AMBASSADOR DEBORAH LIPSTADT: Thank you for that kind introduction, Dana! My heartfelt congratulations to you, your CEO Sheila Katz, Conference Co-Chairs Laura Monn Ginsburg and Julie Matlof Kennedy, and the entire team at the National Council of Jewish Women for this extraordinary gathering – in the flesh no less – of so many committed activists and citizens.
I am all too aware that I am following scores of dedicated women and men – although, more women than usual! – who have inspired, educated and provoked you over the past couple of days. I am in awe at the thought leaders and advocates assembled by NCJW this year – and I am honored to be in their company and to address you all today.
My subject is not a light-hearted one. As you have heard from Representative Kathy Manning, Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke, and other distinguished speakers today, antisemitism is on the rise – and tragically it is on the rise here at home in America, not just overseas where I am tasked to tackle the problem.
Allow me to kick off my remarks with a few observations. Antisemitism is a prejudice and all prejudices are, by their very nature, irrational. Think about the etymology of the word: pre-judge, i.e., don’t confuse me with the facts. I know nothing about you – other than your race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. Yet, based on that I determine your worthiness, character, morals. In short, I know who and what you are.
The prejudiced person attributes the bad characteristics of a member of the group to the entire group. If a member of the group does something that the prejudiced person finds unacceptable, he or she will declare: “Oh, the XYZs are like that.” The actions of one become the actions of all.
And conversely, should the person in question not act in a manner supposedly “typical” of her group, the prejudiced person, opines, “Oh, she’s one of the good ones, she’s not like the rest.”
However, antisemitism also has unique characteristics, ones that make it different from other prejudices and, consequently, more difficult to combat.
First of all, there is its age-old nature. Some historians call it the “oldest prejudice” and, in many respects, they are correct. Few, if any, other prejudices have such ancient roots and consistent histories. The antisemitic charges are so old, that many people accept them as fact, e.g., “Jews are like that.”
Secondly, unlike most other prejudices, antisemitism comes from many different places on the political spectrum. It is not a hatred that is limited to one particular place, orientation or political outlook.
Thirdly, unlike other prejudices, antisemitism is a conspiracy theory. Conspiracy serves as the prism through which the antisemite’s view of the Jew is refracted. The antisemites, convinced that Jews use their wealth, power, and smarts to wreak havoc on the non-Jewish world, find the Jewish hand in any deleterious event in history.
The antisemite begins convinced that Jews have engaged in a conspiracy and seeks to determine the precise nature of that conspiracy. Today, the political atmosphere is rife with conspiracies. So, the many people who are sure right from the start that a conspiracy is at the root of some bad turn of events – be it COVID, political wrongdoings, or financial mishaps – look to find the culprit responsible for the bad turn. They look for a group with the power, wealth, and malicious qualities capable of engineering this particular conspiracy. In contrast to the antisemites, they may not begin with the Jews, but that is where they end up.
Finally, there is the phenomenon of “punching up” and “punching down.” Most prejudices posit that the reviled group is “lesser than” the rest of society. For example, the racist opines: should people of color move into our neighborhood, “there goes the neighborhood.” If their children go to our children’s schools, “there go the schools.” The prejudiced person, in this case, the racist, reviles the person of color as of lesser value than themselves. They punch down in order to keep them down.
The antisemite “punches down” – saying that, “Jews are dirty, Jews are revolting, Jews spread disease.” But he also “punches up.” Let me explain. Jews, the antisemite is convinced, are richer than, more powerful than, and more able to control matters than “the rest” of us. They revile the Jews, but they also fear them. And it is this fear of the Jews’ putative ability to control society and cause harm to the non-Jewish world, that determines for the antisemite that the Jew must be fought assiduously.
Against this framework, let me turn to contemporary events. No one in this audience will be surprised by my earlier observation that there has been a noticeable spike in antisemitism. Some people have claimed that this spike is not really a spike, but simply the result of far better reporting of incidents. That, however, should be of small – if any – comfort. It simply means that we are now far more aware of what the true situation is. If the spike is due, in some measure, to better reporting, it means that the true situation has been bad for far longer than we imagined.
But it is not just antisemitic events and incidents that are a matter of concern. Too many people, organizations and institutions do not take antisemitism seriously. They fail to include it in their litany of legitimate prejudicial hatreds. They look upon Jews and wonder what is it that they are complaining about? They see Jews as wealthy and powerful.
Conversely, too often when there is an act of antisemitism, those who condemn it cannot bring themselves to focus specifically on this particular prejudice. They condemn antisemitism, together with all other acts of prejudice. It is as if antisemitism does not belong to the true category of outrages and cannot, therefore, stand alone as something of real concern.
We must acknowledge, as I noted earlier, that antisemitism does not come from one end of the political spectrum. It is ubiquitous and is espoused by people who agree on nothing else or, better put, disagree on everything else. That does not mean that all threats are of equal severity. Sometimes, the threat from one group might be more severe than from the other.
One of the striking features about this ubiquitous nature of antisemitism is that, irrespective of where it is coming from, it relies on the same template of charges.
Too often, antisemites use Israel as a foil for their antisemitism. They couch or camouflage their antisemitic attacks in attacks on Israel. “We are not attacking Jews; we are criticizing a sovereign state,” they assure you. Let me state something, which should be a given and which the United States government has repeatedly affirmed: criticism of Israeli policies is NOT antisemitism per se.
But when there is an imbalance in the criticism, a failure to see the wrongs of others, an attributing of blame to only one party and double standards, one is compelled to ask: what is the basis for this imbalance? When Jews are denied rights that are accorded to every other group, one is compelled to ask: what is the basis for this imbalance? The answer should be self-evident.
