Lipstadt: Aware of CAIR's antisemitic past, giving them a chance to overcome

Lipstadt's Combating Antisemitism Strategy was criticized for including CAIR despite it being known for its antisemitism and anti-Israel comments.

 DEBORAH LIPSTADT, Biden’s envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism, said that this is a ‘historic moment in the modern fight against what’s known as the fight against the world’s oldest hatred.’ (photo credit: Abdel Hadi Ramahi/Reuters)
DEBORAH LIPSTADT, Biden’s envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism, said that this is a ‘historic moment in the modern fight against what’s known as the fight against the world’s oldest hatred.’
(photo credit: Abdel Hadi Ramahi/Reuters)

Deborah Lipstadt, United States Special Envoy for Monitoring and Combating Antisemitism, knows that there are Jewish leaders who are upset about the way her historic Combating Antisemitism Strategy was launched a few weeks ago at the White House, but she stands firm behind it.

“I’m not naive,” she told The Jerusalem Post on Sunday in an exclusive interview. She is in Israel in honor of the annual Global Forum of the American Jewish Committee in Tel Aviv.

One of the main criticisms was about allowing an organization with antisemitic statements in its past to participate in implementing the plan. According to the fact sheet that has been sent out by the White House, “the Council on American-Islamic Relations [CAIR] will launch a tour to educate religious communities about steps they can take to protect their houses of worship from hate incidents, such as instituting appropriate security measures, developing strong relationships with other faith communities and maintaining open lines of communication with local law enforcement.”

CAIR is a self-declared Muslim civil rights and advocacy group headquartered on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, with regional offices nationwide. CAIR is America’s largest Muslim civil liberties organization. Yet according to an official document of the US Department of Justice in 2013, the FBI cut off ties with CAIR. “

The guidance specifically stated that, until the FBI could determine whether there continued to be a connection between CAIR or its executives and Hamas, ‘the FBI does not view CAIR as an appropriate liaison partner’ for non-investigative activities,” the document stated. 

 US Antisemitism Envoy Deborah Lipstadt. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
US Antisemitism Envoy Deborah Lipstadt. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

In addition, according to a background document of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), some members of CAIR’s leadership have used inflammatory anti-Zionist rhetoric that on a number of occasions has veered into antisemitic tropes related to Jewish influence over the media or political affairs. According to the ADL, CAIR frequently partnered with vehemently anti-Zionist and anti-Israel groups like Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) and American Muslims for Palestine, many of whose members employ extreme rhetoric and questionable tactics to demonize Zionism and Zionists and disrupt pro-Israel activity.

“It had nothing to do with the document itself, nothing to do with the formulation of the policy,” Lipstadt said of the mention of CAIR in the fact sheet that was attached to the strategy text. 

She explained that when the policy was about to be released, the Office of Community Engagement, at the White House, which deals with different organizations, “reached out to all kinds of organizations.”

Lipstadt continued, “CAIR was one of the organizations that stepped forward in support and it's mentioned in the fact sheet, as well as many other organizations.” She revealed that “I know CAIR is problematic,” but that “there are other groups and individuals that have problematic histories that are now talking about antisemitism.

“One can become overly cynical and say that fighting antisemitism has become this ‘thing’. It's popular,” Lipstadt said of CAIR, adding that “one can also step back and say, Okay, we're going to judge you by what to say going forward. We're going to evaluate what you do henceforth.” She added: “I'm not talking about apologies,” but that organizations such as CAIR will be asked, “do you acknowledge that you might have, or might not have, engaged in statements or declarations that were easily and rightfully considered to be antisemitic?”

“If I put on my Jewish hat, you and I both come from a tradition that believes in forgiveness."

Deborah Lipstadt

Lipstadt shared that if she took off her “diplomatic hat,” in Judaism, there is an act of forgiveness.

“If I put on my Jewish hat, you and I both come from a tradition that believes in forgiveness. Our holiest days of the year are about change. So if they're really willing to change,” she said of CAIR, “If they're really willing to say, ‘hey, we now see this is a serious problem,' then they are welcome.”

Otherwise, Lipstadt said, they will not be welcome.

The Post insisted on understanding if CAIR will only be able to participate in the Antisemitism Strategy implementation if they distance themselves from the negative past.

Lipstadt said that having CAIR join the battle against antisemitism was intended to "move the needle, it's a possibility.”

