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Fighting antisemitism

Lipstadt: Dilemma faced by French Jews in elections is similar to challenges for U.S. Jews

In an interview with JI, the antisemitism envoy discussed her work on a document outlining best practices for political leaders to fight antisemitism

Noam Galai/Getty Images

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.

Since French President Emmanuel Macron called snap elections last month, French Jews have faced an agonizing choice: support a far-right party with historical ties to Holocaust deniers, or vote for Macron after he endorsed a far-left party with a prominent member who has called the Oct. 7 Hamas terror attacks a “legitimate action.” 

Ambassador Deborah Lipstadt, the U.S. special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism, called the “conundrum” facing French Jews a “microcosm … for so much of what we’re seeing,” she said. “Where do I go? If I’m a college student, where do I find my home? What’s a comfortable place to be?” 

As a State Department official, Lipstadt’s remit is foreign policy: working with foreign governments to fix their own issues associated with antisemitism and advance shared global priorities combating hate. But she hinted that the discussions among French Jews who feel stuck between two political extremes that espouse different forms of antisemitism mirror those happening stateside. “I would guess that there’s some people who would not see it as that different from some conversations going on in the United States,” Lipstadt said. 

In an interview with Jewish Insider on Monday, Lipstadt shared how the Oct. 7 attacks raised the stakes of her quest to combat antisemitism around the world, making progress ever more elusive — and more important. 

“The situation is bad. But I think there are more and more individuals, countries [and] political leaders who are taking it seriously,” she said. “The mediums we get are high-level, which counts for a lot. I’m not just going to talk to some person who doesn’t really have the power to make the change.” (Since April, Lipstadt has traveled to eight countries, with two more on the docket for July. “I’m not doing it just to rack up the frequent flier miles,” she joked.) 

Foreign officials do not always take Lipstadt seriously when they meet her, she said, especially those in countries where antisemitism is prevalent, although she did not name specific countries.

Sometimes, people will assume she represents the Jewish community and try to minimize her message. “No, I represent the United States government and the person to whom I directly report is Secretary [of State Tony] Blinken,” Lipstadt will answer, prompting apologies. 

“Or suddenly they’ll be lecturing about wrongs that Israel has done, whether accurately or inaccurately. What we’ve seen so much is the overlap between attitudes towards Israel and the morphing into antisemitism,” said Lipstadt. “It was easier pre-October 7 to make that division. It’s harder now.”

Lipstadt is a well-known advocate of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism, which deems some criticism of Israel as antisemitism. So she’s often asked by leaders and journalists to explain the difference between antisemitism and anti-Zionism. 

“I can give you a long, erudite answer on that,” said Lipstadt, a historian who taught at Emory University for 30 years. “But I think you’re asking the wrong person. Ask the person who firebombed the synagogue in Montreal. Ask the person who painted ‘Free Palestine’ on the Shoah [Holocaust] memorial in Paris. Ask the person who roughed up somebody in Times Square because he was wearing a kippah. Ask the protesters in Australia who chanted ‘Gas the Jews’ on October 7 or 8th.”

“They’re making the connection,” Lipstadt continued. “I’m not saying that there isn’t room for that conversation. But I think that that debate, so to speak, has been answered.” 

The position of U.S. antisemitism envoy dates back to President George W. Bush’s administration, but Lipstadt is the first to hold the role as a Senate-confirmed ambassador. She was sworn in more than two years ago, in May 2022, and spent the first year and a half of her job traveling the world, focused on proactive action to go on the offensive against antisemitism. Her first trip abroad was to Saudi Arabia, a promising sign given the Gulf monarchy’s history of embedding antisemitism within the state’s educational system.

But that work is now “on hold,” Lipstadt conceded. “The idea of really moving forward in those arenas, for the moment, is not that feasible.” Oct. 7 and the war in Gaza have ushered in an exponential increase in antisemitism across the globe, but the ongoing conflict makes it hard for her to convince some leaders to disconnect attitudes toward Jews from attitudes toward Israel.

“The point was for the population in those countries to understand that however you feel about a geopolitical crisis, that doesn’t legitimate antisemitism,” Lipstadt said of her pre-Oct. 7 work fighting antisemitism in Arab states, particularly those that signed the Abraham Accords, including the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco. “That is on hold, because now is not a time that’s conducive to that.”

At the start of the Biden administration, the State Department’s antisemitism office had just one full-time staffer and a part-time employee. Now it’s grown to more than 20 people, thanks in part to funding increases in the federal budget. Still, as a political appointee, Lipstadt’s term could be up as soon as this winter if President Joe Biden doesn’t win reelection. She’s working on a capstone project of sorts — a document outlining best practices for political leaders to fight antisemitism. 

“The first thing: Speak out unequivocally, expeditiously, wherever, whenever. Not to politicize antisemitism, to not work in silos, to recognize the online nature,” she explained. The document, which has not yet been released, references the IHRA definition, but “it goes beyond definitional.”

As of this week, 25 nations have signed on, and Lipstadt expects 30 countries in total to endorse the document by the time it’s shared publicly. That will happen later this month at the Argentinian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Buenos Aires, the day before a major 30th anniversary commemoration of the AMIA bombing, the 1994 attack orchestrated by Iran that killed 85 people at a Jewish community center in the Argentinian capital. Lipstadt plans to attend the memorial event alongside U.S. Ambassador to Argentina Marc Stanley. She’ll be joined by a substantial U.S. delegation, including Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL), as well as other representatives from the Biden administration. 

“It’s an amazing thing that we have 25 to 30 countries signing on to what are best practices, and taking this seriously,” Lipstadt said.

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