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Antisemitism: The Ubiquitous Hatred

SPECIAL ENVOY LIPSTADT:  It is my great pleasure to be with you all today.  Before I get started, I want to express my appreciation to your President, Rabbi Ari Berman, Provost Dr. Selma Botman, and the entire leadership of this acclaimed institution.

Please also permit me to acknowledge one of today’s distinguished honorees, Kenneth Jacobson, ADL’s Deputy National Director and longest-serving employee, whose nephew Michael is a colleague at my new professional home, the U.S. Department of State. I remember “Kenny” Jacobson when he played basketball for Yeshiva University High School (then MTA) and subsequently for YU.

As someone who has been awarded an honorary doctorate by Yeshiva University in 2000, I can count myself as an alumna of this venerable institution.  Let me be the first, therefore, to welcome you all to the august ranks of YU Alumni!

But I come to you today to speak of something sobering, something that is on your mind, as it is on the mind of so many Jews worldwide.  Jew hatred.  Antisemitism.  Not only is it on my mind, but, as of three weeks ago, monitoring and combatting it has become my fulltime remit at the United States State Department.

Let me begin in a strange fashion, given that my topic is Jew-hatred, with some good news.  I have been so encouraged by the fact that in recent years so many countries and international governmental organizations have, not only recognized the seriousness of this problem, but have also taken proactive steps to address it.

Last October, the European Union announced its first-ever Strategy on Combatting Antisemitism and Fostering Jewish Life.  Countries such as the Netherlands and Romania have joined Germany, France, the United Kingdom and so many others in appointing national antisemitism envoys and coordinators.  Other countries are actively considering doing so.  The Organization of American States has appointed its first-ever Commissioner to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism.  The Personal Representative on Combating Anti-Semitism of the Chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe is well known to many you — Rabbi Andrew Baker.

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 in a remarkable bipartisan affirmation the United States Congress.

These new and existing appointments, the elevation of my position to Ambassador, and the support I have received are all welcome signs 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-19.  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 because the problem they have been tasked with monitoring and combatting has been resolved.

But I am too much of both a historian and a realist to even imagine it will come in my lifetime.

Today I wish to speak to you of the ubiquity, the free-flowing nature of antisemitism and what kind of response that demands of us.

Antisemitism, unlike other hatreds, has certain unique qualities.  In addition to being one of the oldest – if not the oldest – hatred, it does not emanate from one end of the political spectrum.  Nor does it come from one religious, ethnic or ideological group.  We see it across the ideological and political spectrum.  We see it among Christians, Muslims and, even among Jews.  It is part of a global uptick in racially or ethnically motivated violent extremism (REMVE), which has been fed by individuals and groups who often spread their hateful ideology online.

In recent years we have seen it emanate from the extreme political right, often in the form of the Great Replacement or Christian Replacement theory.  This is the hateful notion that posits that there is a plan afoot to replace White Christian majorities with racial and religious minorities and to destroy white Christian hegemony.  What do Jews have to do with this?  According to the racists and extremists who posit this theory, these racial minorities are not talented enough, capable enough, smart enough to vanquish White Christian society.  There must be, they reason, someone behind them, someone with the malicious smarts, the financial clout and the willingness to harm others for their own benefit.  The minorities are the puppets.  The Jews are the puppeteers.

That is what the protestors at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in August 2017 meant when they chanted, to the bewilderment of many people, Jews included, “Jews will not replace us.”

As 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 prepared a report for the court and explained to the jury how antisemitism was a 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.

I outlined for the court and the jury how 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.   What not so long ago was at the extremist end of society has increasingly moved into the mainstream.

This ideology was what inspired the killer in Pittsburgh to commit his evil deed.  He had seen that the synagogue had declared the Shabbat in question to be HIAS – Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society — shabbat, a shabbat to celebrate efforts to ease the path of immigrants to this country.  After attacking and murdering the people in the synagogue he declared that they “will not destroy the White race.”  Six months later, the murderer in Poway, California was inspired by the Pittsburgh killer and his belief in the need to stop the Jews from orchestrating the replacement.

It was most apparent in the so-called manifesto prepared by the killer in Buffalo.  His words constitute an optimum example, if one can use the term optimum when speaking of such a terrible tragedy, of the way in which racial hatred and antisemitism are intimately linked.  The killer came to kill Black people, people shopping for groceries, buying snacks and taking their children for ice cream.

But in his so-called manifesto he made it very clear that Black people were not his only intended target.  Describing Jews as “demons” and the “biggest problem of the Western world has ever had” he called for them to be “killed” and, “if they are lucky, to be exiled.”  He instructed his followers “not [to] show them any sympathy….” They had to “go back to hell where [they] came from.”  They had to be “removed from Western civilization in any way possible.”   His first objective was to kill Blacks, but “the Jews would be dealt with in time.”

He did not just hate both groups but he saw one group – Jews – as using the other – Blacks – to destroy his culture.

For the killers in Pittsburgh, Poway, Halle and, now, Buffalo,  Jews are not white.  We are the cabal behind this effort to destroy white hegemony.

