Lawmakers press Lipstadt on Latin American leaders’ antisemitic comments

Biden’s antisemitism envoy: ‘We let them know that this is something we take seriously — you can’t just make statements like this and get away with it’

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Ambassador Deborah Lipstadt

Lawmakers pressed State Department antisemitism envoy Ambassador Deborah Lipstadt on Thursday on the State Department’s response to antisemitic and anti-Israel moves by a series of Latin American leaders.

Lawmakers noted that Latin American leaders, including those in Colombia, Honduras, Bolivia, Brazil and Chile have taken diplomatic action against Israel since Oct. 7 or made openly antisemitic remarks, as antisemitism has skyrocketed in many Latin American countries. Critics have said the administration has failed to meaningfully respond to these actions.

“These leaders, that I just mentioned, are the favored partners of the Biden administration in the Western Hemisphere,” Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar (R-FL), who chaired the hearing with Lipstadt, said. “In the meantime, other countries like Paraguay, Guatemala and the Dominican Republic have condemned the Hamas attack, in the most forceful terms, and have stood with Israel at international forums around the world. But unfortunately, they have received no thanks from the Biden administration.”

Lipstadt said that she, her office and other State Department officials have made clear to the leaders in question that their comments are viewed by the U.S. as “pure and unadulterated antisemitism,” and are unacceptable.

“We let them know that this is something we take seriously — you can’t just make statements like this and get away with it,” she said. “I would hope that they will get the message that if they want to work with the United States closely, this is not something that redounds to their benefit.”

She added later that private condemnations are sometimes more effective than ones offered in public.

Lipstadt said that Secretary of State Tony Blinken had personally confronted Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva over comments comparing Israel to the Nazi regime. But Blinken publicly touted the strength of the U.S.-Brazil relationship following that meeting.

Salazar argued that the warm welcomes provided to leaders like Lula, despite their antisemitic comments and actions, send a “contradictory” message to Lipstadt’s condemnations of their remarks.

Lipstadt also fielded a question about U.S. Ambassador to Brazil Elizabeth Bagley, who faced opposition during her confirmation proceedings over past antisemitic comments. Lipstadt declined to speak specifically about Bagley but said that, in her experience, the U.S. Embassy in Brazil takes antisemitism seriously.

In his opening statement at the hearing, Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-TX) noted that the administration’s national strategy on antisemitism acknowledges multiple definitions of antisemitism, including the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism and the Nexus definition. The IHRA definition is used by the State Department.

Castro was skeptical of State and the antisemitism office’s exclusive use of the IHRA definition, arguing that Nexus or other definitions might be more “appropriate to the context of the countries that you’re working in.”

The Nexus definition provides more room for criticism of Israel, including that double standards targeting Israel are not inherently antisemitic.

Castro added that he is concerned that efforts for countries to codify specific antisemitism definitions could allow them to “take advantage of the outsized focus on definitions to avoid taking concrete and practical action to protect Jewish people in Latin America.”

While Lipstadt didn’t directly address the definition debate, she referenced the IHRA definition on multiple occasions as the benchmark she and the State Department use to judge when comments cross over from criticism of Israel into antisemitism.

The ambassador said that she and other officials in her office have traveled extensively to Latin America, and she will be visiting Argentina later this year for the upcoming 30th anniversary of the bombing of a Jewish community center.

That bombing, which killed 85 and injured hundreds, has been linked to Iran and its proxy Hezbollah.

Lipstadt mentioned during the hearing that Iran and Hezbollah’s connections throughout Latin America pose a threat to local Jewish communities in those countries and are destabilizing to the countries in general.

She also touched on the rise in antisemitism both abroad and at home since Oct. 7, specifically mentioning demonstrations targeting Jews on college campuses and synagogues.

“We have seen this conflict allow for the antisemites to crawl out of their holes, to engage in overt antisemitism, and it is very disturbing,” Lipstadt said. “Most disturbing… is it’s forcing Jews in many places, including in our own country, to change their lifestyle.”

Rep. Kathy Manning (D-NC), who co-chairs the House antisemitism task force, discussed plans to introduce legislation that would codify portions of the Biden administration’s national strategy on antisemitism into law, to take action on recommendations provided in the strategy for Congress and guarantee future presidents continue to implement the plan.

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