Amb. Lipstadt: Racism and Antisemitism “Firmly Intertwined”

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CHRISTINE AMANPOUR: Next, almost 3,000 incidents of anti-Semitic behavior were found in 2021 throughout the United States. It’s the highest number on record in over 40 years. Debra Lipstadt is professor of Modern Jewish History and Holocaust Studies at Emory University. And she is the newly appointed special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism for the Biden administration. In 2000, she famously defeated holocaust denier, David Irving, in a libel suit in the British High Court. And she joins Walter Isaacson to discuss the rise and the pervasive nature of these attacks.


WALTER ISAACSON, HOST: Thank you, Christiane. And Ambassador Lipstadt, welcome back to the show.


ISAACSON: You are now the special envoy to monitor and combat anti- Semitism. That used to be something that was exclusively something we did a broad. To what extent now are you having to focus domestically on this problem?

LIPSTADT: Well, I am at the State Department, which means my remit is outside the boundaries of the United States. So, that is officially, and that is where I will spend most of my energies, but it is getting harder and harder to make that division. If you remember back in January, and Collinsville, Texas, the terrorists came and held for people in the synagogue hostage for about 12 hours until they miraculously escaped. He had came here from England. He was from the Middle East but he came here from England and was radicalized, to some extent, in a mosque in England. So — and then, he came to the United States. Was here three days and committed his act. So, officially, it was domestic terrorism. But you can’t separate from what he got abroad. So, though most of my work will be abroad, I am very conscious of the interconnectedness of what is going on.

ISAACSON: Explain that interconnectedness of sort of the anti-Semitism that is welling up abroad, that terrorism that comes and people getting radicalized like would happen in Collinsville and how it plays in to both the anti-Semitism and the radicalism here in the United States?

LIPSTADT: It’s — I am glad you phrased it that way. I’m not surprised you phrased it that way because it is really an interlocking hole. Each prejudice, the radicalism, whether it’s white supremacy or another form of prejudice has these distinct characteristics. Anti-Semitism has its unique characteristics. And it’s ubiquitous, it’s free-flowing, it comes from every place on the political spectrum. It comes from Christians, it comes from Muslims, it comes from even Jews. If you add to that what we are seeing today and the growth of conspiracy theories, not just in this country, but abroad too, whether it’s about COVID, whether it’s about elections, whether it’s about finances, whatever it might be, anti-Semitism has this unique characteristic unlike most other prejudices of being at its heart, a conspiracy theory. The ideas Jews control the media, Jews control the banks, Jews control the government, Jews control culture, whatever it might be. So, that the anti- Semite begins, if he is looking or she is looking for someone who caused COVID, she is shorts the Jews and she just has to find the connection. If she is not an anti-Semite to begin with but she is sure that there is a conspiracy behind COVID, well, she has to find someone with the power, with the evil characteristics who’s conniving enough, who’s clever enough to be doing this and she ends up with the Jews. And so, the Jew becomes a very convenient scapegoat when you have conspiracy theories. And we’re living in this day and age of conspiracy theories. So, that is one point I think to answer your interconnectedness. The other point is, we are seeing tremendous movements of populations. From Africa, from South America, Latin America, from Muslim countries into countries that think of themselves — or a portion of their, thinks of themselves as white Christian countries. And you have this great replacement theory, which is not something new but which has gotten added mileage over the past five or six years, something like that, which claims that there is an organized — a conspiracy afoot to replace white Christian culture, white Christian hegemony – and replace it with Muslims with people of color, black people, people from Africa. And — but says the person who subscribes to this absurd theory, these people, black people, people of color, Muslims, they are not smart enough — I know this is going to sound familiar from what I just said before — wealthy enough, powerful enough, evil enough and sneaky enough to be doing this behind closed doors so they don’t get caught but they are the puppeteers and they end up at the Jew. If you look at the Buffalo, the terrible tragedy in Buffalo last month where this man went looking for a neighborhood to kill as many black people as he could. If you read his so-called manifesto, it’s 180 pages. I urge your viewers not to read it I did already. I’ll save you the trouble. It’s horrible. It’s filled with racist diatribes but linked together is anti- Semitic diatribes. And they are not separate, it’s not that he hates blacks and he hate Jews but he sees blacks proliferating. He sees them, you know, being in the White House. He sees them gaining influence and they must — some — who is behind them? Who is manipulating them? It’s the Jew. So, when I’m fighting anti-Semitism or combatting, trying to combat, trying educate about it, not only do I see the linkage between domestic and international, but I also see the linkage with other prejudices. You can’t fight hate in the silo.