On the extreme left we see something different.  We see a perception of Jews as, not just white, but privileged, financially secure and powerful.  (Of course, they ignore the fact that there are many Jews who are none of these things.) And, according to this construct, it is impossible for those who are white and privileged to be the objects of prejudice.  Therefore, when Jews claim that they have been the subject of an antisemitic attack, those on the far left who adhere to this view contend that Jews are making a false claim and are doing so to deflect attention from their own wrongs.

There is yet another added element to this response.  It is the contention of those on the far left that they – as committed fighters against all forms of prejudice – cannot possibly be engaging in prejudice.    It is, they would declare, oxymoronic to accuse them of engaging in any form of prejudice, antisemitism included.

Therefore, if Jews – perceived as white, privileged and powerful by those on the far left who espouse these views – cannot possibly be victims of prejudice and they,– as committed fighters against prejudice – cannot be guilty of engaging in prejudice, then the Jews’ claims that they have been subjected to antisemitism by the left cannot be legitimate.

Not only is it not legitimate for Jews to claim that they are victims of prejudice, but these critics might contend, Jews are using the claims of antisemitism to cover up their own wrongs and, by extension, those of Israel.  We saw it in the British Labor party under Jeremy Corbyn.  We see it on many a university campus.

We cannot ignore the connection between antisemitism and the attacks on Israel.  Some antisemites use Israel as a cover for their antisemitism. They couch or camouflage their antisemitism 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 the policies of the Israeli government is NOT antisemitism per se.  In fact, Israel as a vibrant democracy prides itself on the ability of its citizens to freely criticize and contest government policies.

We are certainly not suggesting that all threats are always of equal severity simultaneously.  Sometimes, the threat from one place on the spectrum or from one group is more severe – very much so – than from the other. But that does not mean an other source of antisemitism should be ignored.

Where then does that leave you, graduates of Yeshiva University?  I think there are two things you must do as supporters of Israel and haters of antisemitism.

First of all, we must be careful about making accusations of antisemitism.  When we accuse someone of engaging in antisemitism, it must have a rapier sting. It must cut to the quick. You must never give our opponents the chance to dismiss what you are saying because, as they might put it, “you are always accusing people with whom you disagree of being antisemites.”

If we too reflexively label any criticism, whether it be of Jews or of Israel, as antisemitism, even when it is not, our accusation loses potency.    At the same time, we cannot fail to acknowledge that some of the criticism of Israel – particularly of its legitimacy to exist — is naught but a cover for antisemitism. When it is antisemitism we must speak out forcefully, unapologetically and unequivocally.

Secondly, we must be equal opportunity fighters against antisemitism.  We cannot only fight antisemitism on one end of the political spectrum, particularly if it is the other end of the spectrum from our political sympathies.  If you only see antisemitism on the other side of the political transom, then one can legitimately say you are not really interested in fighting antisemitism.  You are weaponizing antisemitism, using it as a political cudgel against your political opponents.

Too many people who fight antisemitism do so with a patch on their eye.  They see antisemitism very clearly but only see it coming from one direction, the political direction which they oppose.

We must abhor antisemitism irrespective of where it comes from. We must be non-partisan, equal opportunity fighters.  In fact, we should be more critical of those whose views on other matters we might share.  They are more likely to pay heed to our critiques because we have more credibility with them. Those on the other side of the spectrum might dismiss us. Those with whom we generally stand shoulder to shoulder on other matters, are less likely to do so.

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 tasked with monitoring and combatting has been resolved.

I am too much of both a historian and a realist to even imagine that day will come in my lifetime.  But I resolve to fight antisemitism every day I am given with every fiber of my being.

I am strengthened and encouraged by the knowledge that a multitude of people – are hoping and, literally praying for me to succeed.   The fact that on Shabbat in many a synagogue a prayer is recited for the President, Vice President and all who serve with them includes me, humbles me beyond words and strengthens me beyond measure.

Two days ago, I was officially sworn into office by Vice President Harris.  I took the oath on two books, a Talmud published by the United States Army for use by those in the DP camps in the German zone.  A group of rabbis approached the Army leadership and made the case that the DPs need spiritual as well as physical rehabilitation.  The Army agreed and arranged for the entire Talmud to be published in a special edition.

I borrowed the book from the collection of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. It was the Tractate Sanhedrin, an appropriate choice for someone taking a governmental oath.

I added to that (as if the Tractate Sanhedrin was not heavy enough already), a worn taped together book of Psalms that belonged to my mother.

I enter this office bolstered by the knowledge that the leaders of the US Army recognized the spiritual needs of the DPs and were willing to break precedent and publish a 19 volume religious text.  I enter the office as a child of two immigrants who implanted within their children an abiding faith in their religious identity and an equally abiding faith in and gratitude to the United States of America.

When the Vice President administered my oath of office, I ended with the words “so help me God.”  I requested that it be included – some people choose otherwise – but with the job facing me I shall need every bit of support I can muster.

I know I can count on you to be my earthly allies in this fight. I can only pray that I shall have such allies in the heavens above.

V’ken Yehi Ratson, and so it may come to be.

Thank you very much.

U.S. Department of State

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