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

A portrait of Deborah Lipstadt standing outside

Emory historian Deborah E. Lipstadt has been confirmed by the U.S. Senate as Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism, a position in the 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.

President Joe Biden announced Lipstadt’s nomination for the post July 30, 2021. On Feb. 8, she testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which voted March 29 to approve her nomination. She was confirmed by the U.S. Senate on a voice vote March 30.

“There is no person more qualified for this important role than Deborah Lipstadt,” says Emory President Gregory L. Fenves. “During a time when antisemitism is on the rise across the country and world, she is the leader our nation needs to help us overcome and transform hatred through her peerless knowledge, scholarship and expertise.”  

One goal: ‘To make a difference’

At her confirmation hearing, Lipstadt was introduced by Sen. Jacky Rosen of Nevada, who described her as “arguably the nation’s foremost expert on antisemitism and Holocaust denial, with over four decades of groundbreaking scholarship.”

Rosen, co-chair of the Senate Bipartisan Task Force for Combating Antisemitism, urged the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to advance Lipstadt’s nomination “so she can lead the State Department's efforts to improve the safety and security of at-risk Jewish communities, promote accurate Holocaust education, and ensure foreign leaders condemn antisemitic discourse.”

In her opening statement, Lipstadt described being nominated as special envoy as “one of the great honors — and great surprises — of my life.”

She noted the Jan. 15 attack on a synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, where a gunman held four people hostage.

“Senators, this was no isolated incident. Increasingly, Jews have been singled out for slander, violence and terrorism,” Lipstadt said. “Today’s rise in antisemitism is staggering. It is especially alarming that we witness such a surge less than eight decades after one out of three Jews on Earth was murdered.”

She praised the U.S. government for recognizing “Jew-hatred as a serious global challenge,” including by elevating the special envoy to the level of ambassador.

While she has taught about and studied antisemitism throughout her career, Lipstadt said that she has also “repeatedly confronted real world antisemitism” and listed three “life-changing" moments.

  • In 1972, as a graduate student, she went to the Soviet Union to meet with Soviet Jews whose applications to go to Israel or the U.S. were denied. They “spoke truth to tyranny and were profoundly liberated by doing so,” leaving Lipstadt “strengthened by them and acutely aware of democracy’s precious gift.”
  • In 1996, while a professor at Emory, she was sued for libel in the U.K. by a Holocaust denier. While the years-long legal battle ended in a “resounding verdict” for Lipstadt and against antisemitism, she spent weeks in the courtroom “listening to a Hitler apologist spew Holocaust denial, antisemitism and racism.”
  • In 2021, Lipstadt served as an expert witness in the civil lawsuit against the organizers of the 2017 “Unite the Right” demonstration in Charlottesville, Virginia. “For those extremists, who came to Charlottesville ready to do battle, neo-Nazism, racism and antisemitism are intimately intertwined,” she told the senators.

“As those episodes suggest, Jew-hatred can be found across the entire political spectrum. One finds it among Christians, Muslims, atheists, and, sadly, even a handful of Jews; in Europe, the Middle East, Latin America, and even in countries with no Jews.

“I am an equal-opportunity foe of antisemitism. Unless one is willing to fight Jew-hatred wherever one finds it, one should not be a nominee for this position.”
— Professor Deborah Lipstadt

Concluding her statement, Lipstadt nodded to her work at Emory as she explained why she sought the role of special envoy.

“I am blessed with a job I love, at a university I revere, with inspiring students,” she said. “This new role, if I am honored by confirmation, will be difficult and demanding. When I was first asked to apply for it, I told an old friend that I doubted I would. Without hesitation, she said, ‘But you could make a
difference.’

“Senators, if confirmed, I shall fight antisemitism worldwide, without fear or favor and with that one goal emblazoned before me: to make a difference.”

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 10-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.

Lipstadt will take a leave of absence from Emory to serve as special envoy. When her nomination was announced, she noted that should she be confirmed, “I will miss one thing: Being in the classroom with my Emory students.”

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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