strategy talk

Lipstadt praises IHRA definition, but declines to say if it will be included in White House strategy

'There will be some things that people will disagree with’ but ‘it’s a message that we take this seriously,’ the antisemitism envoy said of the White House’s strategy

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U.S. Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism Ambassador Deborah Lipstadt listens as U.S. second gentleman Doug Emhoff speaks during an Economic and Social Council session about “Globalizing Efforts to Combat Antisemitism” at the United Nations World Headquarters on February 9, 2023, in New York City.

Ambassador Deborah Lipstadt, the State Department’s special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism, declined to say Wednesday whether the Biden administration would include the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism in its forthcoming national strategy to combat antisemitism, while praising the definition as “an effective tool.”

The White House is currently under cross pressures on how it should define antisemitism in its upcoming strategy — mainstream Jewish groups are pushing for the administration to incorporate IHRA only, while some on the left say the administration should exclude IHRA or include other definitions that provide more latitude for criticism of Israel. Sources say the administration is considering both options.

Lipstadt, both in her role as special envoy and prior to joining the administration, has been a proponent of the IHRA definition, which is also used by the State Department. Some Jewish community leaders have urged the administration to follow Lipstadt’s advice on the subject. 

“It’s been the definition that’s been broadly accepted. The United States has championed [it],” Lipstadt told reporters in a briefing at the State Department on Wednesday. “It’s been very useful, it’s been very useful on the ground. So I think that it’s an effective tool.”

Asked about how the White House plan addresses IHRA or what the impacts of its exclusion might be, Lipstadt declined to “preempt” the strategy, which she said could be released “in the next few days” or “next week.” White House officials have said they expect a rollout by the end of May.

Lipstadt said she and her team have consulted weekly with the administration on the strategy.

Overall, Lipstadt praised the White House and the administration’s process to craft the strategy, which is set to include more than 200 policy proposals and action items — including, Lipstadt said, “things that none of us have thought of” from an array of government agencies.

The Holocaust scholar acknowledged that “there will be some things that people will disagree with — someone will ask, ‘Why didn’t they go further on this?’ or ‘Why did they phrase this that way?’” 

But she urged Jewish community members to look at the strategy holistically and said, “it’s a message that we take this seriously.”

She said that top-level officials from each federal agency, the Domestic Policy Council and the National Security Council have participated in crafting the strategy, and recounted that senior officials across the administration have expressed to her that they “see [antisemitism] as a threat to the welfare of this country.”

She added that, in a meeting with agency heads, Ambassador Susan Rice, the director of the Domestic Policy council “made it very clear, ‘Don’t just take two interns and have them sit down and come up with some warmed-over ideas… Look closely at what you do. Are you fighting antisemitism? Are you creating a level playing field for Jews?’”

Throughout her time at the State Department — one year this week — Lipstadt said that she’s found broad support for her work and her message.

“I thought it would be much harder on many issues, [that there would be] more pushback,” she said. “I’ve seen a great acceptance of the urgency of the issue and the seriousness of the issue.”

Lipstadt said she’s committed to staying in her role at least through the end of President Joe Biden’s first term in office — having requested a three-year leave of absence from Emory University, where she is a tenured professor — but was noncommittal on whether she would remain in her post if Biden is re-elected next November.

One of Lipstadt’s office’s focuses remains on Gulf Arab majority countries, she said. “There is room for pushing things forward,” Lipstadt continued, and she said she has been “encouraged to move ahead in this area as much as I can.”

Lipstadt mentioned that she is in ongoing talks with Saudi officials, including Princess ​​Reema bint Bandar Al Saud, the Saudi ambassador to the United States. She noted that there has been incremental progress in Saudi Arabia in lessening antisemitic hate, and said she is aiming to travel to the kingdom again.

“There’s an openness,” she said. “Does it mean there aren’t other problems? No, of course not. Does it mean there aren’t other things this country’s government finds disturbing? Of course not… It’s step by step by step.”

Lipstadt was on the ground at a synagogue in Tunisia hours before a gunman killed three and injured ten during a Lag B’Omer festival. The envoy said she was “very distressed” and “discouraged” by Tunisian President Kais Saied’s response to the attack. 

Saied refused to describe the attack as antisemitic and pivoted in his remarks to discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Lipstadt described that response as “antisemitic.”

Lipstadt also decried recent comments by Twitter CEO Elon Musk comparing billionaire philanthropist George Soros to a comic book villain who is also a Jewish Holocaust survivor.

“You can criticize George Soros — and many people do — for his economic policies, even for his political programs, for the work of his foundation, etc.” she said. “But when you draw that kind of analogy… when you turn him into the Rothschild of the 21st century, then you’re engaged in antisemitism. When you link his activities to his Jewish identity… when you turn him into this villainous caricature, which has antisemitic overtones, you’ve crossed the line.” 

The envoy also called Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s recent comments at the United Nations comparing Israel to Nazi leaders “just outrageous and beyond the pale.”

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