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What counts as antisemitism? Biden nominee Deborah Lipstadt receives hearing on the topic.

Historian and authority on antisemitism Deborah Lipstadt, pictured in 2016, was nominated by President Biden to oversee the State Department’s Office of the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism. (Gregorio Borgia/AP)
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Prominent Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt appeared Tuesday before the Senate for her confirmation hearing to lead the State Department’s office that aims to monitor and combat antisemitism. Her hearings were expected to shed light on how U.S. leaders should understand antisemitism in light of attacks in the United States and around the globe.

As Lipstadt appeared before the Senate, she made the case that antisemitism is alive and well today. “Increasingly, Jews have been singled out for slander, violence and terrorism,” she said. “Today’s rise in antisemitism is staggering.”

Her recent book “Antisemitism: Here and Now” goes into who and what she considers antisemitic. “Antisemitism is not the hatred of people who happen to be Jews. It is hatred of them because they are Jews,” she wrote. However, not everyone — including Jews — agrees on what exactly antisemitism is, particularly when it comes to criticism of Israel.

Lipstadt’s appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was delayed over some of her past criticism of conservative politicians. But in recent weeks, dozens of Jewish groups have put pressure on the Senate to fill the role, especially in the wake of a recent attack on a synagogue in Colleyville, Tex. Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, who was held hostage during that attack, testified on Tuesday before the House Committee on Homeland Security at the same time as Lipstadt’s hearing.

Texas rabbi taken hostage tells U.S. House panel: I’m haunted by my decision to open the door to the terrorist

In March 2021, Lipstadt tweeted an article about a statement by Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who said he would have been more concerned by the Jan. 6, 2021, mayhem at the Capitol if the rioters had been “Black Lives Matter and antifa protesters” instead of Trump supporters. Lipstadt tweeted: “This is white supremacy/nationalism. Pure and simple.”

During Tuesday’s hearing, Johnson said Lipstadt engaged in “malicious poison” when she criticized his comments. She said her comments were not nuanced and she would not do diplomacy by tweets. She said that while she disagreed with what Johnson said, she was sorry if it seemed like a personal attack. She noted she has criticized Democrats as well, describing herself as “an equal-opportunity foe of antisemitism.”

She has also criticized Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) for characterizing pro-Israel Americans as making it “okay for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country.” Allegations of dual loyalties are “part of the textbook accusations against Jews,” Lipstadt told Jewish Insider.

President Biden nominated Lipstadt, a professor of modern Jewish history and Holocaust studies at Emory University, in July. If approved by the Senate, Lipstadt will have the rank of ambassador, unlike her predecessors. She would oversee the State Department’s Office of the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism, which was created by the Global Anti-Semitism Review Act of 2004 under President George W. Bush. The position of envoy was mostly vacant during President Donald Trump’s term.

Lipstadt’s role would focus on reporting on antisemitism globally and pressing governments to adopt measures to mitigate antisemitism, but she will be seen as the administration’s voice on the issue domestically, as well.

Lipstadt has long been widely recognized as a leading authority on antisemitism. Her 1993 book, “Denying the Holocaust,” prompted a lawsuit from Holocaust denier David Irving under British libel laws. Lipstadt won after a trial in London. She was portrayed in the 2016 movie, “Denial,” which re-creates the trial.

She served as an expert witness during a trial in Charlottesville that led to a verdict against white supremacist and neo-Nazi defendants who marched in 2017 with torches, shouting, “Jews will not replace us!”

Norman Eisen, who was dubbed “ethics czar” when he was special assistant to President Barack Obama for ethics and government reform, said he expects Lipstadt to encounter debates over the definition of antisemitism.

He said he agrees with an “imperfect” definition adopted in 2016 by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. The IHRA definition includes examples, some of which have been criticized by people on the left as attempts to shut down free speech. Among the IHRA’s examples of antisemitism are “applying double standards” to Israel and “claiming that the existence of the State of Israel is a racist endeavor.”

“Professor Lipstadt will run into these debates. She’s more capable of navigating these issues than almost anyone else,” said Eisen, who also served as U.S. ambassador to the Czech Republic from 2011 to 2014. “She’s a titan in the field. She’s not only written about it, studied and taught the subject for decades, she’s fought against antisemitism and for equal treatment for Jews and for all people.”

Lipstadt said during her hearing that she, too, appreciates the IHRA definition and that a lot depends on context when people are criticizing Israel.

“I think it’s very important to be nuanced there because, you know, it’s sort of Chicken Little ‘The sky is falling,’ ” she said, “If you call everything antisemitism, when you have a real act of antisemitism, people aren’t paying attention.”

Jews make up 2 percent of the U.S. population and 0.2 percent of the world’s population. But according to FBI data, 55 percent of all reported religious bias crimes in the United States in 2020 targeted Jews.

In the United States, a Pew Research Center survey of Jewish Americans between November 2019 and June 2020 found that 53 percent said they personally feel less safe than they did five years ago.

“Do you feel safe going to synagogue?” is part of the regular conversation now among American Jews, said Hadar Susskind, leader of Americans for Peace Now. Many Jewish organizations have removed signs from their buildings and taken addresses off their websites in the past five years, he said.

The topic of Israel comes up frequently around discussions of antisemitism, Susskind said. The rights group Amnesty International recently said Israel’s treatment of Palestinians is a crime against humanity and is illegal under international law, and that the country’s “oppression and domination” of Palestinians amounts to apartheid. In response, Israel’s foreign minister decried the statement as antisemitic.

“Equating Jews and Israel is wrong, regardless of the direction it’s coming from,” Susskind said. “We’re seeing the weaponization of antisemitism as a way to discredit criticism of Israel policy and shut down discussion on it. When you start to dilute the use of the term … you’re taking the focus away from the very real problem that we’re facing.”

In her remarks on Tuesday, Lipstadt agreed with Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) in criticizing Amnesty International’s statement. She said its description of Israel as “an apartheid state” was “unhistorical.” She also said that criticism of Israeli policy is not antisemitism.

Rabbi Jill Jacobs, CEO of the rabbinical human rights organization T’ruah, said it’s important to call antisemitism what it is: “Antisemitism is hatred or prejudice of Jews as Jews.” Antisemitism regularly manifests as conspiracy theories that show up in tropes, such as how Jews supposedly control the world. For example, in the recent attack at the synagogue in Colleyville, Tex., the gunman believed he could have a rabbi call another rabbi to get a prisoner released. But many people still play down the history of antisemitism across the globe.

“A lot of people think antisemitism has gone away or is not serious,” Jacobs said. If their example of antisemitism is the Holocaust, they might say of conspiracy theories, vandalism or physical attacks on Jews, “It’s not that serious or it’s not a trend,” she said.

Jacobs said criticism of Israel can cross the line when people begin to use tropes, such as denying Jewish history or asking student government candidates who are Jewish to declare their stand on Israel.

“If you are thinking about how to criticize Israel, you can substitute another country and see if it would make sense. See if you can put China into the same sentence,” she said. “We have to distinguish what makes people uncomfortable and what is actually antisemitic.”

Michelle Boorstein contributed to this report.