She told the Post that “you know me well enough, you've read my stuff. I'm not naive.”

She continued saying that in order for the White House to make any changes in the list of organizations that are part of the antisemitism plan, she needs to see proof.

“Show me the beef, prove it to me. I'm not going to say ‘out of the gate, hustle, you're adamant. I'm going to give people a chance to change their past behavior, making it take something seriously that they never took seriously before and we'll see what happens.”

Lipstadt added that the Jewish people “certainly can use all the allies possible, but “in the name of gaining allies, I'm not willing to say ‘what to say doesn't matter.’”

Asked again, if any organization that speaks in a problematic way that may be perceived as antisemitism, will be taken out of the strategy, she said yes.

“We’re going to say, either you are or you aren't and that's how it's going to be.”

Probably the main issue of criticism that Lipstadt has received was the fact the strategy specifically said that it acknowledges the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism as the main definition of antisemitism but also acknowledged the existence of other definitions such as the Nexus Document, that is more to the left of the political map regarding its attitude towards Israel and to antisemitism.

The World Jewish Congress said in a statement that the inclusion of a secondary definition in addition to the IHRA working definition of antisemitism “is an unnecessary distraction from the real work that needs to be done.” B’nai Brith said that they are “disappointed in the document’s mention of the Nexus definition.”

Lipstadt doesn't agree with these accusations

“I think the plan makes it very clear: It says America embraces the IHRA definition, by quoting what Secretary [of State Antony] Blinken said in January 2022, in the name of the Biden-Harris administration,” where he said that the US “enthusiastically embraces” IHRA definition of antisemitism.

Lipstadt added another reason why IHRA is the only definition endorsed by this administration.

“It also is a definition that at, this point, has been endorsed by 41 countries while different countries have different terminology.”

She emphasized, in terms of IHRA, that “nothing in American policy has changed.”

Lipstadt, a world-renowned historian, said that “there are portions of the Nexus document which almost are more explicit than the IHRA."

She quoted from the Nexus document, specifically regarding anti-Zionism, saying “It is antisemitic to promote myths, stereotypes or attitudes about Zionism and/or Israel that derive from and/or reinforce antisemitic accusations and tropes.”

According to Nexus, these include: “Characterizing Israel as being part of a sinister world conspiracy of Jewish control of the media, economy, government or other financial, cultural or societal institutions; Indiscriminately blaming suffering and injustices around the world on a hidden Jewish conspiracy or of being the maligning hand of Israel or Zionism; Holding individuals or institutions, because they are Jewish, a priori culpable of real or imagined wrongdoing committed by Israel,” as well as other examples. 

“That's pretty explicit,” Lipstadt said of what she just quoted. “I think some of the things that have been said about Nexus are not accurate. There were parts in there that some people can see as troublesome. I'm not denying that, but we didn't adopt or embrace Nexus. We recognize that because of where it's explicit there, that is helpful to us.”

she added that one of the things that also made Nexus “somewhat appropriate to put in to mention,” is that “it talks about the nexus between Israel and antisemitism in the context of American politics, so it's a distinctly American statement that I think it'd be to be helpful.” She said that other definitions of antisemitism that she and her team looked at were just “unacceptable,” but wouldn’t acknowledge if this was the Jerusalem Definition, which was written by progressive intellectuals. 

Asked if adding Nexus was a compromise in order to satisfy the progressive part of the Democratic Party, Lipstadt said that wasn’t the case and that a compromise would be taking parts from each of the documents.

“There wasn’t a triumph to cloud the picture; it wasn't an effort to diminish IHRA in any way, it was an effort to say ‘things [in the Nexus] could be useful.”

She added she wished that people read the strategy since there are so many positive ideas and initiatives in accepting Judaism and Jews in the US, as well as combating antisemitism.

“24 different agencies have joined the plan and looking at everything from making kosher food more easily available and chaplains more easily available for veterans in hospitals or the Smithsonian Museum working with the Conference of American Jewish Museums to actually address this issue. All these different kinds of things, in a comprehensive way.”

Lipstadt has been the special envoy for a bit more than a year now and she reflects on the day she was confirmed: “I put out my hand and I said Mr. President, I'm Deborah Lipstadt and he stopped me before I could continue and said ‘I know exactly who you are, you have a big job and we're counting on you to do it. And every time I've seen him whether at events or passing in the White House, he always says, ‘Keep doing what you do.’”