shift in sentiment

‘The lid is off’: Lipstadt reflects on explosion of public antisemitism since Oct. 7

‘I’ve been working on this for over 30 years, and it feels different,’ the U.S. antisemitism envoy said


Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism Deborah Lipstadt speaks at the March for Israel on Tuesday, November 14, 2023, in Washington, D.C.

Ambassador Deborah Lipstadt, the State Department’s special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism — a longtime Holocaust scholar seen as a leading expert on antisemitism — said on Monday that the current moment is deeply concerning and has emboldened public expressions of antisemitism in a way not seen in decades.

“I’ve been working on this for over 30 years, and it feels different,” Lipstadt told reporters in a meeting at the State Department. “The extent, the intensity that we’ve seen — uneasy lies the head that has studied this for over three decades.”

She said that officials she has met with around the world and within the State Department, including high-level national security officials in multiple countries, are also highly concerned.

“I’m not saying that we’ve seen a creation of a whole new generation of antisemites,” she continued, but that people feel more comfortable expressing antisemitic sentiments publicly. 

“One of the things that changed is people feel freer to say these things. As I said, the lid is off — it’s OK,” she added. “It’s OK to be walking down Madison Avenue and see a kid with a yarmulke and knock the yarmulke off, and things like that.”

The former Emory University professor said she has met since Oct. 7 with Jewish students in Germany and the United Kingdom who have expressed significant fear about their physical safety on campuses, and apprehension about engaging with Jewish life on campus — to a degree that Lipstadt said she had never seen before.

The ambassador indicated that she views recent comments by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas denying the atrocities Hamas committed on Oct. 7 as antisemitic.

“Nothing justifies rape of young children. Nothing justifies killing parents in front of children, children in front of parents. Nothing justifies taking civilians hostage,” she continued. “So when I hear those justifications, they leave me disquieted. And I think very often, in many of them, there’s a failure to recognize that in these attacks, there was a strong antisemitic theme expressed.”

Lipstadt, who gained international attention for defeating a libel suit by a British Holocaust denier, said she’s also been “struck by the speed and intensity” with which denial of the Oct. 7 atrocities has taken hold.

She trod carefully when asked about a trend in Biden administration messaging that has paired condemnations of rising antisemitism with concerns about Islamophobia. 

“When it’s antisemitism, I call it out as antisemitism,” Lipstadt said, “then I will say it operates within the larger parameters of prejudice. That’s the message I’ve been giving.”

She repeated comments she made on CNN recently that it would have been “inappropriate” to call out other forms of prejudice alongside racism when discussing the killing of George Floyd, but also said “you can’t fight hate in silos.”

Pressed on messaging from the White House and elsewhere in the administration, Lipstadt said she could not comment on others “who I know have been making very different statements,” but said that statistics make it clear that antisemitism is rising domestically and globally.

The ambassador defended the administration’s approach to judging when anti-Zionist activity crosses over into antisemitism, pointing to the administration’s national strategy, which states that “when Israel is singled out because of anti-Jewish hatred, that is antisemitism.”

Asked how the administration knows when anti-Israel activity is motivated by anti-Jewish hatred, Lipstadt said that “sometimes you don’t,” but referred to comments from former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart: “I can’t define pornography but I know it when I see it.”

“Now, we can do better than just that,” she continued. “But sometimes it calls for that.”

The special envoy expressed concern about far-left anti-Zionist activists calling for the end of the State of Israel.

“People who will glibly say, ‘Those 7.2 million Jews, I’m willing to risk their well-being or they should go someplace else,’ may not be antisemitic in intent, but it certainly is antisemitic in impact,” she said.

Lipstadt said she supported efforts to promote diversity and inclusion on campuses, but acknowledged that some diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility programs have been constructed in a way that they “don’t conceive of the possibility of Jews being victims.”

“I think there’s been a failure in the perspective, in the way some of these DEIA programs conceive of themselves,” she said. “And some of them become highly politicized.”

Asked about recent comments by Elon Musk endorsing the “great replacement” conspiracy theory, Lipstadt called the remarks “very harmful” and at best “irresponsible — and I could say far worse things.” She said Musk’s endorsement had mainstreamed the antisemitic conspiracy theory “for many people.”

She suggested that his subsequent move to ban certain anti-Israel slogans and talking points from X, formerly Twitter, did not mitigate or neutralize the impact of his “great replacement” comments.

Lipstadt added that she was stunned by a recent trend on TikTok promoting the antisemitic manifesto by al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, calling it “crazy” and “dangerous” and “really nuts.”

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