Meeting

A Conversation With U.S. Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism Deborah Lipstadt

Wednesday, January 24, 2024
Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images
Speaker

Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism, U.S. Department of State

Presider

Executive Vice President and Director, 9/11 Memorial Museum; CFR Member

Historian and now U.S. Ambassador Deborah Lipstadt discusses the increase in antisemitic incidents and rhetoric following the October 7, 2023 attack on Israel, contemporary sources of antisemitism, and the U.S. government’s responses to global antisemitism.

CHANIN: Good afternoon, everybody. Welcome to today’s Council on Foreign Relations meeting, “A Conversation with U.S. Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism Deborah Lipstadt.” I’m Clifford Chanin, the director of the 9/11 Memorial Museum. I’ll be presiding over today’s discussion.

Happy to see some old friends here. And, welcome, Ambassador Lipstadt.

LIPSTADT: Thank you.

CHANIN: I’d like to start just with some background. There’s a lot to talk about. I’m sure there’ll be many questions online and on site here.

But tell us just a brief history of your position. Why does it exist? What purpose is it intended to serve?

LIPSTADT: Well, I think why it exists has become very clear in the past few months. But it was created, actually, at the very end of the Bush II administration and so it’s been in existence through a number of administrations.

It was raised to the ambassadorial level—I’m the first person to hold it at that level—at the very end of the Trump administration by the Congress. So, in other words, so anybody who holds the position now has to be presidentially nominated and Senate confirmed, which raises the level of the office.

It essentially was created in a manner which has become increasingly rare in the United States and Washington, D.C., in a bipartisan fashion, because members on the Hill felt that there was a significant rise of anti-Semitism, that anti-Semitism was a significant threat, and there should be someone—and somehow it wasn’t being properly or—it just had fallen through the cracks in terms of being monitored by the State Department and this was necessary.

So that’s the brief history.

CHANIN: Tell me how the job under normal conditions of anti-Semitism changed with October 7.

LIPSTADT: Well, it already was—you know, I sometimes say only very slightly jocularly so I work in a growth industry and business is booming, sadly so. I’d rather be in the exact opposite situation.

Basically, when I first came in, actually, there was a great deal of promise. One of the activities that my office devoted a great deal of time with—to was working with Abraham Accord countries and, to put it mildly, not yet Abraham Accord countries.

I visited—my first trip out of the country after being sworn into office was to Saudi Arabia where I got a very positive welcome, and the idea was to meet with the various Gulf states, other Muslim majority countries, some of which had been purveyors of anti-Semitism in the past, some of which had long histories of indigenous Jewish populations, and to get them to recognize that, to get them to acknowledge that, to get them to include that in educating their general population.

And, by and large, we found a very warm welcome in most countries, some more so, some less so. But we visited Saudi Arabia, UAE a number of times, Morocco a number of times, Tunisia, and others were on the list. And that was—that wasn’t the only activity but that was one of the major activities.

In addition, we were reaching out to countries where we saw significant rise of anti-Semitism. But in contrast to some of my predecessors—not all of them, but some of my predecessors—I could go to these countries—they could go to these countries, my predecessors—and say, you have a serious problem with anti-Semitism. We in the United States government are concerned about that and we’d like to work with you. We’d like to help. We’d like to find out what the situation is.

I can’t do that. I’d go—even before October 7—I’d go and say we have a serious problem and we have to work together and we want to figure out what’s going on and how to address it.

So that was the main activity and I think by my presence and by the—what’s in the name or what’s in the title by the fact that it was a now presidentially-nominated Senate-confirmed position I just—I was meeting with someone at the White House, an admiral now stationed at the White House, and he said to me: Well, you’re a four-star general. I thought he was joking. When I came back and mentioned that to someone in my office, they pulled up a list and said, no, protocol says you’re—so I told them to treat me with renewed respect, you know? (Laughter.) But it adds to the gravitas.

Now, one of the things that I’ve also stressed—since October 7 it has been a little harder because we’ve been otherwise focused—is that you can’t fight hate in silos. You can’t say I’m only against racism and not against other forms of hatred. I’m only against anti-Semitism and not other forms of hatred, because as many people who study Jewish history say, what starts with the Jews never ends with the Jews.

Give you a counterfactual—thankfully, it’s a counterfactual. Had the Third Reich won the war they probably would have completed the job—their terminology—with the Roma and the Sinti, some gypsies, or with the Mischling, the children of mixed—something they didn’t do in the beginning.

So, you know, you start with one, you see how far you can push, and very often the starting point is—not always but often is anti-Semitism, in part because it has such an ancient history and is baked into the culture of so many religions, ideologies, political movements, artistic movements, intellectual movements, et cetera.

CHANIN: Well, that raises a point—we were talking about this earlier—that, you know, anti-Semitism itself is now a weapon—

LIPSTADT: Yes.

CHANIN: —that has been turned not just against the Jews—certainly against the Jews but not just against them. But has been weaponized in this struggle between countries, cultures, civilization.

