the 19th century, people have used claims that this one particular wealthy family controls the world to cast aspersions on Jews in general.

“Nor is this an isolated anti-Semitic incident for Greene. In December 2018, she shared a video on her Facebook page, which features a prominent British anti-Semite explaining that ‘Zionist supremacists have schemed to promote immigration and miscegenation’…

“In this, she wasn’t alone. On October 31, 2018, three days after the Pittsburgh shooting, then-President Donald Trump blamed the approach of a migrant caravan coming to America’s southern border on George Soros — a Jewish billionaire who, like the Rothschilds, is often cast by anti-Semites as a villain in their conspiracy thinking.”  

Contemporary American antisemitic rhetoric draws on older tangled roots in extremist and conspiratorial thinking about secret forces and influences on society.

As part of its ongoing evolution, one can also contemplate those utterances of Kanye West/Ye or Kyrie Irving as examples of the way such toxic ideas remain current — and as they ooze into the broader society, increasingly through social media outlets. 

Lipstadt concurred America has some homework to do on antisemitism, and she was also careful to make clear her responsibilities do not encompass offering defences of Israeli government policies, even as some insist opposing antisemitism is somehow tantamount to lining up in defence of all the policies of the Israeli state. 

Blurred distinctions

Instead, she reiterates her brief is to focus a lens on expressions of antisemitism internationally as a logical, reasonable element of America’s broader policy agenda of promoting human rights more generally.

However, this can become complex, especially when some foreign governments, political groups and politicians choose to blur those distinctions between antisemitism and US-Israel relations — or when others point to inconsistencies in the American message — for their own political purposes. 

Thus, dealing with obvious expressions of antisemitism is the “easy” part, as when a government makes an obvious antisemitic or racist rant, a decision or a policy. But it is those more subtle insinuations that colour policies and behaviours that become the tougher ones for Lipstadt’s office to call attention to and to address. 

Coincidentally, at about the same time Special Envoy Lipstadt’s South African visit was taking place, and although the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation was not speaking to antisemitism, a recent statement by that foundation concerning a SA Human Rights Commission’s decision on racism is worth paying attention to in this regard for an insight into South African circumstances on this topic. As the foundation noted:

“In recent years, South Africa — and the world at large — continues to see the persistent rise in the usage of language that incites and divides and which ultimately undermines our Constitution. Calls for people to be killed in any context is deplorable but is even more worrying when it comes from leaders of political parties that have significant representation in Parliament.”

Such strong language should clearly be read as applicable for circumstances beyond the specifics of the commission’s decision. 

On the Special Envoy’s tasks meetings, Lipstadt indicated she had noted the relative lack of overt antisemitism in South Africa. On this trip, she has met government officials, NGOs, academics, crusaders against xenophobia and the Holocaust centres in South Africa, where she had chances to ask the various groups and individuals about their educational programs in South Africa on the relevant themes.

(Historically, of course, the old National Party conjoined antisemitic statements with their disdain for the capitalist class in South Africa back before they came to power, drawing on the once-popular epithet of “Hoggenheimer” with its porcine imagery and references to a certain powerful mining figure as a stand-in for antisemitism and other ills.)

No magic bullet

Discussing her work, Lipstadt noted each of her predecessors had defined their responsibilities somewhat differently, but as she sees it, her first-line task is to put out the fires of actual outbreaks of antisemitic attacks. If she and her office did not engage with those, things could become worse for the victims.

In her comments, Lipstadt echoed Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who has also remarked that America surely does not have a magic bullet for social-political problems such as antisemitism, but a key purpose of this office and its officials is to telegraph clearly the understanding that antisemitism (at home or abroad, parenthetically) is a serious issue. Operating in much the same manner, the State Department now also has a special envoy to address racial injustice. 

Looping back to the idea of a potential overlap in expressions of antisemitism in general and onward towards views about Israel, Lipstadt says there sometimes seems to be a myopic focus on Israel on the part of some international NGOs and in other international bodies, in contrast to less attention to yet graver forms of prejudice or discrimination.

Accordingly, one should ask where such expressions arise from. And, in that sense, yes, sometimes an obsession with Israeli behaviour may end up having an antisemitic tinge to it. 

Shifting to her interactions with Saudi Arabia, Lipstadt says it certainly was true that for years Saudi Arabia was a funder of overtly antisemitic imams in their positions internationally. However, she says, in recent years, they have taken steps, for example, to address the once avowedly antisemitic quality of textbooks used by Saudi schools. 

Although it is true the Saudis obviously continue to have real human rights issues (including the killing and dismemberment of a journalist who spent time criticising the Saudi monarchy), nevertheless, Lipstadt notes, she will speak with anyone in respect of her responsibilities. 

Roots of prejudice

Although it is also true that it is outside her direct responsibilities, in our conversation — perhaps inevitably — we circle back to why antisemitism has resonance in contemporary America. Why is there this normalisation of that prejudice?

She argues there has been a growth of Manichean-style populism with an “I’m right, you’re wrong militia-ism” now embedded in it. It carries within it an array of anti’s — anti-refugee and anti-immigrant, and even a kind of rationalisation of support for those who attack mosques. 

But out of where and what does this extremism and radicalism evolve? Lipstadt says it was there before, but grew in intensity during the Obama administration when the nation had a black president, and grew among people who have been displaced economically and seen their industries and jobs vanish. Those that stir such feelings sometimes find they can fall back on antisemitism as a goad. 

There is now also something called the “great replacement theory” that helps fuel that hatred as well. It postulates that Jews, in particular, are using black and brown people (and, of course, immigrants) as foils in their efforts.

As to why this has become such a vigorous set of ideas now, Lipstadt points to the potency of the delivery system of social media. The thoughts and words of one hateful person or group can be amplified a million times over with just a few mouse clicks. It used to take much more work to deliver such messages. 

As to whether her office operates separately from other offices in addressing other forms of racial and ethnic hatreds, Lipstadt notes the interconnectedness of hatred, arguing that one cannot fight hatred via separate silos.

In that regard, we spoke about the State Department’s annual human rights report — a massive publication that provides in-depth examinations of the human rights climate in virtually every nation on the planet. (It originally began during the administration of President Jimmy Carter as an evaluation of human rights issues in each country receiving US foreign assistance. Now it has a much wider remit.)

Lipstadt says her office participates in this report, together with all the other offices dedicated to monitoring the human rights climate and circumstances of religious freedom in countries around the world.

As a kind of credo, Lipstadt cautions people must be careful with what they say as well as what they do. But the challenge in today’s world is that hatred can bleed from one nation to another, virtually without the interference of international borders. In today’s circumstances, the task of dealing with this may virtually be endless. DM

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