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Texas synagogue attack ignites debate over delay in confirmation of special envoy on antisemitism

In the wake of Saturday’s attack at the Beth Israel synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, a debate is brewing among Jewish American groups about whether the incident — which the FBI deemed as a terrorist attack — should be treated as domestic terrorism or as a global antisemitic attack.

At the heart of the conversation is the ongoing delay in the confirmation of Deborah E. Lipstadt as the State Department’s special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism. Amid Republication objection, the Senate has yet to hold a confirmation hearing or a vote on Lipstadt’s nomination, which was submitted last July.

“This was an act of terrorism clearly linked to global antisemitism,” said Halie Soifer, chief executive of the Jewish Democratic Council of America. “We know the perpetrator of this incident was foreign and was clearly radicalized abroad. So by definition, this incident was connected to global antisemitism.”

The armed terrorist, Malik Faisal Akram, was a U.K. resident and was heard saying he targeted the synagogue because the U.S. “only cares about Jewish lives.”

On Sunday, the American Jewish Committee issued a call to action for the White House to develop a national action plan to fight antisemitism in the U.S., describing this weekend’s attack as of domestic concern. “This most recent incident underscores the need for a strong, comprehensive, and national response to Jew-hatred in America,” the AJC said.

Some Jewish groups have lobbied the administration to appoint a special designated official at the Department of Homeland Security or at the Department of Justice whose portfolio is specifically focused on antisemitism in the U.S. because the State Department’s special envoy — the job for which Lipstadt is nominated — focuses on global antisemitism.

Ellie Cohanim, who served as deputy envoy on antisemitism in the Trump administration, suggested Lipstadt “would have no domestic mandate” if confirmed. “If you are upset about the antisemitic hostage-taking in Texas Saturday then ask the Biden administration to appoint a domestic anti-Semitism czar,” she wrote.

Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, maintained that confirming Lipstadt “is an opportunity for policymakers on both sides of the political spectrum to take meaningful action in the fight against antisemitism.”

Image by Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images

Soifer called the discussion over whether the attack would have fallen under the purview of the special envoy’s office “a ridiculous debate.”

“There is a clear connection between the Republicans’ obstruction of Lipstadt’s nomination and the now-hindered ability of the U.S. government to monitor and combat antisemitism,” she said.

Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, accused Jewish Democrats of trying to play politics “with a tragedy befalling the Jewish community.”

“The position that Deborah Lipstadt is up for would’ve done nothing to prevent this event,” Brooks said. “Rather it’s a matter for the Department of Homeland Security and domestic law enforcement to prevent these, and work to keep our community safe.”

Others have called for the immediate appointment of a domestic-focused envoy regardless of the confirmation process, so any issue that arises would be dealt swiftly without delay. “I would say now’s the time to establish a position by appointment,” said Joel Rubin, executive director of the American Jewish Congress. “And then, ultimately, to seek potential legislation to codify that position.”

Nathan Diament, the Orthodox Union’s director of public policy, called that “a bad idea.”

“The mission of the DHS, the DOJ and law enforcement, in general, is to combat crimes, and among them hate crimes and antisemitic crimes,” Diament explained. “It shouldn’t be handed off to one particular office or one particular person. It’s got to be part and parcel of the mission of these law enforcement agencies as a whole.”

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