Emory historian Deborah Lipstadt nominated as U.S. special envoy to combat and monitor antisemitism

A portrait of Deborah Lipstadt standing outside

Emory historian Deborah E. Lipstadt is being nominated by President Joe Biden to serve as Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, a position in the U.S. Department of State with the rank of ambassador.

Described by the White House as “a renowned scholar of the Holocaust and modern antisemitism,” Lipstadt is Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish History and Holocaust Studies in Emory’s Tam Institute for Jewish Studies and the Department of Religion.

“Through her acclaimed books, articles and commentary, Dr. Lipstadt has combated Holocaust denial and discrimination, uncovering the historical roots of antisemitism and exploring its persistence through the millennia,” Emory President Gregory L. Fenves said in a statement July 30, when the nomination was announced, describing her also as a “transformative teacher” and “inspiration to generations of students.”

She “has the experience to lead at a time when antisemitism has been on the rise in the U.S. and around the world,” Fenves said. Read his full statement.

“Dr. Lipstadt’s nomination is a sign that our country is committed to addressing acts of bigotry and hatred aimed at the Jewish people.”
— Emory President Gregory L. Fenves

The nomination has drawn widespread praise, including from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, where Lipstadt has served as an adviser and, most recently, as the 2019-2020 Ina Levine Invitational Scholar at the Mandel Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, working to create an online reader on antisemitism designed for the college classroom.

“We welcome Deborah Lipstadt’s appointment to this important position, especially in an era of rising antisemitism and Holocaust denial and distortion,” says Sara J. Bloomfield, director of the museum. “A preeminent Holocaust historian, she won a landmark court case against Holocaust denier David Irving that was deeply meaningful to Holocaust survivors worldwide. Her background as scholar, teacher, author and speaker makes her an ideal choice at this critical moment.”

As an ambassador-level position, Lipstadt’s nomination must be confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

“Should I be confirmed by the Senate and have the opportunity to accept this position and take on this awesome responsibility, I will miss one thing: Being in the classroom with my Emory students,” says Lipstadt, who notes that she would take a leave of absence from Emory for the role.

Teaching and defending history

In 1993, Lipstadt came to Emory to teach in the Department of Religion, where she would eventually serve as the founding director of the Tam Institute for Jewish Studies, devoting countless hours to creating undergraduate and graduate curricula focused on the interdisciplinary study of Jewish civilization and culture.

The same year, she published her award-winning book, “Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory,” the first full-length study of those who attempt to deny the Holocaust. She identified the movement as arising from “antisemitic diatribe” and “pseudo-history,” and warned of its growth.

“You can’t fight every battle, but there are certain battles you cannot turn away from. You can’t let hatred and prejudice go unchallenged.”
— Professor Deborah Lipstadt

She ended up making history in her own right when she was sued for libel by David Irving, a Holocaust denier from Britain. The case, which was filed in England and lasted six years, resulted in a 12-week trial, which Lipstadt and her legal team won, proving her accusations against Irving were true.

When Lipstadt had to take up temporary residence in England during the trial, it was with Emory’s support and reassurance that “the courtroom will be your classroom.” She documented the trial in her book “History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier” (2006), and her landmark stand for historic truth inspired the 2016 motion picture “Denial,” which starred Academy Award-winning actor Rachel Weisz as Lipstadt.

Watch Professor Deborah Lipstadt discuss her legal battle against Holocaust denier David Irving and the film based on it.

“Emory was the height of integrity and support,” Lipstadt said in 2016, recalling the trial. “I couldn’t have asked for better.” That support was also important “for the message it transmitted to students that the university believed in what I was doing and believed I was doing the right thing,” she added then.

Her latest book — “Antisemitism: Here and Now” (2019) — is an examination of the resurgence of antisemitism across Europe and the U.S. An analysis of what she calls “the longest hatred,” the book unfolds as a series of conversational letters written by Lipstadt to two fictional acquaintances: an inquisitive college student and a campus colleague, composites of people she’s known across more than 40 years of teaching.

“Her rigorous and unflinching approach to research permeates her pedagogy, just as her passionate humanity underpins her meticulous scholarship,” Emory College Dean Michael A. Elliott noted when nominating Lipstadt for the university’s 2020 Exemplary Teacher Award, the most recent of her teaching awards from Emory, which also include the 2019 George P. Cuttino Award for Excellence in Mentoring and the 1997 Emory Williams Award for Distinguished Teaching.

“As a historian, public intellectual, teacher and mentor, her tireless commitment to scholarly rigor and to social justice are expressed in her astonishing level of service to the university, and to the broader community, all of which she models to her students,” Elliott said at the time.

National and international impact

A widely respected public scholar, Lipstadt is frequently called upon by the media to comment on a variety of matters and has served as an adviser on national and international projects.

She was a historical consultant to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and helped design the section of the museum dedicated to the American Response to the Holocaust. She was appointed by President Bill Clinton to the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, on which she served two terms.

Lipstadt has been asked by members of the United States Congress to consult on political responses to Holocaust denial. From 1996 through 1999, she served as a member of the United States State Department Advisory Committee on Religious Freedom Abroad. In this capacity she, together with a small group of leaders and scholars, advised Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on matters of religious persecution abroad.

In 2005 she was tapped by President George W. Bush to be part of a small delegation that represented the White House at the 60th anniversary commemoration of the liberation of Auschwitz.

On April 11, 2011, the 50th anniversary of the start of the Eichmann trial, she gave a public address at the State Department on the impact of the trial. Her book on the topic, “The Eichmann Trial,” was released just prior to the anniversary.

Watch Professor Lipstadt discuss the impact of the Eichmann trial in this video produced by the publisher of her book on the court proceedings.

Lipstadt’s account provided a behind-the-scenes historical window to the 1961 Israeli court proceedings that revealed the evil behind the actions of Nazi Adolph Eichmann, chief operational officer of Hitler’s Final Solution, and featured testimony from approximately 100 Holocaust survivors.

“Without centuries of persistent hatred, the Third Reich would have found it impossible to mobilize hundreds of thousands of people to despise, scapegoat and ultimately participate in the murder of European Jewry.”
— Professor Deborah Lipstadt

The lessons of the Eichmann trial still resonate, she explained then, because the trial “reminds us that the victim has a name and a face and a history.

“The Holocaust didn’t happen to numbers or just a large group. It happened to people.”

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