Here’s something most Republican voters probably don’t know: For the last four months, a handful of GOP senators have been preventing the confirmation of the U.S. special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism. This post houses America’s point person for taking on anti-Jewish activities around the globe, but it has been vacant, despite a singularly qualified candidate being nominated for the role. That candidate is Emory professor Deborah Lipstadt. Her résumé speaks for itself. She has authored five books on anti-Semitism, advised the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and been a trenchant public critic of anti-Jewish bigotry from the nationalist right to the socialist left. This past month, she testified as an expert witness at the trial of the alt-right instigators of the racist rally in Charlottesville, where the marchers chanted “Jews will not replace us!” (Last week, a jury fined them over $25 million.) Lipstadt even famously defeated Holocaust denier David Irving in court, in a legal drama that became a Hollywood movie.
With this track record, it’s unsurprising that her appointment has been embraced by Jewish organizations across the ideological and religious spectrum, from the Jewish Federations and the Anti-Defamation League to the Orthodox Union and J Street. These diverse Jewish groups can barely agree on where to set the thermostat, yet they agree on Lipstadt.
But to a small set of Republican senators, Jews are not a reliable authority on anti-Semitism and don’t get to choose who represents them. Despite Lipstadt being nominated in July, Republican members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee have blocked her confirmation hearing. As Jewish Insider reports, though “the Senate committee has scheduled its next hearing for Biden administration nominees for Dec. 1 … Lipstadt is not set to be considered at that convening.” As justification, Senator Jim Risch, the Republican ranking member of the committee, has obliquely cited tweets of Lipstadt’s that were critical of another GOP committee member, Senator Ron Johnson.
It’s a very strange objection, and here’s why: The anti-Semitism envoy is a global ambassadorship, not a domestic post, and has no authority over America. (Don’t take it from me, take it from Trump’s own deputy envoy.) That’s why the position requires confirmation from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the first place. In other words, even if Lipstadt were a partisan operative using her expertise as cover to take down random Republicans, if she got this job, she would not be permitted to opine on anti-Semitism inside the United States at all—and senators like Risch should know this. Moreover, if the real issue was Lipstadt’s tweets, then Republicans could grill her about them at her confirmation hearing. But they are blocking the hearing entirely. That’s because this is not about her tweets.
In actuality, the real reason behind this obstruction campaign is that Republicans are trying to hamstring the Biden administration by holding up its nominees. As the Associated Press reported last month, thanks to Republican Senate holds on Biden’s picks over countless pretexts, just 36 percent of them had been confirmed—a worse clip than Donald Trump at this stage of his presidency. Jews are merely the collateral damage in this partisan crossfire.
And here’s the thing: Just because certain Republicans won’t confirm America’s chief anti-Semitism firefighter doesn’t mean that the anti-Semitism stops. In recent weeks, the highest administrative court in Greece effectively banned kosher and halal slaughter in the country, which was just the latest volley in an escalating shadow war against European Jewish and Muslim life. Meanwhile, Poland played host to the ugly spectacle of a nationalist rally where attendees chanted “Death to Jews” and burned a book representing a 1264 Polish edict that mandated protections for Jews.
And that’s just in the last month.
In the past, the U.S. anti-Semitism envoy has effectively intervened around the world to support Jews under threat, successfully combatting everything from Holocaust denial to anti-Jewish legislation. As a reporter, I’ve seen firsthand how the imprimatur of American power is often enough to resolve such situations, and can provide much-needed aid to marginalized Jewish communities. But right now, American influence is MIA and real Jews are suffering while Republicans play politics with this position.
There is a grand irony in this debased debacle: By falsely casting Lipstadt as a partisan propagandist to derail her confirmation, the Republican senators actually ensured that a genuine political operative would take over the anti-Semitism envoy office. On November 22, Biden tapped Aaron Keyak to serve as deputy special envoy for combatting anti-Semitism. Keyak is an Orthodox Jew and longtime political strategist who is widely respected across partisan lines. (Full disclosure: We’ve known each other since he kindly helped me find kosher food when I was a neophyte reporter covering the 2012 DNC.) But it’s no secret that Keyak was the Biden 2020 campaign’s Jewish outreach director, or that he has long worked at a progressive Jewish messaging firm. Yet because the position of deputy anti-Semitism envoy—as opposed to the actual envoy—does not require Senate confirmation, Keyak was able to assume office immediately and will soon take over as acting envoy.
In other words, because Republican senators refused to confirm Lipstadt over spurious charges of partisanship, the office is now being run by a partisan. Again, Keyak is an excellent choice for this position, and has long spoken out against anti-Semitism regardless of the source. But by the Republican lawmakers’ own logic, he is exactly who they claimed they didn’t want running this office. Through their disingenuous obstruction, they created the outcome they purported to oppose.
At this point, the best course would be for Senator Risch and company to stop playing politics with this position and finally confirm the expert appointed to it. But if they won’t, Senator Bob Menendez, the Democratic chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, has the authority to unilaterally call the confirmation hearing—and he should do so.
It’s time to end this game that no one wins.
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