At a time when anti-Semitism is on the rise around the globe, the office of the U.S. State Department’s Special Envoy for Combating and Monitoring Anti-Semitism ought to be filled. Indeed, the Biden administration seemed to signal its interest in the subject when it decided to upgrade the post by expanding the office’s staff and conferring the title of ambassador on the envoy. President Joe Biden also named someone that was considered eminently qualified for the job in Emory University professor and historian Deborah Lipstadt, a widely respected expert on the Holocaust.
But some political insiders worried when the change was first mooted that the decision to make the envoy an ambassadorship would come with a price. In doing so, it made the post subject to Senate confirmation along with all other ambassadors. And in an era when bipartisanship is dead and all Senate confirmations are part of a zero-sum political game, the result was predictable. Along with a number of other people appointed by Biden, Lipstadt’s nomination is being held up by Republican senators who are determined to play hardball in an evenly divided Senate over every confirmation, and she is no exception.
In Lipstadt’s case, the obstacle is Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho), the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who has used his position to place her nomination in legislative limbo because he has not even consented to schedule a confirmation hearing. And so, like a great many other nominees, it will remain that way until the Democrats manage to persuade the GOP caucus to give in by making some concession on another issue.
According to The New York Times, the justification for the hold stems from a tweet by Lipstadt about Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) in which she responded to his claim that senators would have been more afraid during last year’s U.S. Capitol riot if the demonstrators had been affiliated with the Black Lives Matter movement or Antifa rather than being Trump supporters. For this, Lipstadt, who is known for her sharp tongue and strong opinions, accused him of being an advocate of “white supremacy/nationalism.” Not surprisingly, Johnson took it personally, and his fellow members of the GOP caucus probably see no reason to relent absent some kind of apology or similar gesture by Lipstadt.
This is frustrating for her and the organized Jewish community—where she has broad support—and which wants the post filled. It’s also unproductive since the Republicans, who are uniformly supportive of Israel, back the mission of the anti-Semitism envoy.
But as much as they’re right that Risch and the Republicans ought to relent and let her be confirmed, it’s no good pretending that politics can be separated from the business of fighting anti-Semitism in the current environment.
Lipstadt deserves credit for her willingness to acknowledge—as some on the Jewish left and the Democratic Party sometimes have trouble understanding—that Jew-hatred is present on both the left and the right. As such, she is probably as good a choice as can be imagined from a Biden administration that has unfortunately proved that it is in thrall to its leftist activist wing.
The Democrats are increasingly split on a lot of issues, including Israel, and progressives are guilty of either trafficking in anti-Semitism—as “Squad” members Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) have done or of making excuses for their colleagues who advocate woke ideas like intersectionality, which are inextricably linked to prejudice against Israel and the Jews.
Since Lipstadt has in the past called out Omar for her outrageous statements, theoretically that should be enough to convince Republicans that she ought to be allowed to serve.
Similarly, she showed her integrity by writing in The Atlantic that those who have made inappropriate analogies between the plight of illegal immigrants to the United States and that of Jews during the Holocaust are wrong, even if she disagreed with former President Donald Trump’s policies.
Still, it has not escaped the Republicans that Lipstadt did not earn her nomination by her estimable work as a scholar or even the celebrity that she earned by being the subject of a film “Denial,” starring Jewish actor Rachel Weisz (who played the historian) for her pivotal role in a case in which Holocaust-denier David Irving was defeated in a British court.
Lipstadt may have deserved the post, but no one should be under any illusion that the decision didn’t have a lot to do with her willingness to play the partisan in 2020 by endorsing a shameful ad from the Jewish Democratic Council of America that likened the Trump administration to the rise of Nazi Germany. She followed that up by co-authoring an op-ed in The Washington Post in which she compared those who raised questions about the outcome of the 2020 presidential election to Holocaust-deniers
In both cases, she crossed the same line that she had previously drawn between the Holocaust and partisan-issue advocacy. Whether she did so because she genuinely has come to believe those who disagree with her about Trump are either Nazis or their enablers—or had her eye on the post that she later claimed she had to be persuaded to accept—is irrelevant.
Having taken those stands, she put herself in the same boat as any other Democrat with a record of vicious partisanship who had to then try and persuade angry Republicans that she would carry out her duties in a fair-minded manner. Nor is this any different from the way Trump appointees were made to jump through hoops about quotes or tweets that got them in hot water with Democrats. An example of this was the way David Friedman had to walk back his characterization of J Street as being “worse than kapos” before being confirmed as ambassador to Israel.
The lesson that we take away from this episode can’t be just a partisan attack on Republicans for acting the way parties behave when they are out of power and wish to make the White House pay for confirmations. As much as the post of anti-Semitism envoy should be filled right away, the problem is not so much how partisanship has made the Senate a dysfunctional institution, though that is certainly true. Rather, it’s the way too many people who ought to have known better were willing to sanction inappropriate Holocaust analogies or to otherwise link the battle against anti-Semitism to political sparring.
If Americans are to keep politics out of the discussion about anti-Semitism—and therefore enable both the Jewish community and the government to condemn it, whether it comes from the right or the left—then those who are looked to as the gold standard on the issue, like Lipstadt, must not allow themselves to toy with the issue in the manner they have. And if they do, they can’t credibly complain about how unfair it is that those who not unreasonably resent such inappropriate accusations see them as disqualifying.
As much as it is to be hoped that Lipstadt’s nomination will eventually be salvaged, there are appropriate conclusions to be drawn from this contretemps. It is important that the Jewish community understand that trying to weaponize anti-Semitism for partisan advantage in the way too many liberals have done in recent years when seeking to justify their opposition to Trump or the Republicans is a terrible mistake as well as wrong. If that lesson is ignored, then the effort to unite Americans against anti-Semitism will be lost even before it has even begun.
Jonathan S. Tobin is the editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.