LIPSTADT: Absolutely. I like to say—the way I phrase it, for lack of a more elegant way of describing it, as the three-pronged pitchfork of anti-Semitism. One prong is certainly a threat to Jewish welfare—Jewish communal welfare. If it were only that it would be worth fighting because you have a vulnerable community and you’ve got to protect them.

But it’s more than just that. It’s also a threat to democracy. It’s a threat to democracy because the cornerstone of anti-Semitism is a conspiracy myth, not theory. You can prove a theory. It’s not a theory. It’s a myth.

The conspiracy myth of anti-Semitism, i.e., Jews control the banks, Jews control the electoral system, Jews control the media, Jews—the Jews, the Jews. Not a Jew or some Jews, but the Jews, which means you’ve given up on democracy.

On top of that what we see is bad actors, some of them foreign actors, using anti-Semitism as a way of stirring up the pot, of stirring up the pot where there is anti-Semitism they will enhance that anti-Semitism.

Why? Some because it’s a way. Generally these are authoritarian countries—Iran, Russia, now the PRC to a great greater degree than ever before. Because, first of all, it makes the country itself look like a failed country. How can you Americans think you’re—you know, you’re based on an idea, a glorious idea of unity, you know, et cetera, when you have this problem?

Now, I don’t want to put it only on the foreign countries—some people do that—because as I was saying in conversation with a colleague earlier this week the foreign actors—foreign bad actors may be adding fuel to the fire. But there’s got to be a fire for them to add fuel to.

If there were no—wasn’t a propensity towards anti-Semitism, there wasn’t an existence of domestic anti-Semitism in this country and, I don’t know, England, France, Germany, Italy, wherever, any other country you might want to mention they couldn’t gin up—you know, stir up the pot.

But that’s certainly part of it, and I think the thing to remember is that no healthy democracy has tolerated the existence of really vibrant anti-Semitism and remained a healthy democracy and the major case in point is Weimar Germany.

I’m not suggesting that the only reason Weimar Germany fell was because it tolerated anti-Semitism but that certainly didn’t help, and authoritarian governments hate rule of law, hate ideas, hate democracy, and anti-Semitism thrives in that setting. So for them it’s a wonderful weapon to be used against democracies including our own.

CHANIN: So let’s talk now about what’s going on in Gaza. There were immediate reactions after the attack before any Israeli response whatsoever that were, to say the very least, quite supportive of what had been done.

Israel has now been at war for three months. Enormous destruction and criticism of that because of the scale of it or the approach that the Israelis have taken, and then a sense that somehow a ceasefire, which would keep Hamas in business, is a legitimate outcome for this.

So there are various ways you can look at this. But the lines are not always very clear about what is and what is not anti-Semitism.

LIPSTADT: Right.

CHANIN: So how do you look at the current situation? I don’t think we need to discuss much about Hamas’ view of Israel and Jews. But it’s worth remembering that it is a defining characteristic of that organization.

But how do you draw lines between what is criticism of what Israel is doing and the legitimate choices they are making or not and what is simply rooted in anti-Semitism?

LIPSTADT: You know, one of the things that people often say—I don’t think any sane person says this but sometimes people will say, oh, if I criticize Israel they’re going to call me an anti-Semite. Well, that’s ludicrous.

Criticism of Israel, Israel’s democracy, is not anti-Semitism. If that were the case the hundreds of thousands of people who poured into the street week after week after week—I think we’re going on six or seven months—would be anti-Semites and clearly they’re not. They did it out of a devotion to their country.

Having said that, if you say—you know, question the right of Israel to exist, when you say Jews do not have a national identity or a right to a national identity or you attack it as a theocracy when there are lots of other theocracies that you don’t bother attacking, I think that you have to ask where’s that coming from—when you single it out.

I’ll tell you a story. I was once in a Midwestern town with a large university. I wasn’t there for the university. I was there on other business. But I saw that—I had a night free and there was a lecture at the university on the Middle East, clearly, coming from a highly critical point of view but I like to go into the lion’s den even if it’s incognito, you know, and see what’s going on.

And the lecture was pretty critical, and afterwards people sort of made self little groups to discuss and to say—to give the lecture they would have given—oh, I liked the lecture, but this is what I would have said. You know, sometimes you get—you write a book and someone reviews it and they say, well, it’s a good book but this is what I would have written. So, you know.

So that was the conversation that was going on. And I joined one group just standing there and someone said Israel doesn’t have a right to exist because it displaced an indigenous people. So I could have gotten into a debate did it really displace an indigenous people, well, you know, and all those boring details that people’s eyes glaze over.

And I said, that’s the reason? And he said, yes, that’s primarily the reason. I said, well, let’s think of other countries that have displaced indigenous people and ask whether they have a right to exist. And let’s not talk about authoritarian countries. Let’s talk about the United States of America. Let’s talk about Canada and the First Nation(s). Let’s talk about Australia and the Aborigines or New Zealand and the Maoris.

I’m not saying that makes it right. Or the British Empire. I’m not saying that makes it right. I’m not saying, no, because this one did it. I’m just saying if you do that focus of only one you got to ask where’s that coming from.

