Isaac Chotiner Interviews Deborah LipstadtHistorians in the News
tags: State Department, Saudi Arabia, human rights, antisemitism, Deborah Lipstadt
For several decades, Deborah Lipstadt has been known as one of the most prominent and prolific writers on the dark history of anti-Semitism. In 2000, she won a judgment after being sued in a British court by the Holocaust denier David Irving, a case which was later made into a film starring Rachel Weisz. Since then, Lipstadt has published a book on the Eichmann trial and an investigation into anti-Semitism, among others. She is a professor of Jewish history at Emory, but is currently on leave because she was tapped by President Biden as the State Department’s special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism. In her new role, she has been travelling around the Middle East—she recently returned from a trip to Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the United Arab Emirates.
Lipstadt and I spoke several years ago; we talked again by phone last week. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed the compromises involved in transitioning from scholar to diplomat, how Israel’s relationship with its neighbors impacts her job, and whether the Saudi government is interested in improving its human-rights record.
What made you want to take this job?
Initially, I wasn’t really interested, even though there were a lot of people who were pressing me to put my name in the hopper, including people from the Administration. Then someone said to me, “You can make a difference.” At this stage of my career, I feel I’ve accomplished a lot. I feel very lucky and blessed in what I’ve been able to do, but the chance to make a difference was something that really intrigued me.
At first, I thought of the job as mainly putting out fires: there’s a tragedy in Paris, there’s a tragedy wherever, and you have to make it clear to the government that America takes this very seriously. Then I thought about the Abraham Accords—here was a chance possibly to do something positive to change the nature of Muslim-Jewish relations, certainly as they’ve emanated from the Gulf. That intrigued me a lot.
What does the job consist of?
Yesterday I met with the Romanian Ambassador to the United States and with the Romanian special representative on anti-Semitism and Holocaust issues. We talked about Romania’s addressing of anti-Semitism. In the past several years, the attitudes, behavior, and policies in Romania have changed dramatically, and it has been addressing its anti-Semitic past in a very serious fashion. I also had a meeting with the Polish Ambassador to remind him that issues of anti-Semitism in Poland are of great importance to us. For instance, the Prime Minister of Poland nominates the members of the International Auschwitz Council, the people who sort of advise and supervise what goes on at Auschwitz. They’ve made some very good appointments which in the past I don’t think they would’ve made.
Not long after my Senate confirmation, a number of passengers who had travelled from J.F.K. to Frankfurt on Lufthansa were not allowed to board their connecting flight to Budapest for the yahrzeit of an important rebbe. Some among them had refused to wear their masks, even though Lufthansa required it at the time. When they arrived in Frankfurt, the vast majority were refused permission to fly on to Budapest. We met with a C.E.O. of Lufthansa to express our concern about this.
The idea being that there’s something anti-Semitic or bigoted about forcing people to comply with health restrictions?
No, no, not at all. Not at all. If Lufthansa says, “Wear a mask,” you wear a mask. I don’t care what your religious identity or proclivities are. But people who had nothing to do with that, people who were sitting in a different part of the plane, [were also blocked from boarding the next flight]. Because of the actions of a few, the airline was treating them as a group. I’m not saying it was necessarily overt anti-Semitism. It may have been unconscious bias, treating the group as responsible for the actions of a few.
When I was testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and some of them were giving me a hard time, I kept insisting that I was going to be an equal-opportunity opponent of anti-Semitism that comes from any place on the political spectrum. Right, left, center, Christian, Muslim, Jew, atheist—I was going to fight it. When I was travelling in the Middle East, a group of Haredim attacked a couple of families that were celebrating bat and bar mitzvahs at the southern end of the Kotel, where men and women mixed. I spoke out against that. I’ve become an equal-opportunity defender of Jews who are attacked as Jews.
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