When Deborah Lipstadt was nominated last summer to lead an expanded State Department office as an ambassador to monitor and confront antisemitism abroad, the appointment appeared ready to sail through. Professor Lipstadt is a renowned scholar of the Holocaust, the author of six books, and an expert on contemporary antisemitism in all its shapes and forms.
“It’s mind-blowing that she has not been confirmed,” says Pamela Nadell, Director of the Jewish Studies Program at American University. “I thought fighting anti-Semitism was the one issue that wasn’t partisan.”
Lipstadt is one of hundreds of Biden appointees to Senate-confirmed positions languishing in a GOP-imposed limbo—the worst partisan blockade ever, according to the non-partisan Partnership for Public Service. Republican foot-dragging on Lipstadt is thought to stem from a tweet she sent in March of 2020 countering GOP Senator Ron Johnson’s assertion that if the Jan. 6 rioters had been Antifa or Black Lives Matter backers instead of Trump supporters “who love this country, that truly respect law enforcement,” he would have felt more threatened.
Lipstadt tweeted, “This is white supremacy/nationalism. Pure and simple.”
That may be what Idaho Senator James Risch—the ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, where Lipstadt’s nomination is stalled—was referring to when he told Jewish Insider last week that he was concerned about her past tweets critical of Republican lawmakers. He told the Jerusalem Post that there’s nothing “nefarious” in the delay, that “we do go back and look at everything that’s been said and done by the nominee to make sure we’re doing the right thing. It’s still a work in progress.”
He added, “it shouldn’t be read by anyone to be an indication of a problem with her, a problem with the issue, or anything else.” Asked if he had received a letter from 20 Jewish organizations urging Lipstadt’s confirmation as the next Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism, Risch said, “Yes, that’s impressive – and persuasive.”
But he’s also said that “The nominee has left an extensive trail of materials that we’re in the process of reviewing.”
Lipstadt, 74, is a recognized authority on antisemitism, its history, rhetoric, language and symbols. Her 1993 book, “Denying the Holocaust,” prompted a lawsuit from author and Holocaust denier David Irving under British libel laws that Lipstadt won after a lengthy trial in London. The 2016 movie, “Denial,” starring Rachel Weisz as Lipstadt, recreates the event.
Since 1993, Lipstadt has been the Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish History and Holocaust Studies at Emory University. “I’ve known her for years, decades,” says Pamela Nadell at American University. “There is no scholar in the United States who knows more about contemporary anti-Semitism than she does. Her nomination should have gone through six months ago. When she was announced, my immediate reaction was slam dunk! I was just stunned she didn’t sail through.”
Lipstadt was an expert witness at last year’s trial in Charlottesville of the white supremacists who marched with tiki torches in the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally. She testified that she saw “a great deal of overt antisemitism and adulation of the Third Reich in the evidence” presented at the trial. She described at length the “replacement theory” to destroy white national societies that she saw in “an overwhelming fashion” in Charlottesville, where the marchers chanted, “Jews will not replace us.” She described the Charlottesville march as “a call to battle.”
Roberta Kaplan, an attorney for the plaintiffs, told the Daily Beast, “I certainly never put on an expert witness that the other side barely had the nerve to cross-examine. If you were in that courtroom, the power of her testimony and the cogency was so stark, it cast a pall over the courtroom. And the jurors, you could tell from the look on their faces even with masks on they were hanging on her every word. Some of them learned something. She got them to understand what the Holocaust was and how it was connected to the event in Charlottesville.”
The jury declared $25 million in damages be paid by the rally organizers, self-identified white supremacists and neo-Nazis. Kaplan, who is based in New York, said she thought the trial would be “all about racism, that people from rural areas don’t even know any Jews.” Instead, “When you see what they say to each other, 85 to 90 percent of it is about the Jews.”
“Why are the Republicans blocking her?” Kaplan asks, clearly puzzled. “You’d think they’d want an ambassador who could express these views in as clear, cogent and compelling a way as possible. All you had to do was sit in that courtroom.”
Senate Republicans are on trial as to whether they can see past one senator’s pique to confirm a scholar who understands history and is not afraid to call out those who dare repeat it. The best you can say about the GOP’s stalling on Lipstadt is that she’s not alone. The Senate has confirmed 355 (out of 644) Biden executive level appointees. At this point in George W. Bush’s term, the number was 505 (out of 677), and for Barack Obama, it was 450 (out of 653). (Trump only nominated 555 in the same time frame, and he had a Republican Senate, so his stats are not comparable.)
Part of the logjam is an increase in Senate-confirmed positions because they signal more status. If confirmed, Lipstadt will have an ambassadorial rank, unlike her predecessors in the role. The GOP is also doing what it can to slow down the Senate, says Lorna DeJonge Schulman, vice president for research at the Partnership for Public Service.
“In the past, a senator with a hold would seek to get something out of it. Now, holding up the nominee, not allowing the Senate to go forward, seems to be the goal.”
With Lipstadt, it’s a goal that could prove costly in ways the GOP may not have expected.