But the other thing that has happened a lot since October 7, and I’ve asked—been asked this a lot by different journalists and all sorts of media people—about the difference between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism.

Now, that was—being an anti-Zionist was a legitimate position in the ’20s, the ’30s, the ’40s. There were serious—including in this neighborhood serious discussions and debates going on, should there be a Jewish state, will it question the existence. American Jews were beginning to thrive even though it was a period of great anti-Semitism nonetheless. Will it threaten our place, et cetera.

I think after the establishment of the state and today when you have half of the world’s Jewish population there it becomes a different story. But what I say to the journalists is I say, you know, you’re asking me is there a connection and I think you’re asking the wrong person.

You have to ask the people who burned down the synagogue in Montreal if there’s a connection between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionist and you have to ask the people who trashed a delicatessen in Toronto—I just came back from Canada, hence my examples—whether there’s a connection between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism.

You have to ask the national cricket team of South Africa who removed a Jew as the captain, a young nineteen-year-old boy, because he’s Jewish whether there’s a connection.

Now, they said we’re removing him for security concerns. I’m sorry, if you’re a—consider yourself a democratic country and you have—or even not and you have security concerns you don’t punish the victim. You up the security. You enhance the security.

So I think that that and by the Hamas leadership it’s been made very clear. I mean, many of us heard the recording. If you saw the movie that the Israeli government is showing of the atrocities but even if you hadn’t they’ve played the recording of one Hamas terrorist calling his mother from one of the—I think one of the kibbutzim and saying, Mother, I just killed ten yehudi. Not Israelis, the yehudi. Jews.

You know, and you would have hoped the mother would have said, you know, hey, it’s a war, but she said, you know, Allah Akbar. Yeah.

So I think the other side has made that connection quite clear.

CHANIN: Let’s talk about the charge of genocide against Israel that’s at the International Court of Justice which, again, to say the least, is an historically explosive accusation to be being made against the Jewish state and it certainly is aware of whatever associations might be made with that.

How do you assess that?

LIPSTADT: I think it’s—you know, you can criticize Israel’s conduct of the war. There are people who do it. There are Israelis who do it. I’m not enough of a military expert to know and I don’t play one on television to know, you know, why something is done or what justifies it, or doesn’t justify it—is it rampant revenge or is there a real reason why this has to be that way. But there’s room to debate and some of that debate goes on in Israel, to Israel’s credit.

So, you know, I think that that’s a legitimate debate. But to accuse of genocide when in fact in some of the charters of Hamas, of other terrorist organizations, there’s virtually a call for the destruction of Israel. It’s a sort of gross accusation and it takes on an added—just an added sense of distress, disgust, whatever, that—because we know the term genocide created by Raphael Lemkin, you know, a Jew, came to this country. Was a professor of law at many places including at Duke but who gave that up to lobby the halls of—in the halls of the United Nations for the genocide prevention and for—you know, to acknowledge what had happened and coined the word genocide in the wake of the Shoah.

To put that on the one Jewish state I find disturbing as does the United States government.

CHANIN: It does not seem to be by accident that that’s—

LIPSTADT: Not at all. Not at all. And coming from a state which has been quite friendly and quite supportive of not just Hamas but of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine it’s—you know, it would be Alice in Wonderland if it wasn’t true.

CHANIN: You mentioned before one of the changes in your responsibilities or in the atmosphere you’re working in is that before it was possible to think more of anti-Semitism being over there but now, of course, we’re seeing it here as well.

Do you see it as the same strain what’s happening domestically and what’s happening internationally? Are there distinctions that you would draw between these things?

LIPSTADT: It’s more the same than it’s different and I think that’s partially because of the internet and the speed of social media exchanges. You do find distinct elements in a France which has such a large Muslim population, which there’s been long-term tensions and hostilities, animosities.

But, by and large, it’s more the same than is different. You also—what you find quite distinctly is how many people are demonstrating, whether it’s in this country or other countries, who have no idea what they’re demonstrating about.

I just saw a clip this morning of people at a film festival asked from the river to the sea, and I think was they said, well, from the Red Sea to the river next to Gaza. I looked at a map. I couldn’t find it. Or someone said from the Bosporus to the Black Sea. You know, they failed geography and history.

I’m not saying that—but there’s so many. If it’s one or two you would say, OK, they picked the one or two to make everyone look stupid. But it’s such a failure to fully understand.

The other thing that I find terribly disturbing and in fact I had an op-ed with Ambassador Michèle Taylor, who is our American ambassador at the Human Rights Council in Geneva, on the gender-based violence. That’s a nice term for rape, dismemberment, sexual crimes against women, and now as it turns out we’re learning from the hostages who were released against men, too.

And two things drove me nuts. One was the but. Yes, it’s terrible but Israel did wrong in Gaza. I’m sorry, when it comes to rape, when it comes to murdering children in front of their parents or parents in front of their children, there is no but.

