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Opinion The Texas synagogue hostage situation reminds us that we must prioritize combating antisemitism

A police vehicle sits outside of the Congregation Beth Israel Synagogue in Colleyville, Tex., on Jan. 16. (Andy Jacobsohn/AFP/Getty Images)
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The first time I heard Deborah Lipstadt speak, I was in high school in Texas, seated in an overcrowded auditorium as she explained how she took the infamous Holocaust denier David Irving to court — and won. It was spellbinding, one of those moments that stays with you the way things only ever can when you’re young.

It was clear to me even then that this was a remarkable person, someone with the bravery to withstand extreme personal abuse to fight for the truth. In the wake of this weekend’s hostage situation at a Texas synagogue, it’s even clearer to me now how necessary it is to have leaders who prioritize combating antisemitism.

In July, President Biden nominated Lipstadt to be the State Department’s Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism — a position recently elevated to the rank of ambassador. There could be no finer choice. But along with hundreds of other Biden nominees, Lipstadt’s confirmation has been obstructed by Republicans, some of whom appear to want her to apologize to Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who in March said that the if Jan. 6 rioters had belonged to Black Lives Matter or antifa, instead of being Trump supporters “who love this country,” he would have felt in real danger.

“This is white supremacy/nationalism,” Lipstadt tweeted in response. “Pure and simple.”

The real problem here is not the meaning of one ignorant comment from an elected official but the broader Republican willingness to play partisan politics with antisemitism, a hatred that must be condemned wherever it appears.

Lipstadt has repeatedly spoken out against antisemitism on both sides of the aisle. On the left, she has criticized Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Mich.) for saying that Israel has “hypnotized the world” and that pro-Israel Americans have foreign “allegiance.” On the right, she has called out, among others, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) for accusing the prominent Jewish donors George Soros, Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer of “buying” the 2018 midterm elections.

Clearly, the problem of antisemitism remains in American life. On Saturday, a man stormed into a synagogue outside Dallas during a Shabbat service and held four people, including the rabbi, hostage for 11 hours. The hostages were eventually rescued. The suspect had demanded the release of Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani neuroscientist convicted in 2010 of attempting to kill U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan and who is being held in nearby Fort Worth.

Siddiqui is a known antisemite. During her trial, she famously demanded that potential jurors submit to DNA tests to prove they were not Jewish. “If they have a Zionist or Israeli background … they are all mad at me,” she told the judge. “They should be excluded if you want to be fair.”

It’s far easier, of course, to denounce bigotry on the other side of the aisle than on one’s own side. The Texas attack should trigger some honest reckoning in institutions such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which condemned the hostage situation but one of whose senior members, Zahra Billoo, declared, barely a month ago, that “Zionist synagogues” contribute to Islamophobia. Far too often, hateful words become calls to action.

But given events of recent years, after the chants of “Jews will not replace us!” rang out in Charlottesville and after the recycling of the “great replacement” conspiracy theory by President Donald Trump and several prominent Republican leaders (a theory that inspired the murders — yes, murders — of 11 Jews in Pittsburgh and one in Poway, Calif.), the onus should be on Republicans in particular to demonstrate that they are serious about antisemitism.

Confirming Lipstadt, who is not a political operative but a scholar of the highest integrity, is a prime opportunity for our leaders to show they actually care. That is too much to ask for the bad-faith brigade that styles itself as the true friend of Israel and the Jewish people but does not seem terribly bothered by the killing of American Jews in suburban synagogues or the rampant antisemitism of right-wing authoritarians in Central and Eastern Europe. In 2017, for example, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban promoted antisemitic imagery of powerful Jewish financiers scheming to control the world. Thousands of posters that said “Let’s not allow Soros to have the last laugh!” were posted around the country.

“In order to fight prejudice successfully, we need to be willing to break ourselves out of the trap of tribalism,” Jonathan Greenblatt, the CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, told me recently. “We should see Republican leadership saying to the members of their own party, ‘Cut it out — we’re worried about the rise of antisemitism, and confirming Professor Lipstadt is an opportunity to show we’re going to do something about it.’ I’d expect the same thing of Democrats if the roles were reversed.”

This is an area where the U.S. envoy can make a real difference. Ira Forman, who served as the Obama administration’s appointee between 2013 and 2017, reiterated how actively governments such as Orban’s and the Law and Justice party in Poland are attempting to whitewash the history of the Holocaust in their respective countries. “It is critical that we don’t let them get away with it,” Forman said.

Every day that Lipstadt is kept from the job is another day they will.