long time coming

With bipartisan support, Lipstadt appears headed for Senate confirmation following hearing

The Biden administration’s nominee to be special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism addressed past tweets that had caused Republicans to delay her hearing

Michael Brochstein/Sipa USA

Deborah Lipstadt, nominee to be special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism, speaking at a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations committee.

Deborah Lipstadt, the Biden administration’s nominee to be U.S. special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism, appears bound for Senate confirmation following a long-delayed confirmation hearing on Tuesday, with the support of at least three Republicans.

The hearing, before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was not without contentious moments: Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) accused the Holocaust historian of spreading “malicious poison” by tweeting in March 2021 that Johnson had espoused “white supremacy/nationalism.” That tweet, and others critical of Republican legislators, led the GOP to delay Lipstadt’s confirmation proceedings for six months.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), who served as the ranking member at the hearing, questioned Lipstadt over her tweets, seeking assurances that she would remain “nonpartisan” in her work. 

After the hearing, he appeared satisfied with Lipstadt’s response — in which she called herself an “equal opportunity foe of antisemitism” who has been “exceptionally critical of members of the Democratic Party” — telling Jewish Insider that he plans to support her nomination. 

“Despite my concerns about what she has said, I think she’ll be a very forceful advocate at a time when we need someone who’s very forceful and credible,” he said. “My guess is most people will arrive at the place that… she has a long and distinguished commitment to battling antisemitism. It certainly makes her very credible and strong in that way.”

Lipstadt, a professor at Emory University, is a prominent expert on the Holocaust and antisemitism. She famously won a libel suit in the U.K. filed by Holocaust denier David Irving and recently served as an expert witness in a civil trial of white supremacists who organized the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va.

At least two other Republicans have said they will support Lipstadt’s nomination — Sen. James Lankford (R-OK), who co-chairs the Senate Bipartisan Task Force for Combating Antisemitism, and Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH).

With the support of Rubio and Portman in committee and at least three Republicans on the Senate floor, Lipstadt should have sufficient support to be confirmed, despite objections from some Republican senators.

Lipstadt’s comments did not assuage Johnson, who called her “simply not qualified” and said he hoped his colleagues will not support her. 

Lipstadt’s tweet about Johnson came in response to his comments last year that he “wasn’t concerned” that the individuals who participated in the Jan. 6 Capitol riot were dangerous, but would have been if they had been affiliated with Black Lives Matter.

Lipstadt told Johnson that she seeks to criticize the rhetoric people employ, rather than the people themselves.

“You don’t know me. You don’t know a lot of the people that you have accused online in front of millions of people. You have engaged in the malicious poison — you have accused people you don’t know of very vile things,” he said. “It seems like how you engage in malicious poison is purely partisan. You’re hurling these charges against people that are generally of one political persuasion. That’s not nonpartisan.”

Johnson’s repeated invocations of “malicious poison” referenced Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s (D-NY) description of antisemitism as a “malicious poison” during remarks at the start of the hearing.

Lipstadt said her tweet about Johnson was “not nuanced,” that she “was sorry if it was taken — and I’m sorry if I made it in a way that it could be assumed to be a political [attack] at the person personally.” 

Johnson said he accepted her apology, but said, “I think somebody that has had a 30-year professional career ought to know better, and [especially] when you’re being nominated and considered.”

In his opening statement, Foreign Relations Ranking Member Jim Risch (R-ID) likewise seemed skeptical of Lipstadt, and brushed off criticism that Republicans have faced for delaying the confirmation proceedings.

“I know there was some grumbling about how quickly Ms. Lipstadt’s nomination moved forward,” he said. “This probably is a learning moment for people who want to be appointed to something that requires Senate confirmation, and that is that whenever an appointee has made remarks publicly regarding a member, particularly of a Senate committee that’s under jurisdiction, it always draws and should draw more scrutiny and more vetting than usual.”

Jewish organizations from across the political and religious spectrum pressured the committee for months to schedule a hearing for Lipstadt. The committee chair, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), told Lipstadt he is “truly disappointed that it took this long to schedule your hearing.”

Lipstadt — who opened her testimony with the Hebrew blessing for the release of captives in honor of the survivors of the recent Colleyville, Texas, hostage situation — invited Anna Eisen, a former president of Colleyville’s Congregation Beth Israel, and Diane D’Costa, a Jewish graduate of the University of Virginia who found herself in the middle of the torchlight march that occurred prior to the Unite the Right rally, as guests to the hearing.

During her testimony, Lipstadt drew a distinction between criticism of the Israeli government’s policies and antisemitism.

“I don’t think any rational-minded person would think that criticism of Israeli policies is antisemitism. I do think there are certain things that cross the line into antisemitism, and criticism can often cross the line,” Lipstadt said. “I think it’s very important to be nuanced there, because it’s sort of Chicken Little and the sky is falling — if you call everything antisemitism, when you have a real act of antisemitism, people aren’t paying attention.”

Lipstadt called Amnesty International’s recent report accusing Israel of apartheid “unhistorical” and “part of a larger effort to delegitimize the Jewish state.” Such language, she added, “poisons the atmosphere” for Jewish students on college campuses.

Lipstadt also emphasized that she believes fighting antisemitism must be divorced from political concerns.

“Those people who only see antisemitism, or any form of prejudice, on the other side of the political transom are not really interested in fighting antisemitism. They’re weaponizing antisemitism and there is no excuse for that at all,” she said.

Lipstadt said her strategy, if confirmed, will include becoming “a thorn in the side of those who engage in antisemitism,” helping “politicians, policymakers, media, whomever, understand what Jew-hatred is,” calling out “polite antisemites” and telling governments, “This is something we take very seriously.”

“I think it’s something that has to be stressed: This is not a joke and this is not a small group making a lot of noise and this is not special pleading. This is a serious issue… even in and of itself but it’s also, as I said earlier, the canary in the coal mine,” Lipstadt continued. “If you value democracy, you’ve got to hate antisemitism.”

Lipstadt was introduced at the hearing by Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-NV), the co-chair of the Senate  antisemitism task force, with a written statement provided by Lankford..

A source familiar with Rosen’s activities told JI she and her staff met repeatedly with Biden administration officials in the first half of last year to urge them to quickly nominate an antisemitism envoy, and suggested Lipstadt as one possible pick for the position. She also privately pressured committee leadership to schedule a hearing for Lipstadt, the individual said.