Certainly, with sexual crimes there is no but. So that was terribly disturbing, and Ambassador Taylor and I called it out in the Guardian. And we specifically chose the Guardian because it is a liberal, left-leaning, or more than that, publication, and we wanted to reach that audience.

But the other thing we wrote about and found tremendously disturbing is the silence of so many human rights and international organizations, and I say this as a member of some of them, specifically women’s organizations.

Women’s organizations, whether it was U.S. U.N., which now has spoken out finally, or other women’s organizations who—and individual women leaders who had no hesitancy when Boko Haram kidnapped the women, when the Yazidi women were treated so horrifically, when the Kurdish women. When Iranian women who simply took off their headscarves were jailed and tortured and some killed they spoke out.

I mean, one of the watch lines or mottos of the #MeToo movement is believe the women. Believe the women unless you think they’re Jewish women?

I mean, it turns out that some of the women—I don’t know what number and I don’t know if that will ever be publicly—made public. Some of the women who were sexually abused in the most horrific way were not Jews. They were Muslims. There were Druze, many of whom are not talking about it for cultural reasons, familial reasons, et cetera.

But we know that for a fact. But the perception is they were all Jews and now—and those groups are saying, well, we have to get the evidence. We haven’t seen it. And that’s just one of the leaders of one of these groups. I think it was the leader of one of these groups saying shame on Israel for burying those women without doing rape tests.

There were 1,200 people murdered, whatever—1,200 is enough—in one day. You’re traumatized. You’re just trying to figure out who is who.

You know, and so it’s that double standard. I don’t automatically say, ha, it’s anti-Semitism. But when I see it I stop and think how might I explain this double standard. Sometimes the answer is obvious.

CHANIN: Yeah. This is so much at the heart of your work over years now. But and it comes down to the essence of the question of why this is, why this hate is, and it is a hate that spans political, religious, national affiliation. So how do you define the essence of this?

LIPSTADT: You know, there’s a wonderful book by David Nirenberg who was professor at Chicago of medieval history for many years, now is head of that little place in Princeton Institute for Advanced Studies, and it’s called Anti-Judaism.

I get no royalties so I, you know—but it’s a tour de force because he shows, look, not—it was not something we weren’t aware of but he shows that in a terrifically—it’s not bedtime reading unless you want to sleep well. You know, it’s—you’ve got to work your way through it.

But he shows—his thesis is that for virtually all or an unbelievable number of believing Western religions, cultures, ideologies, being against Judaism was the determinative factor of your creation. Christianity—you know, we are the New Testament, one way in early Christianity when it’s in Judea and later when it’s in Rome.

Islam you know, in the beginning Mohammed certainly reaches out to the Jews but when that doesn’t—isn’t successful. Protestantism, communism, socialism, enlightenment. And so many of these cultural and intellectual and religious entities which form the fabric of Western society founded themselves, built themselves, on the cornerstone of anti-Judaism.

My point is that it is so deep in the weeds, so into the soil, that I don’t think a succession of people in my jobs will ever solve the problem. We can—we shed a light on it. We try to contain it. We try to get people—if I can get people—I’ve been in the job now a year and a half.

If I can get people to take this seriously, not to say, well, the Jews, yes, but or they’re not in such bad shape as other groups, et cetera, you don’t have to be in the suffering position to be afflicted by prejudice, and mainly, to come back where we started, to get people to see this not just as a threat to Jews.

And as I say again, if it were that alone it would be a valid thing to fight with all your heart and soul and might. But it’s more than that. It’s a threat to the very fundamentals of the liberal democratic world in which we live and I think that’s one of the reasons the Biden administration put out first time ever—look, there have been presidents both sides of the aisle, all persuasions, who have condemned anti-Semitism and condemned it vigorously.

But to have a national strategy in which over twenty-four agencies take part and look at their internal operation, what can they do to address anti-Semitism, what can they do to enhance Jewish life, down to agriculture, you know, in the 4-H—not that 4-H is anti-Semitic, God forbid. If they’re listening I’m not suggesting that at all.

But what can we do in rural societies where there are so few Jews to educate people about Jews so Jews don’t just become this mysterious people that are talked about but become, you know, three-dimensional at the least.

CHANIN: It is remarkable to think about, I mean, this—what is a seemingly bizarre alliance between the progressive movements and Hamas supporters but it comes back to the point you make, which is there is a common root there that defines Israel as a target.

LIPSTADT: That’s right. And, you know, it’s—you can sometimes think of anti-Semitism—sometimes I’m asked is it worse on the right or the left or whatever. I hate that question. I sometimes think if Sholem Aleichem were still alive he would say that’s like asking would you rather die of cholera in Kyiv or of dysentery in Odessa.

Neither. They’re both bad and it doesn’t matter where it comes from on the political spectrum. Doesn’t matter if it comes from a Christian, if it comes from a Muslim, if it comes from an atheist, if it comes from a Jew. You fight it.

But what’s interesting is you can think of it as a horseshoe—a magnetic horseshoe—and the two ends of the horseshoe come together. When we look at extremists right and extremists left we see that that consolidation.

