In a departing interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in October 2012, Hannah Rosenthal—on her final day as the U.S. State Department’s Special Envoy for Monitoring and Combating anti-Semitism—concluded by saying that “there will always be a need” for the post she held for three years.
And yet filling that post has not proven easy. After Rosenthal’s replacement, Ira Forman, left the post in January 2017, it took incumbent President Donald Trump’s administration until early 2019 before it announced the appointment of Elon Carr, a U.S. military veteran, to the role. Along the way, Trump’s first Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, even mooted the prospect of abolishing the post before pushback from Jewish leaders and others changed his mind.
Meanwhile, since President Joe Biden came to office in January 2021, the post has remained unfilled. Although Biden nominated longtime Holocaust historian and Emory professor Deborah Lipstadt to the role last July, Republican objections to what they regard as Lipstadt’s overt political biases have prevented her from being confirmed.
I will return to the controversy over Lipstadt in due course, but first, it’s worth briefly reviewing why the special envoy’s post exists and how the various holders of the position have understood their brief.
When the George W. Bush administration created the post in 2006, global anti-Semitism was reaching new heights. Only a few months before the inaugural envoy, Gregg Rickman, was appointed, the anti-Semitic violence plaguing European Jewish communities had taken a chilling turn with the kidnapping, torture and murder of Ilan Halimi—a young French Jew taken hostage by a gang of Paris thugs who seized him out of the fallacious conviction that since all Jews are wealthy, Halimi’s family would be willing to pay a hefty ransom to secure his freedom. After enduring three weeks of being beaten and burned with cigarettes while chained to a radiator, Halimi was dumped by the gang at a roadside and left for dead. He died shortly after being discovered, his fate becoming a painful symbol of Europe’s new reality for Jews.
“More than six decades after the Holocaust, anti-Semitism is not just a historical fact, however,” then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stated at the May 2006 ceremony where Rickman was sworn in. “It is a current event.”
Sixteen years later, anti-Semitism remains both a current event and a global one, manifesting in a dizzying array of situations and crises, and emanating from both the right and the left.
Since anti-Semitism is a hydra-headed phenomenon, it’s not surprising that each special envoy has brought their particular concerns to the position while also reflecting the political priorities of the administration they serve. Rickman, appointed by Bush, was outspoken on Islamist and Iranian-regime anti-Semitism; Rosenthal and Forman (and interim envoy Michael Kozak), appointed by President Barack Obama, emphasized the fight against anti-Semitism as part of a broader tolerance agenda; while Carr, appointed by Trump, highlighted the threat posed by the BDS movement to subject the State of Israel to a comprehensive boycott. Their contributions to the envoy’s position are not reducible to these specific issues, of course, but the subtle changes of emphasis that have come with each envoy are should be noted.
With that in mind, the question arises as to what particular concerns Lipstadt would bring to the role—assuming she is confirmed, that is. Two votes at the Foreign Relations Committee on her confirmation have already been postponed this month, the first because of objections to Lipstadt from Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), whom she accused of having “white nationalist sympathies” in a tweet that she later deleted and apologized for, the second because Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) deemed another delay was in order due to low attendance at the committee on March 23.
Assuming she is confirmed, Lipstadt will need to demonstrate straight away that she is above the partisan grumblings that bedeviled her nomination process. She herself is fond of saying, correctly, that anti-Semitism is a feature of both left and right; that observation should be front and center should she transform into an American diplomat.
Indeed, it’s worth pointing out that because the envoy’s post is a diplomatic one—the holder has no mandate to deal with domestic anti-Semitism; its focus is upon Jew-hatred outside of our borders. In terms of countries and themes, Lipstadt will have her hands full. In Western Europe, she will be dealing with increasing levels of anti-Semitic violence targeting Jews; anti-Zionist influence in parliaments, universities and other key sites of influence; and a growing appetite for conspiracy theories with Jews at their core, as evidenced throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. In Eastern Europe, she will be dealing with the abuse and distortion of the Holocaust by nationalist politicians, as well as the ideological fallout from Russian President Vladimir Putin’s self-styled “de-Nazification” of Ukraine.
Further afield, in the Middle East, there is the Iranian regime’s ongoing dedication to the destruction of Israel and Qatar’s ongoing support for terrorist organizations that cling to anti-Semitic ideologies, like Hamas. On the African continent, leading politicians and influencers in South Africa—among them Nelson Mandela’s grandson—push the libel that Israel is a reincarnation of apartheid rule, and that only outsized Jewish financial and political clout prevents Western governments from backing the Palestinians. And that list is hardly complete.
The continued blocking of Lipstadt’s confirmation is hampering an effective U.S. response to these challenges. There is no doubt that she is eminently qualified for the role, both in her work as an academic and in her status as the woman who, in 2000, handed the world’s most notorious Holocaust denier, David Irving, a resounding defeat in a libel suit he brought against her at the British High Court of Justice.
True, not all of her judgments are sound. Her 2019 book, Antisemitism: Here and Now, drew an absurd equivalence between Trump and Jeremy Corbyn, the former leader of the British Labour Party whose term came to an ignominious end amid a mass of irrefutable evidence of the anti-Semitism within the party he and other diehard supporters of the Palestinian cause unleashed. One can scorn Trump’s often bigoted rhetoric on its own terms, but there is little analytical merit in comparing his crude, impulsive outbursts with Corbyn’s strategy of promoting anti-Semitism on the left camouflaged as support for Palestinian rights.
None of that should distract from the urgency of appointing the special envoy. Indeed, the United States led the way in appointing government officials to combat anti-Semitism specifically—an approach subsequently adopted in Germany, the United Kingdom and other countries. On this issue, as on so many others, America needs to continue leading, rather than fall behind.
Ben Cohen is a New York City-based journalist and author who writes a weekly column on Jewish and international affairs for JNS.