ISAACSON: You have said that at the root of anti-Semitism, globally, historically, and in the United States, is a conspiracy theory, this notion that there is some dark conspiracy. We have always had conspiracy theories for hundreds of years. What seems different now is that they can get amplified and spread through social media. How much are you focused on that?

LIPSTADT: Very, very much so. I’m — we’re meeting in the next few days with counterparts from Europe who also work — who have similar portfolios from the E.U., from Germany, England, and they are all very concerned about it. You know, Walter, when I first started to study holocaust in Iowa, most people thought I was crazy to spend my time doing that, sadly, I was not. It was (INAUDIBLE). But people — but if I wanted to find denial materials, I had to order them. I didn’t because there were people who archive them. But if you want a deny all material, you order them and you got them in a plane envelope, maybe to P.O. box from P.O. box, because nobody wanted to be able to be tracked. Today, all you have to go — Mrs. Google, as a like to call her, and — or whatever your browser is. And put in — with a few key strokes, you get anything you want. So, you know, I don’t want to beat up on social media. I use social media in my research. I use it in my writing, I use it in my job now. But social media is like a knife. A knife in the hands of a killer can do terrible, terrible damage. A knife in the hands of a surgeon can save your life. It is how we use it.

ISAACSON: Do you worry that with midterm elections and the partisanship and the polarization we’re having that people are going to hear, and around the world and elections around the world, stoke up anti-Semitism?

LIPSTADT: Yes, absolutely. It’s a terrific tool that some people will use and use freely and use enthusiastically. And then, engage in what I called the miss piggy defense. What? Me? An anti-Semite? No, not at all. But we see it. We see it. I was an expert witness in the Charlottesville civil suit. The suit brought against the groups that conducted the Unite the Right Rally in the summer of 2017. So, I read all of their exchanges, their e-mails, their for (ph) chance, A chance, whatever, all of the different exchanges. And these were people who came poised to do violence and who were compelled, like deep- seated racism and deep-seated anti-Semitism. And thirdly, a deep-seated commitment to violence. I think these midterm elections may be amongst the most crucial our country is facing because of that. Not because of one party or the other, but because there is this growing radicalization. And, you know, you see it all over, we have seen it more from the — and more overtly from the right now. But I think we have to be careful. Wherever it comes — when I was — before Senate Foreign Relations Committee for my hearing, I described myself as an equal opportunity fighter of anti-Semitism. I don’t care where it comes from, I am going to fight it.

ISAACSON: What did Charlottesville and your involvement there teach you about the connection between anti-Semitism and racism?

LIPSTADT: It taught me that the two are interconnected. It showed it to me so graphically. If you look at what these people were saying to what one another, if you look at these symbols they brought. Now, it’s very interesting, if you look at their flags and their shields and their banners, they were virtually no swastikas. But the one who understood and who knows and — as I am, I saw loads of Nazi symbols. There was something called the black sun. Different symbols. (INAUDIBLE) symbols that were relied on by the Nazi party. Maybe not created on by them, but relied on by them. I saw overt racism and I saw anti-Semitism. I saw how these two — for these haters, these are not two separate hatreds. These are firmly intertwined, they are linked. And if we are going to fight one, we’ve got to recognize this.

ISAACSON: So, you are in the State Department, mainly dealing overseas. Let me ask you about a complex question, which is Ukraine, which has a Jewish president who has become a global hero. And yet, the Russians are saying they’re trying de-Nazify Ukraine. And to some extent, anti-Semitism seems to be an undercurrent in a lot of these discussions. Explain your thinking there.

