Deborah Lipstadt’s horseshoe theory of antisemitism

Biden ambassador: ‘Very few prejudices come from different ends of the political spectrum, virtually none. Here, they come from both’

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 14: Ambassador Deborah Lipstadt, U.S. Special Envoy to Combat Antisemitism speaks during 'March For Israel' at the National Mall on November 14, 2023 in Washington, DC. The large pro-Israel gathering comes as the Israel-Hamas war enters its sixth week following the October 7 terrorist attacks by Hamas. (Photo by Noam Galai/Getty Images)

After Deborah Lipstadt was sworn as the U.S. special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism two years ago this week, she began to travel the world to ask countries how the United States could help them fight antisemitism in their borders.

But something has begun to change since the Oct. 7 terror attacks in Israel, Lisptadt said Friday at a virtual hour-long briefing for members of the Jewish community. 

“In the past few months, especially since the turmoil on the campuses, I’ve been having countries saying to me, ‘Is your country okay? What can we do for you?’” Lipstadt recounted. “What is happening in America — it has sent a shudder through many countries, because they wonder, are we on the verge of becoming a failed state?”

Lipstadt, who was nominated to the ambassador-level position by President Joe Biden, said the good news of the past nearly eight months has been the support of the U.S. government in fighting antisemitism. But she expressed deep concern about rising antisemitism around the world and in the U.S.

“I’m often asked, as a historian, ‘Is this 1939?’” Lipstadt said. “I say, ‘No, that’s a bit of an extreme position.’ I think it’s more like the early 1930s, maybe the late 1920s, with the destabilization of society.” 

As a diplomat at the State Department, Lipstadt’s work is focused on international antisemitism, rather than what’s happening at home. But she raised concerns about American antisemitism and, in particular, a lack of leadership at U.S. universities.

“Leaders, whether they be leaders of countries, leaders of states, leaders of cities, leaders of public institutions, leaders of universities, must speak out, directly, unequivocally and expeditiously. No froufrou-ing, ‘Well, it depends on context, and what happened,’” Lipstadt said, offering a not-so-subtle dig at the presidents of Harvard, Penn and MIT who appeared before Congress in December and answered “it depends on the context” when asked whether calls for the genocide of Jews violate their universities’ codes of conduct. 

“If you see prejudice, if you see antisemitism, you speak out and speak out about it explicitly,” said Lipstadt. “Don’t talk about hate in general. We’re all against hate in general, but call it out for what it is. If it’s homophobia, you call it out. If it’s racism, you call it out. Misogyny, you call it out. If it’s antisemitism, you call it out for what it is, and you don’t also say, ‘Well, yes, but.’”

Lipstadt referenced her Senate confirmation hearing, in which she described a spectrum of antisemitism from the left to right. But since Oct. 7, she said, her language about antisemitism — and where it appears on the ideological spectrum — has changed. 

“I talk about a horseshoe. If you think about a horseshoe, the two ends meet together and often are magnetized and attracted to one another. It’s a question of extremism,” said Lipstadt. “Very few prejudices come from different ends of the political spectrum, virtually none. They’re either one side or the other, but they’re not coming from both. And here, they come from both, they share the same template, because the antisemitic template is so old and so malleable, and they share that extremism. And that makes this harder to fight and a more frightening phenomenon.” 

After Oct. 7, Lipstadt has devoted much of her energy to calling out double standards of women’s organizations who have remained largely silent on the sexual violence committed by Hamas terrorists that day. In January, she and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Council Michéle Taylor wrote an op-ed on this topic in The Guardian to try to reach people who were still skeptical of the sexual violence of Oct. 7, despite widespread documentation

“We went to The Guardian, a London-based publication, progressive, leans quite to the left as it would acknowledge, because we wanted to reach exactly those audiences that had been silent in speaking out,” she said. “But it’s very disturbing.” Progressive Jewish women, Lipstadt said, “were left abandoned.” 

“I don’t surprise easily, but sometimes I do shock. And I was shocked by the speed with which the denial took place,” Lipstadt said of the denial and doubt sown about Hamas’ attacks in the days after Oct. 7. The same happened for claims of sexual violence.

“There should be no whataboutism,” Lipstadt said, “because it’s rooted in antisemitism.”

Subscribe now to
the Daily Kickoff

The politics and business news you need to stay up to date, delivered each morning in a must-read newsletter.