CHANIN: There is a commonality. I’m going to open up to Q&A now. I’m going to invite members to join the conversation with their questions.

A reminder—this meeting is on the record. We will take from both in the room and online. But I ask before you ask your question, and please keep it in the form of a question, that you identify yourself so we know who you are.

So our first question would be in the room. The lady in the back there, please. There’s a mic coming your way.

Q: Judy Goldstein.

CHANIN: If you could take the microphone, please.

Q: Thank you. Judy Goldstein from Humanity in Action.

What do you think is at the root of the silence that you spoke of, the silence in women’s groups and silence in other groups? What’s at heart about silence?

LIPSTADT: I wish I knew. But by process of deduction, and this is what Ambassador Taylor and I were arguing in our op-ed which went through all the clearance processes and they are arcane and extended as much as Secretary Blinken is trying to modernize the State Department and making great strides, the clearance process is still an extensive thing and rightfully so because we were writing as two ambassadors, we asked—we said that the only difference we can see is that these were Jews and this was connected to Israel. And that immediately goes into a whole other category and—of different treatment and there would be many people who would consider that anti-Semitism. Maybe not overt, maybe not conscious, but it’s bad either way.

CHANIN: Next we’ll go to an online question.

OPERATOR: Our next question is from Jonathan Guyer.

Q: Hi, I’m Jonathan Guyer, a journalist and a term member of the Council.

I found the dehumanization of Palestinians throughout this recent conflict really startling and reminiscent of other historic atrocities, and an Israeli scholar even wrote in Haaretz this week that Holocaust museums ought to be doing more about it.

Ambassador, how concerned are you by the incitement from Israeli leaders and this rhetoric that Israeli scholars have described as genocidal in this context?

LIPSTADT: Well, I don’t know how extensive is the description. I don’t know this—I must have missed the article in Haaretz, which I read pretty regularly.

Look, bad things happen in wars. Wars are ugly. Wars are terrible, especially when it’s urban warfare, especially when you have, you know, military positions in basements of hospitals, as our government has now confirmed was the case, or next to schools and things like that.

There’s no justification—you know, terrible things happen and any treatment of people, degrading them in order to degrade them is wrong. But I can’t comment on the specifics. You know, I haven’t—I’ve read the reports. I’ve read some of the reports and I would hope that Israel as it has done in the past, sometimes more successfully, sometimes less successfully, but certainly not as common as—not something that’s common amongst other—many other countries, will look at this and determine what the case is.

I think the idea of it being a genocide is just wrong. When you have—I forget what the equivalent is of 1,200 Israelis killed but I think it’s something like forty thousand or whatever Americans in terms of population. Someone can crunch the numbers and will correct me, I’m sure, if I get it wrong.

I think that, you know, we’re dealing with a traumatic—a moment of trauma that few countries have ever really experienced and when you add to the fact that in one day it was the death—the murder, not death—murder of more Jews since the Holocaust it adds a special resonance.

CHANIN: I think we can go back online for another question.

OPERATOR: We will take our next question from Sharon Nazarian.

Q: Hello. Ambassador Lipstadt, thank you for your work and your team’s tremendous work since October 7.

I wanted to ask about denialism. Adversely, we’re already seeing narratives and conspiracies out there about October 7, about what didn’t happen—what did take place and did not take place.

How does your office confront that? And even seeing now some patterns of similar groups that were in the, you know, January 6 denialism of our elections kind of coming in and picking up some of the denialism regarding October 7 how do you see that and how do you see the impact of that in terms of the work you’re doing?

LIPSTADT: I see it as something—thank you for the question—I see it as something very, very disturbing and that it happened with such rapidity, I don’t—I don’t shock easily. I don’t surprise easily. But even I was somewhat surprised with the rapidity with which the denialism took place.

It is going to be harder to fight than Holocaust denial and believe you me I know how I—as you know, how hard it is to fight Holocaust denial. But I think the best tool we have, as is the case in Holocaust denial, in my trial—when I was on trial in London being sued for libel I was the one being sued by a Holocaust denier—the way we proved our case was with documents showing what the Germans said and showing what—you know, so you’ve denied this. You know, here it says it in black and white.

So I think one of the best ways we will have of trying to fight this is by relying on that material. Will it be successful? Won’t be entirely successful because inconvenient history—when history is inconvenient you redefine it.

I live in Atlanta. I know inconvenient history. I’ve lived in the South now thirty years. Inconvenient history you rewrite it, you redefine it, or you deny it. So I find it very disturbing and I think it’s something that if you care about truth, not about this particular situation—you care about truth, you should fight it.

CHANIN: Rabbi Cosgrove, please?

Q: Hi. Rabbi Cosgrave of Park Avenue Synagogue. Thank you so much, Ambassador.

I want to ask a question from within the Jewish community. We’re watching on campus life these anti-Semitism commissions, most recently at Harvard, where there are all sorts of intra Jewish debates as to whether a progressive person who has been critical of Israeli policy should or shouldn’t be in a position to be an arbiter of anti-Semitism on campus life, and the thing that’s most painful for me as I watch this is the laughter of our real enemies, that they’re watching this saying the Jewish people are ripping themselves apart from within.