LIPSTADT: Barely an undercurrent. I think what we have seen from the leadership of the Kremlin, from Putin, from Lavrov and foreign minister and from many others in the leadership is, first of all, the weaponization of the holocaust, the weaponization of Nazism. To call Ukrainians Nazis, and we are out to defeat Nazis, there are right wingers in that government and there were people who were — who I certainly disagree with and don’t approve of. But to describe them as Nazis is to weaponize the imagery of World War II. And then, it went even further with the foreign minister making this absurd claim that Hitler’s mother was Jewish. And people called me up and said, what is that? Why is that? First of all, it is absurd. Second of all, why is he making it? Hitler’s mother was not Jewish. Absolutely not. But what he was saying is, Hitler’s mother was Jewish, i.e., Hitler was Jewish. And whatever bad things happened in the holocaust, the Jews did to themselves. And it is a form of — it’s what I call soft core holocaust denial. It is not a denial of the facts, but it is distortion. It is turning things on their head and it’s saying, you are turning the victims into the perpetrators. They maybe victims, but they are also perpetrators. It was deeply, deeply anti-Semitic. And it is absurd. But it seems that Putin and those around him thought that it would find an audience if not outside Russia, certainly inside Russia.

ISAACSON: You said you are about to go meet with your cohorts and counterparts, especially, I assume, in Europe. Tell me about those meetings, whether there is a group of people like yourself in each country that take on anti-Semitism and are you going to prioritize certain actions to do next?

LIPSTADT: Well, here is some good news, rarely when you are talking about anti-Semitism or prejudice, is that they have good news. Increasing numbers of countries, Germany, France, the E.U., even the OAS has appointed someone, have appointed special envoy similar to this position. And they haven’t done it because of a massive Jewish population in their midst they’re in, they have done it because they have begun to understand that this is a serious problem. So, you know, we are going to talk about it. We are going to see what has worked, what has not worked in Europe, you’ve had, and certainly in England and in other countries, in Germany, problems with sports clubs, with soccer clubs. We all face the online anti-Semitism. But there is another place where I am going to be focusing my energies, and it’s is also some good news, and that is the Abraham Accord countries. That in the Gulf, and possibly in other countries is both in the Gulf and Muslim majority countries in other places, there is an increased interest and willingness to address the issue of anti-Semitism. You know, irrespective of their particular position on tensions in the Middle East, on the Arab-Israeli, Israeli-Palestinian issue, they are beginning to realize that this is not something that is healthy for them. That this is not something that they should be exporting to the rest of the world.

ISAACSON: You talk about working with the countries and the Gulf states in the Middle East who are part of the Abraham Accords. Explain to us what that is and why you feel it is promising.

LIPSTADT: About three years ago, during the Trump administration, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Morocco signed onto something they call the Abraham Accords, which — and they signed on with Israel, the United States. There have been tripartite working groups on religious freedoms in these countries to say, you know what, it is time to rethink the hatred. It is time to rethink the differences. That does not mean that, you know, they said, we’re not — we are going to forget about political differences or political objectives, but there has been a hatred, there has been a division that’s just isn’t anyone’s benefit. No one expected it. No one foresaw it. There had been all sorts of contact between UAE and Israelis on commercial and other things quietly, but no one expected it to be as public. And if you had told me, you know, even 10 months ago that I would be heading out to that region to be welcomed there to talk about anti-Semitism, I wouldn’t have believed it.

ISAACSON: You talk about going around the world to talk about anti- Semitism. But is there a delivering that message when more than how of biased crimes in our own country, in the United States, are anti-Semitic or against Jews?

LIPSTADT: You know, I — during — in the ’30s, and even in the late ’30s, and when there is that debate in 1936 about having the Olympics in Berlin, there are people who said, oh, we Americans, we can’t protest what was going on in Germany because we have problems in our country. I take a different attitude. I go to them. I go to them in humility. I say, our country is not perfect, our country has many problems and many issues, has long had them. Is trying to address them, sometimes with more vigor, sometimes with less. But that does not stop us from saying, you have to do it to. I don’t come to them and say, oh, I am a purist, you know, free from any wrong. I am pure as the driven snow. We have problems here. And I think that we are trying to impress them. Sometimes with more success, sometimes with less success. But that does not mean that we have to, you know, first fix everything here and then, only talk — and then, go talk to those abroad. But I go with a deep sense of humility that I am not coming to you from a perfect place.

ISAACSON: Ambassador Deborah Lipstadt, thank you so much for joining us.

LIPSTADT: Thank you for having me.

About This Episode EXPAND

Parkland survivor Cameron Kasky discusses the March for Our Lives movement. Emma Thompson reflects on her role in the new film “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande.” Ambassador Deborah Lipstadt explains how racism and antisemitism are intertwined.