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‘The numbers alone are staggering’: Awaiting confirmation, Lipstadt speaks up on antisemitism

Deborah E. Lipstadt, President Biden’s nominee as antisemitism envoy, told a crowd at Shabbat services in Manhattan that antisemitism is spiraling across the political spectrum and regions of the world, warning that “less than eight decades” after the Holocaust, “we’re facing these problems once again.”

“Jews may seem very well situated, but things can change on a dime,” she warned in a Friday night sermon at Temple Emanu-El in Manhattan that was streamed online to thousands of views. “And even if they don’t change on the dime, it’s not a good situation.”

Lipstadt, a renowned historian of the Holocaust and professor at Emory University in Atlanta, faced tough questioning at her confirmation hearing on Tuesday from Republican members of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, who had delayed the process for more than six months. As she ascended the bima, Lipstadt joked that “it’s a pleasure being anyplace but Washington right now,” saying: “It was an experience.”

But she said she would not talk about the confirmation, and instead delivered a professorial lecture about how antisemitism is both similar and distinct from other kinds of prejudice, and urged the audience to not let it define their identities.

Lipstadt cited an FBI agent’s initial response to last month’s hostage-taking at a Texas synagogue as “not related to the Jewish community” and Whoopi Goldberg’s recent statement that the Holocaust was not about race as examples of “a confusion amongst good people as to what antisemitism really is.” She said a similar phenomenon often plays out on college campuses, when Jewish students complaining of harassment are referred “to the religious life office,” arguing: “This is not about religion, this is about discrimination and hate.”

“There is a real — it’s stronger than reluctance — sometimes it’s an objection, sometimes it’s a hostility, to recognizing that, to putting antisemitism in the panoply of prejudices,” Lipstadt said. “Part of the problem is that Jews don’t present, or don’t seem to present, as a group that is suffering, that looks like it’s in danger.”

One distinctive aspect of antisemitism, she said, is that in involves both “punching down” — stereotypes about Jews being dirty or spreading disease — and punching up, accusing Jews of being all-powerful, “conniving, malicious,” and part of conspiracies to “advance themselves and to harm the non-Jew.”

“The Jew is not just to be loathed,” she said, “but the Jew is to be feared.”

These stereotypes “present differently” -– with violent attacks, institutional discrimination and rhetorical hate -– but exist “all across the political spectrum,” Lipstadt added. “We can see it among Christians, Muslims, atheists and, sadly, we see it among some Jews.”

Lipstadt said she had recently met with a group of Jewish students at an elite liberal arts college, who “talked about being uncomfortable, they talked about being on the defensive” during campus debates over Israel and identity issues. She said she struggled somewhat with what to tell them, but worried that “once you start going underground, once you start hiding things, it’s a slippery slope downward.”

And then she told a story of an Emory student who told her he had started wearing a yarmulke because “antisemitism is on the rise and I want to show the world that I am a Jew.”

“I loved his moxie -– or as we would say, chutzpah –- you know, you’re going to go after us, well, I’m here,” Lipstadt said. “On the other hand, my heart broke a little.

“Yes, antisemitism is very real, and yes it is impinging on our daily lives,” she continued. “But even as it impinges on our daily lives, let’s never make it the raison d’etre, let’s never make it the motivation for our feelings as Jews. To let the haters turn us into just being on the defensive would be a victory for them. We’ve got to fight this fight but never let it become the determining factor in who we are”

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