by SHANNON LEVITT
Deborah Lipstadt made her first trip to the Middle East in August in her new job as the U.S. State Department’s antisemitism monitor, and she started in Saudi Arabia.
The Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported that during a virtual press briefing in the kingdom, Lipstadt said, though Saudi Arabia is not “perfect according to our human rights standards,” her presence in “a place which had once been the source of so much Jew hatred, so much extremism,” could be seen as a sign of progress.
“If I can lessen that degree of animus [toward Jews], if I can make it so that that degree is not spread amongst others, I think I would have to,” she said. “I would be derelict not to do so.”
After all, Lipstadt has devoted her entire adult life and career – amounting to about four decades – to the work of understanding and diffusing antisemitism.
Lipstadt was born in New York City to immigrant parents, who raised her in an observant Jewish home. Her parents were not Holocaust survivors, but she has pointed out that she grew up around survivors and spent her junior year of college in Israel also surrounded by survivors, and their stories were always present to her.
In 1969, she received her bachelor’s degree at the City College of New York before enrolling at Brandeis University, where she completed a master’s in 1972 and a Ph.D. in 1976. While working on her doctorate, she spent time in Moscow to learn about Refuseniks, Russian Jews who wanted to leave the Soviet Union but were refused.
“I was there and I saw what it was like not to live in freedom, and it all came together that this was something I wanted to look at and try to understand,” Lipstadt told journalist Chris Hayes on his podcast in May 2019, in order to explain her initial desire to study antisemitism.
After teaching at both the University of Washington in Seattle and the University of California at Los Angeles, her focus narrowed even further from Jewish studies to Holocaust denial when she received a research fellowship from the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism at Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
In 1993, Lipstadt moved to Atlanta, to teach Jewish and Holocaust studies at Emory, where she was part of creating the Institute for Jewish Studies.
A few years later, she found herself and one of her many books, “Denying the Holocaust,” in the crosshairs of David Irving, an English writer and Holocaust denier, who sued her in an English court for libel because she had characterized his writing and public statements as Holocaust denial. Irving disputed the idea of the Final Solution and repeatedly claimed that there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz.
Both she and Penguin, the book’s publisher, were sued in a nation where the burden of proof is on the defendant rather than on the plaintiff, as it is in the American system. The co-defendants won the case by demonstrating to the court that Lipstadt’s accusations were substantive.
Lipstadt wrote “History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier,” a book about her ordeal. It was later made into a film called “Denial” in 2016.
She is also known for warning the public about what she calls “soft-core denial” of the Holocaust. She has said that people who don’t outright deny the Holocaust but minimize the atrocities of Hitler and Nazi Germany are protected by outright Holocaust deniers and their radical arguments; by comparison they seem safe. Therefore, she told The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, their sinister and inaccurate views break through to the mainstream with worrying results.
Holocaust denial is not a mistaken form of history, Lipstadt has said. It’s a form of antisemitism.
Lipstadt told Hayes on his podcast that antisemitism is like the herpes virus. “It’s a terrible thing and once you have it you’re never quite free of it,” she said. Under pressure people with herpes have outbreaks, and in the case of antisemitism, “it sits in society and in times of heavy pressure, it’s unleashed.”
When Lipstadt was first considered for the Office to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism in President Joe Biden’s administration in May 2021, few thought there would be any issue with her Senate confirmation.
However, Wisconsin Republican Senator Ron Johnson objected and significantly delayed her nomination because Lipstadt had tweeted that the senator advocated “white supremacy/nationalism.”
Nearly a year after she was first nominated, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held hearings on her nomination and favorably reported it out of committee in February 2022. She was finally confirmed by the full Senate on March 30, 2022.