US antisemitism envoy Deborah Lipstadt visits Cape Town

Professor Lipstadt delivered a powerful address to a packed audience at Gardens Shul

By Mandy Allen

The esteemed Holocaust historian recently spoke to a riveted audience at the Gardens Shul on the challenge of rising global antisemitism.

An unrelenting pursuit of justice in the name of the Jewish people has underscored, and continues to power the illustrious career of New York-born Holocaust academic and author, Professor Deborah Lipstadt. Her name was brought to prominence with the high-profile libel case against notorious Holocaust denier and disgraced historian David Irving, immortalised in both the 2006 movie, Denial and Lipstadt’s book about the case. The six-year legal battle and three-month long case — a judicial benchmark — was eventually won by Lipstadt in April 2000. The headlining case put paid to the (relatively) ‘quiet’ part of her pre-trial academic life. 

As well as her decades-long scholarship focused on teaching about the Holocaust and antisemitism, Professor Lipstadt has contributed her expertise to various Presidential administrations including those of Presidents Clinton and Obama. This parallel trajectory has led to her current position in the Presidency of Joe Biden, US Special Envoy for Monitoring and Combating Antisemitism. It’s a role of great responsibility and one she views, in the context of fighting the mutating virus of antisemitism, as “a gift I am deeply grateful for and humbled by, to be able to make some sort of difference”.

Since her May 2022 swearing-in, Lipstadt has hit the ground running. While she has visited South Africa before, this is the tenth country she’s visited in six months in her new ambassadorial role, including several nations in the Abraham Accords (next stop, Morocco). 

The fortuitous timing of Lipstadt’s address on the eve of the 84th commemoration of Kristallnacht was not lost on the crowd of 200-plus people, including dignitaries, who assembled in Cape Town on 8 November to hear her speak. All listened attentively as she discussed the challenges and approaches of her position in what is, as she describes it with a wry euphemism, “a growth industry, unfortunately.” She is, of course, referencing the ‘skyrocketing’ of antisemitism around the globe — particularly in the last eighteen months — acutely facilitated by the pervasiveness of social media.    

One of Lipstadt’s chief objectives is to help individuals, NGOs, organisations, and even those in government to understand what antisemitism is — both the ‘hardcore’ and the ‘softcore’ iterations, as well as its nuances. “It can be difficult to define at times, there can be a confusion as to what antisemitism is. It’s a prejudice, like any other prejudice of course. Yet it differs fundamentally from others, it has certain unique characteristics. You know it when you see it. One example is how the antisemite appears to be ‘punching up’. Their antisemitism is couched in the façade of morality.” Discussing the issue of college campuses (there has been a serious uptick of antisemitism in the USA) she says the topic of antisemitic prejudice “often gets left off the agenda. Jews are perceived to be privileged,” she explains, “There’s a resilience to Jews that makes it hard to conceive of us as victims, which means instances of discrimination are often downplayed or ignored… Antisemitism is,” she eloquently explains, “ubiquitous, free-flowing — it comes from all directions, from elements within the right, the left, anywhere on the political spectrum, from other groups… And it presents in different strengths that result in different dangers. But all come from the same stereotypes.” 

Professor Lipstadt’s multifaceted role encompasses not only ‘putting out the fires of antisemitism’ domestically and abroad (with strong bipartisan support), but also strengthening diplomatic ties to identify and fight antisemitism. “Part of my role is helping to weave antisemitism into the broader scope of American foreign policy. If there is an antisemitic comment or action I don’t just condemn it, I also work with my colleagues to forge a joint front in stipulating accountability. Antisemitism runs counter to America’s deepest beliefs and we see it as a fundamental threat to democracy,” she says. “I also emphasise the interconnectedness of antisemitism with other forms of discrimination. To fight one without fighting the others is trying to roll the boulder up the hill.” 

One of the most positive developments of her tenureship relates to the ground-breaking Abraham Accords. “The engagement and positive discourse we are seeing in the open approach and serious desire of these countries to discuss antisemitism is something we could never have predicted.” 

Lipstadt cautions that it’s vital to fight and highlight Jew-hatred while being mindful of what we call out
as antisemitism. “There are times,” she explains, “when it’s appropriate to call out the action, to highlight the language or content as being wrong, but not necessarily labelling something as antisemitism.” To understand and root it out, “you can’t carry an axe, you have to carry a scalpel.” Nuance. She emphasises that the geopolitics of the Middle East is no excuse for being antisemitic, however. “One can call out a policy or action that you don’t agree with or like without reverting to antisemitic tropes or rhetoric.” 

A strong proponent of free speech, Professor Lipstadt addressed the phenomenon of social media, and its role in spreading and perpetuating antisemitism, be it hate speech or materials such as books and videos. “Online global platforms mean that the haters have a megaphone of unbelievable proportions that they didn’t have before. This gives antisemitism traction. There’s an increasing toxicity and it’s in this toxicity that hatred thrives. But banning things is not the solution. Then it just becomes forbidden fruit.” 

In wrapping up her address, and answering the question of whether she thinks she (or we as a collective) will ever be able to eradicate antisemitism from society, Lipstadt is honest. “I have a lot of big ideas before I go back to teaching at my university, but solving it is not something I can see happening.” “However,” she emphasises in conclusion, referencing the well-known saying by Rabbi Tarfon, “It is not up to you to finish the task, but neither are you free to avoid it.” 

“Too much energy of the world is spent ‘othering’. It may not be your job to complete the work of eradicating antisemitism, but you cannot desist from beginning the work, from doing what you can. As long as you’re telling the truth, you’re right.” 

* Professor Lipstadt’s address was facilitated by the US Consulate and Consul General Todd Haskell at the invitation of the Cape SA Jewish Board of Deputies and South African Jewish Museum.

A Deborah Lipstadt Bibliography

• Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory (Plume Books, 1994)
• Antisemitism: Here and Now (Schocken, 2019)
• History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier (Ecco, 2006)
• The Eichmann Trial (Schocken, 2011)
All books by Deborah E. Lipstadt

Denial, the film account of Deborah Lipstadt’s legal battle with Holocaust denier David Irving, starring Rachel Weisz, is currently available on Showmax

Lester Hoffman, Tvi Brivik, US Consul General Todd Haskell, Ambassador Deborah Lipstadt, Adrienne Jacobson, Gavin Morris and Rabbi Osher Feldman

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• Published in the December 2022/January 2023 Digital Edition – Click here to read it.

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