And so I’m wondering if you could shed any wisdom on what I’m seeing from within my own community vis-à-vis these campus conversations.

LIPSTADT: Thank you, Rabbi.

It’s very difficult, but as you well know even probably better than I, what is it the rabbi said, the Second Temple in Jerusalem in the year seventy was destroyed because of Jews fighting with one another. It’s not new, you know. I don’t know if that’s half a consolation. As they say in Hebrew—(speaks in Hebrew).

But it’s very disturbing. It’s very, very disturbing. And I’ve had conversations with friends of mine both in the State Department, colleagues of mine who work on racial equity, and with colleagues at Emory and other places who are, you know, either of African-American—who are African-American or who are working in that area, that when Jews and blacks are fighting the only people who get any satisfaction from it are the racists.

You know, it’s a very disturbing phenomenon, and at a time when there’s such an existential threat and such a real threat not just to Jews but to liberalism, to liberal democracies, it seems really wrong.

Now, that’s not to say that there aren’t times when it’s legitimate to question is this the person to lead an independent—I’m not saying yes or no. I’m not familiar enough with the various details.

My remit is international as the legislation which established my office makes very clear. But it’s a matter—also a matter of great concern.

CHANIN: We’ll take an online question next.

OPERATOR: Our next question is from Barbara McBee.

Q: Hi, Ambassador. Thank you. I’m Barbara McBee, Soka Gakkai Nichiren Buddhist, and I’m also a teaching artist.

I was very interested in your comment that anti-Semitism permeates our ideologies including religion, which I think we are all familiar with, but art—could you give me a little enlightenment about what you meant by that, perhaps some examples?

And as a woman I personally intend to continue standing up in this battle. Thank you both.

LIPSTADT: Thank you. When I talk about—I talked about culture, not art specifically, though we think of most art as part of culture so you’re right there.

But there have been many, many prominent authors, poets—Tia Saleve (ph) comes to mind, more recent—and others who have engaged in overt anti-Semitism. You know, so the question is do you throw out the canon of their work? Do you read around it? And art—and historians and teachers and literary specialists and artistic specialists debate that quite often, just as we look at someone like Picasso when we see his misogyny and do we throw out the rest of his art.

But it’s been—it would be impossible for it not to be there if it so infuses so much of our culture. It would be impossible for it not to—literature is a reflection. I’m going to talk more about literature. But literature is a reflection of contemporary societies, whatever the contemporary period of when it was being written or how that society sees the past.

So it would be very strange if it was totally absent from art and from literature.

CHANIN: Back to the room here. Alberta? Wait for the mic, please. Alberta, the mic, please.

Q: Thank you. I’m really grateful for your clarity and the force of your explanation of why this matters.

But I’m also interested in the fact that it’s a new form of officialdom. We haven’t done this at the governmental level before and does this suggest that there are ways in which our officials, our elected representatives, the people who in so many ways and in so many dimensions really define the issues for us, are more open to creating opportunities for people to learn how to be more human or to identify their problems in a different set of ways.

This is not a usual appointment.

LIPSTADT: No.

Q: And it’s one that suggests other issues that we might look at in the same permeating way.

LIPSTADT: There is in the State Department an Office of International Religious Freedom, created under Secretary Madeleine Albright at the urging of Senator Jesse Helms, not two names you generally mention in the same sentence without a negative there, and that deals with religious persecution and many of the issues I’ve mentioned are dealt with quite vigorously in that office. We work closely with that office.

There is a special representative on racial equity. So there are these issues being looked at. There is a recognition. I can’t speak for other administrations. This is not to say that some of the others didn’t address it.

But there is a recognition certainly inspired in great measure by the person to whom I directly report, Secretary Blinken, and the person who nominated me, President Biden, that these are issues of concern to the fabric of what we call America, that you can’t ignore them or treat them as afterthoughts or secondary issues.

Having said that, I’m very careful, and I think the success I’ve had in the State Department and working with other groups is that I’m very careful. I’m not opining on all sorts of other things, even though I might have opinions and those who know me know I have lots of opinions on these other matters.

But I’m trying to always look as to say, I’m not talking—for instance, the current geopolitical crisis in the Middle East—not opining on the various factors of the crisis of the war, et cetera. But when we see something that we can easily say this migrates into anti-Semitism or this criticism is anti-Semitic or this action—this accusation is an anti-Semitic accusation I do get involved in that.

But I’ve also, certainly prior to October 7 since we’ve been sort of focused on that since then, I worked very closely with Special Representative Desirée Cormier Smith, who is the secretary’s special representative on racial equity to look at issues of racial equity in our policy, and with Ambassador Rashad Hussain, who is our ambassador on international religious freedom, and in fact we traveled together in July of 2023 to Bosnia-Herzegovina, to Sarajevo, a city where Jews, Muslims, Christians, Orthodox Christians, lived in harmony.

