Deborah Lipstadt's Work Abroad as Antisemitism Envoy Complicated by Definitional DisputeHistorians in the News
tags: Israel, antisemitism, Deborah Lipstadt
While Dr. Lipstadt acknowledges domestic antisemitism in meetings abroad, the problems at home are not in her job description. And she must tread carefully in the nations she visits, leaving broader problems in foreign politics to her State Department colleagues.
Her narrow focus is notable in places like Poland, whose right-wing populist government is a frontline ally in the West’s efforts to counter Russia, and in Israel, whose far-right government has led to deep strains with the American Jewish community.
She also has been forced to navigate an often contentious debate about the very definition of antisemitism, which some fear can be used to shield Israel from legitimate criticism.
U.S. policy follows the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism, which was widely adopted by Western governments after lobbying by Jewish groups, E.U. leaders and the alliance itself.
But that definition has come under fire from scores of Israeli and Jewish scholars and human rights organizations, who say it wrongly casts criticism of Israel as antisemitic.
The alliance’s working antisemitism definition has examples related to criticism of Israel, including applying double standards by demanding it behave in ways not expected of other democratic countries, or denying Jews the right of self-determination by claiming that the existence of Israel is a racist endeavor.
Dr. Lipstadt touched on the controversy during her confirmation hearing.
“I don’t think any rational-minded person would think that criticism of Israeli policies is antisemitic,” she said, while adding that some criticism of Israel does “cross the line” into antisemitism.
The person who drafted the antisemitism working definition nearly two decades ago, Kenneth S. Stern, the director of the Center for the Study of Hate at Bard College in New York, is now one its best-known critics. He said the definition has been “weaponized” to stifle criticism of Israel and its conduct toward Palestinians. He is particularly concerned about the definition’s impact on college campus debate.
“This is trying to say what can and can’t be taught,” Mr. Stern said in an interview. “To fight antisemitism you have to preserve democratic institutions. You can’t use the state to put a finger on the scale.”
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