In recent months thinly veiled, as well as some not-so-thinly veiled, antisemitic tropes have been utilized to stir nationalist sentiment.
Sadly, what we are currently hearing from Russia constitutes ongoing, current egregious Holocaust distortion. Note that these distortions come, not from some fringe extremist group, but from the leadership of the Russian government.
The Kremlin’s blatant fabrications and lies about the Ukrainian leadership constituting “Nazi filth,” the fanciful – but dangerous – claims about Hitler’s origins, the overt exploitation of the Holocaust and the suffering of World War II to justify a war of aggression are shocking.
Speaking personally, I, who have spent a lifetime studying one of the most shocking events in history, who has been forced to defend myself in court against the lies of Holocaust deniers, who thought there was nothing in this arena that could surprise me, have been stupefied and, more importantly, outraged by this cynical invocation of the Holocaust and the Second World War for a coldblooded war of choice.
Please permit me at this juncture to make special mention of another incredible woman in our midst, Ukraine’s Ambassador Oksana Markarova – whose tireless work in this town in recent weeks is emblematic of the breathtakingly defiant, resilient and courageous spirit of the people of Ukraine.
What we are hearing from Russian leaders today is a form of Holocaust denial, not “hardcore” denial, the denial of the facts themselves, but “softcore” denial, the rewriting and distortion of the facts to serve other ends. There was a time when historians and policy makers thought the former type of denial – the denial of the existence of gas chambers or of a Third Reich official war of annihilation against the Jews — was more dangerous. In recent years, we have come to recognize that the latter, the twisting of the facts for political purposes, the turning of victim into victimizer or perpetrator into victim, is equally as dangerous and is harder to combat, because it is harder to pin down, more easily denied.
I emphasize, Holocaust denial and distortion can have dangerous — even lethal — consequences, and not only for Jews, as we are seeing with Putin’s obscene manipulation of history to justify his unconscionable war against Ukraine. Never has it been more vital to ensure that the history of the Holocaust is taught and its lessons learned. The Claims Conference’s most recent survey found that nearly one-third of all Americans and more than 4-in-10 Millennials believe that substantially less than six million Jews were killed during the Holocaust. The survey also found that 45% of Americans cannot name a single one of the over 40,000 concentration camps and ghettos in Europe during the Holocaust.
And something is very wrong in our world when, according to European Commission data, nine out of ten European Jews consider antisemitism as a serious problem. France, Germany, the Czech Republic together with other European countries too numerous to enumerate have all witnessed upticks, if not surges, in antisemitism.
My appointment is to the State Department, which means I must cast my glance outward, across our borders. However, it would be wrong to assess antisemitism in foreign lands without acknowledging its existence within our own country. The litany of places that have witnessed antisemitic attacks in the United States in the past three years is known to all of us: Pittsburgh, Poway, Jersey City, Monsey, Colleyville and virtually daily on the streets of Brooklyn.
And then there was the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in August 2017, the event that President Biden points to as prompting him to run for president. I was an expert witness in the civil suit that was brought late last year against the organizers by individuals who had suffered real attacks – and the family of the young woman who was murdered.
I was asked to prepare a report for the court and explain to the jury how antisemitism was the foundation stone for this rally. Nazi symbols and ideology were evident everywhere in this rally. It was a stunning example of how antisemitism and racism, hatred of Black Americans and hatred of Jews are inexorably intertwined.
And the accusations made by the Charlottesville organizers that Jews were behind an attempt to destroy white America have been adopted and adapted by racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists in other countries in Europe and beyond.
These dynamics were awfully and tragically illuminated just this weekend, when the nation was shocked to learn of the massacre of 10 innocents at the Tops Friendly Market in Buffalo, at the hands of a white nationalist extremist apparently motivated by hatred towards both African Americans and Jews.
It is often difficult to differentiate between antisemitism that is foreign and that which is domestic. The hostage situation in Colleyville, Texas took place at a synagogue in the United States. The hostage taker was radicalized abroad. The Biden-Harris administration is fully committed to fighting antisemitism wherever it occurs: in the classroom, on the campus, online, in political venues within our border and abroad.
Some of you may be familiar with the semi-jocular concept of “half a consolation.” These new and existing appointments are a welcome sign and we celebrate them, even as we regret – deeply and profoundly – that they are necessary. It is akin to having an office to monitor and coordinate the fight against Covid. We are glad it exists, but sad that it is necessary.
We yearn for the day when positions, such as the one I am honored to occupy and the many others like it, become moribund and are legislated out of existence because the problem they have been delegated with monitoring and combatting has been resolved.
Until that day – and I am too much of both a historian and a realist to even imagine it will come in my lifetime – I resolve to fight this plague with every fiber of my being. I am so deeply encouraged by the support my office has received from the President and Vice President of the United States, the leadership of the State Department and a remarkable bipartisan affirmation by the United States Congress.
Though that support fills me with gratitude and resolve, I am even more strengthened and encouraged by the knowledge that a multitude of people – many represented by the institutions and organizations present here today – are hoping and, dare I say it, praying for me to succeed. On May 7, my first Shabbat as Special Envoy, the Rabbanit introduced the prayer for the American government and its officers and leaders by noting my presence and the fact that I too was among those being prayed for. I thought I could ask for nothing more.
But in truth, there is something more that I ask for. A few days ago, State Department officials asked if, when I took my oath of office, I wanted the phrase, “so help me God” to be included. Without a nanosecond of hesitation, I said: YES. I subsequently explained that with the task facing me, I needed every bit of support I could muster, irrespective of whether it came from earthly or heavenly venues.
I know I have the former. I pray for the latter.
Thank you very much.