There were tensions but still, for many, many years. And we were there in July specifically because of what happened at Srebrenica where eight thousand Muslim men and boys were murdered by the Serbs when, you know, the blue helmets—when the U.N. pulled out and they were in a warehouse and they were murdered over a very short period of time.

And every year on the anniversary as more and more of the remains are identified bodies are buried. So we went there to do that but we went as three people representing different aspects of the United States State Department and we hope to, you know, depending on circumstances, we hope to make other trips like that together to telegraph the message, A, you can’t—as I said earlier, you cannot fight hate in silos and, B, it’s not a zero sum game.

You know, sometimes people say, oh, you’re talking about racism—you’re not talking about anti-Semitism. If you’re focusing on anti-Semitism what about rape? You know, that’s not how you should be looking at it.

First of all, as I said earlier, it starts with one. Doesn’t end with that one but it goes to others. And second of all, the person who is intolerant of one group is going to be intolerant of other groups. A person who others one group others other groups.

And one of the things that often disturbs me is that there is a—there has been a tendency, and it’s something that I talk about a lot and try to address, when people talk about anti-Semitism, even people who are against not for it—most people—but who want to criticize it, they feel that we—it’s only legitimate if I say anti-Semitism and racism, homophobia, misogyny, Islamophobia, da, da, da, da, da.

And sometimes that’s proper. In certain settings that is proper and in certain settings you focus on what happened. Let me give you an example—George Floyd. When George Floyd was murdered many groups, certainly African Americans but well beyond that, condemned his murder and if in their condemnations they had said, we are opposed to this, which was motivated—clearly motivated by racism, we are against racism and misogyny and anti—it would have been inappropriate.

There are times to call out things for what they are and there are times to put them in a bigger context, and I think that that’s also exceptionally important. You know, if we are always calling everything out in this big sweep it’s sort of like Kumbaya—let’s all sing Kumbaya as we used to do in summer camp and, you know, sway in front of the fire and everything will be cleared up.

Sometimes you got to call it out directly and I am disturbed that sometimes I see a failure—when it comes to anti-Semitism of failure to do that and that’s disturbing.

CHANIN: Question from in the room? Please, in front here. There will be a mic.

Q: Thank you, William Daroff with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

Thank you, Ambassador, for your service, the service of your team, and the influence you’ve had with President Biden to ensure that he has been such a great proponent of combating anti-Semitism.

Two questions. First, I wonder if you can discuss the importance of defining anti-Semitism in order to combat it and particularly in the context of the embrace of the IHRA definition—the IHRA definition, which I think is more salient post October 7, as you’ve mentioned, defining this where anti-Semitic acts have taken place because of angst towards Israel.

And then, secondly, geopolitically you mentioned in passing that China’s an authoritarian regime. Can you talk about the increase in anti-Semitism that seems to be emanating out of China, a society where you know they can easily turn things on and off and the on button on anti-Semitism seems to be on eleven on the ten scale?

Thank you, Ambassador.

LIPSTADT: Thank you.

In terms of the definition you refer to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition, otherwise known as the IHRA definition. It’s a non-legally binding working definition. It turned out when, oh, I don’t know, fifteen years ago, something like that—I don’t have my exact numbers—(inaudible)—I should know exactly when.

As many countries, particularly in Europe, were trying to address this issue there was a failure on the part of many official government associations to really be able to define it.

What is it? When is someone just a lout and when are they an anti-Semitic lout? When are they crossing the line from criticism into incitement? How do we define it? How do we address it?

And a group of scholars and government officials who dealt in issues of anti-Semitism, particularly scholars in the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, worked on this working definition, which is very nuanced. It’s non-legally binding.

It says it quite clearly and it gives a number of examples where it also says, and I give them great credit for this—it says these examples may or may not be anti-Semitic, depending on the context. In other words, context has become quite electrified in the past couple of months and rightfully so.

But it’s a very useful tool and if we talk to our European counterparts it’s been very helpful to them in addressing, in training, in training government officials, law enforcement, et cetera. So I think it’s important.

I also think another thing that’s exceptionally important, not just in this country and in part the administration is addressing this, certainly, certain agencies, is data. Data. We need data of what’s going on, where things are happening, et cetera.

And your second question?

Q: China.

LIPSTADT: China. For years, decades, the PRC really has had almost a philo-Semitic attitude, and—you know, you’re an ancient civilization; we’re an ancient civilization. You so value—Jews value education; we value education. You value filial piety; we value filial piety. You believe in hard work and success.

You know, there was a lot of—and you saw that. You saw that if you visited China, if you spoke to Chinese nationals. What we’ve seen recently, certainly since October 7—and this has been reported. I’m not saying anything that’s—hey, you can read about it in the Wall Street Journal. You can read about it—I just was looking at some articles there and other journals, certainly as well, other places as well.

There’s been an uptick. Uptick may be too weak a term. A surge, tsunami, of anti-Semitic comments, often classical anti-Semitic comments. Jews are only this percent of the population but this percent of the wealth. Jews control the—you know, it’s just classic stuff on sites, which as you properly say we have every reason to believe would not be there without the official imprimatur or permission of the Chinese government, and it’s caused a lot of people a great deal of concern.

