For several decades, Deborah Lipstadt has been known as one of the most prominent and prolific writers on the dark history of anti-Semitism. In 2srcsrcsrc, she won a judgment after being sued in a British court by the Holocaust denier David Irving, a case which was later made into a film starring Rachel Weisz. Since then, Lipstadt has published a book on the Eichmann trial and an investigation into anti-Semitism, among others. She is a professor of Jewish history at Emory, but is currently on leave because she was tapped by President Biden as the State Department’s special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism. In her new role, she has been travelling around the Middle East—she recently returned from a trip to Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the United Arab Emirates.
Lipstadt and I spoke several years ago; we talked again by phone last week. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed the compromises involved in transitioning from scholar to diplomat, how Israel’s relationship with its neighbors impacts her job, and whether the Saudi government is interested in improving its human-rights record.
What made you want to take this job?
Initially, I wasn’t really interested, even though there were a lot of people who were pressing me to put my name in the hopper, including people from the Administration. Then someone said to me, “You can make a difference.” At this stage of my career, I feel I’ve accomplished a lot. I feel very lucky and blessed in what I’ve been able to do, but the chance to make a difference was something that really intrigued me.
At first, I thought of the job as mainly putting out fires: there’s a tragedy in Paris, there’s a tragedy wherever, and you have to make it clear to the government that America takes this very seriously. Then I thought about the Abraham Accords—here was a chance possibly to do something positive to change the nature of Muslim-Jewish relations, certainly as they’ve emanated from the Gulf. That intrigued me a lot.
What does the job consist of?
Yesterday I met with the Romanian Ambassador to the United States and with the Romanian special representative on anti-Semitism and Holocaust issues. We talked about Romania’s addressing of anti-Semitism. In the past several years, the attitudes, behavior, and policies in Romania have changed dramatically, and it has been addressing its anti-Semitic past in a very serious fashion. I also had a meeting with the Polish Ambassador to remind him that issues of anti-Semitism in Poland are of great importance to us. For instance, the Prime Minister of Poland nominates the members of the International Auschwitz Council, the people who sort of advise and supervise what goes on at Auschwitz. They’ve made some very good appointments which in the past I don’t think they would’ve made.
Not long after my Senate confirmation, a number of passengers who had travelled from J.F.K. to Frankfurt on Lufthansa were not allowed to board their connecting flight to Budapest for the yahrzeit of an important rebbe. Some among them had refused to wear their masks, even though Lufthansa required it at the time. When they arrived in Frankfurt, the vast majority were refused permission to fly on to Budapest. We met with a C.E.O. of Lufthansa to express our concern about this.
The idea being that there’s something anti-Semitic or bigoted about forcing people to comply with health restrictions?
No, no, not at all. Not at all. If Lufthansa says, “Wear a mask,” you wear a mask. I don’t care what your religious identity or proclivities are. But people who had nothing to do with that, people who were sitting in a different part of the plane, [were also blocked from boarding the next flight]. Because of the actions of a few, the airline was treating them as a group. I’m not saying it was necessarily overt anti-Semitism. It may have been unconscious bias, treating the group as responsible for the actions of a few.
When I was testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and some of them were giving me a hard time, I kept insisting that I was going to be an equal-opportunity opponent of anti-Semitism that comes from any place on the political spectrum. Right, left, center, Christian, Muslim, Jew, atheist—I was going to fight it. When I was travelling in the Middle East, a group of Haredim attacked a couple of families that were celebrating bat and bar mitzvahs at the southern end of the Kotel, where men and women mixed. I spoke out against that. I’ve become an equal-opportunity defender of Jews who are attacked as Jews.
One thing about going from being an academic or a scholar to being in government is that the U.S. government has a complicated set of priorities. You might argue that one of them is fighting anti-Semitism, but we also know that there are lots of other priorities that might conflict with that or are not about human rights. Has that been a challenge?
That was one of my major concerns. As a tenured professor with a high profile, I didn’t have to clear things with anyone. Suddenly, I’d have to have things cleared by lots of other offices. If I’m going to say something about, I don’t know, Lufthansa, the German desk gets assigned, the European desk, the legal desk, etc. Groups that I don’t even know all have to sign off. I thought that would be really problematic. It hasn’t been.
I have encountered relatively little pushback from other desks. Every once in a while, someone will suggest an edit. Instead of saying, “This causes,” they might suggest, “It can cause.” If it goes to the heart of the matter, I’ll push back, but if it’s just changing language slightly so that other offices and other desks, as we call them here, can sign in wholeheartedly, I’ll do it. In a number of cases, Ned Price, the spokesperson for the State Department who is reflecting foreign policy, will read out what I said, quote what I said, or just use it—the Secretary even will use my words without attribution. I’m very happy because then they become his words.
By following the protocols here at the State Department, what you say has the force of U.S. policy. When I took the job, I didn’t fully grasp the degree to which that was possible. It has been exceptionally gratifying and challenging.
You mentioned the Abraham Accords, signed during the Trump Administration, which sought to normalize relations between neighboring Arab states and Israel. I’m curious to what degree you view the fight against anti-Semitism and the fight for the recognition of Israel as part of the same battle.
They’re related. You can’t completely bifurcate them. That would be wrong. I think to make one dependent on the other is also wrong. When I was in Saudi Arabia, someone said to me, “Oh, if Israel would just solve the Israel-Palestine issue, there’d be no anti-Semitism.” I said that there was a millennia of anti-Semitic behavior and attitudes before there ever was a state of Israel or a Palestine issue. What I found in Saudi Arabia—particularly among younger people that I met, and I met quite a few under forty—is a willingness to separate the very crucial, important, significant geopolitical issue of Israel and Palestine from attitudes toward Jews. If you go back and you think about it, in the seventies, eighties, nineties, even a little bit into the aughts, Saudi Arabia, among other Gulf countries, was one of the leading countries in dispersing anti-Semitic material. I’m not suggesting that the Saudis sent imams out and said, “Go preach anti-Semitism in Europe or the United States or wherever,” but that’s what imams did. The Saudis were funding the dissemination of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”