We don’t know exactly why. We can only hypothesize or surmise. Is this a way of stirring up the pot, to go back to where I began, to say, oh, you think you’re such a great society—look at the anti-Semitism that is spreading.

Is it a way of winning favor in the Global South with certain countries? We don’t know. We don’t know. No one knows.

But that it’s there is beyond debate and that it should be addressed I think is very important. Very, very important.

CHANIN: I think we’ll go for one more online, please.

OPERATOR: We will take our next question from Valentina Barbacci.

Q: Yes. Hello. Good evening here from London. My name is Valentina Barbacci and I work for an ESG firm in London.

But I’ve longtime been a friend of the America Israel Friendship League in New York and supporter of, you know, both anti-Semitic efforts as well as true honesty about the conversation of the conflict in the region.

So my question is with regard to the situation it ties in with a question that was asked earlier of sort of why there was silence and I would welcome your thoughts on sort of three points that I’ve heard across several different meetings and events which is, first, is that the amount of people attacked on October 7 is sort of grossly surpassed by the—on the other side by the sort of ten thousand Palestinian children that have been held in military detention over the last twenty years and countless women that have been raped and worse by IDF forces.

The second point is that Hamas has been—it’s no longer a secret—by what I can surmise, funded by Bibi Netanyahu and Israel for some time to obliterate any potential opposition in the region.

And the third is that—and so therefore this attack has in some way helped his cause because there were riots in the streets in August, you know, against his presidency and government. And then the third is that just when we could—just when human rights organizations who might have spoken out against the rape of women, et cetera, sort of catch their breath and understand truly what was going on then the numbers were so catastrophic on the other side that it was hard to sort of, you know, speak out truthfully.

And that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t have, but I just welcome your thoughts because there is this reflection of, well, you can only stir the pot so much and not expect it to fight back, much like we saw with 9/11. You know, the U.S. involvement in the Middle East was then retaliated against.

So I welcome your thoughts on that because there is a bit more to the other side of the story that I think isn’t often portrayed when we talk about the anti-Semitic approach here. Thank you.

LIPSTADT: Thank you. First of all, you know, no one is saying that the children who have been—the Palestinian children, children in Gaza, who have suffered, the newborns—if you can’t have empathy with them or for them there’s something wrong with you.

Of course, you have to have empathy. Of course, you have to be deeply disturbed by this. Of course, that wouldn’t have been the case had there not been the attack on October 7. That doesn’t justify their suffering and no one is trying to justify it in any way. I’m certainly not.

But I think, you know, there’s a history to how this happened. But empathy for these children, absolutely, and I hear it from my Israeli counterparts and my Israeli contacts who feel awful. Truly, truly, they’re not saying it for publicity. They’re not people on the—you know, who anyone is putting a microphone in front of.

Talking to them privately there’s a great deal of pain about that. I don’t think that Bibi Netanyahu funded Hamas. As far as I understand what he did is he did let Qatar transfer quite exceptional amounts of money to them on the supposition, now proven entirely wrong, that this was a way of sort of redirecting Hamas away from its terrorism to other activities and also, as has been acknowledged, as a way of dividing between Hamas and the PA and preventing a Palestinian state.

You can disagree with Bibi Netanyahu’s policies, as our government does and our president does quite openly. But I don’t think that one should be pointing to that. I’m a little perplexed as a sort of, well, that explains the rape of women or driving nails into vaginas or killing children before their parents or parents before their children.

You know, I think that that was—as now is obvious—anybody who doesn’t see it is sort of living under a rock—a very bad foreign policy decision. Many people thought it was very bad. Many Israelis thought it was very bad while it was going on because it was preventing a long-term solution.

So there’s—you know, if you want to criticize Bibi Netanyahu I can give you the phone numbers—the private cell phone numbers of thousands of Israelis who will be cheering you on and agreeing with every word that you say. There is a great deal of criticism of his policies before October 7 and even more so now.

And I hate to get into the numbers game. Of course, the number of deaths as reported by the Hamas medical authorities—they’re the government in Gaza—are extraordinary and anybody who diminishes that or rejoices in that or doesn’t think that that’s a tragedy then I have no—you can’t have a conversation with them.

Of course, it’s a tragedy. War is a tragedy and one hopes this war—wishes this war had never happened and one wishes that it comes to an end very quickly and very rapidly so that civilian hostages who have been held hostages—Israeli hostages have been held including a child who just celebrated his first birthday can be returned so that those Gaza children can get the treatment that they need and the help that they need and the—not just the children but the civilians get the shelter that they need.

There is nothing to rejoice about in this conflict that started on October 7.

CHANIN: On that note, we have come to time.

I want to let you know that a video and transcript of today’s meeting will be posted on the CFR website and I would like you to ask—I’d like to ask you to join me in thanking Ambassador Lipstadt for being here. (Applause.)

LIPSTADT: Thank you. Thank you.

(END)

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