Portrait dlipstadt scaled
Ambassador Deborah E. Lipstadt.

Biden defends 'sacred proposition'

American historian Deborah Lipstadt came to public prominence in 2000 when best-selling author David Irving sued her and her publisher Penguin and the case went to trial in London. 

 “Alleged Holocaust denial on his part — in speeches at right-wing events and more importantly in his well-regarded books — was the issue at stake” is how I summarized it in a piece here two years ago.

“Irving sued at the same time the celebrated veteran author Gitta Sereny and the Guardian Media Group for two reviews in the Observer in which she accused him of deliberate falsification of the historical record. The Sereny case didn’t go to court ultimately, but it cost the Guardian a great deal of money in legal costs.

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 “Lipstadt traveled from America to fight her case, and won. D.D. Guttenplan, in his book ‘The Holocaust on Trial,’ wrote that ‘Irving claimed that he couldn’t be described as a “Holocaust denier” because the gas chambers themselves were a hoax. Lipstadt and her lawyers were, in effect, forced to prove the reality of the Holocaust.’”

I added in the Aug. 28, 2020, piece that Guttenplan “was writing specifically in the context of the UK’s libel laws, but one has to wonder if having to prove the reality of the Holocaust might not, at some point, become a big issue in the U.S., the country with the world’s second-largest Jewish population.

“On the one hand, we already have a problem with Neo-Nazism and white supremacism, and, on the other, denialism in all sorts of categories has become a scourge undermining democratic institutions.”

The context was Lipstadt’s 2019 book “Antisemitism,” which couples former British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn with Donald J. Trump, and discusses them both in a chapter entitled “Antisemitic Enablers.”

She shows how Trump and his people have valued the various strands of the far-right and have worked hard to keep them in his coalition. 

Trump said that there were “very fine people on both sides” following the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in August 2017. The event had begun with a nighttime march of young men screaming “Jews Will Not Replace Us” and other racist messages. “Most of the marchers wore neatly pressed khaki pants and smart-looking shirts,” Lipstadt observes in her book. The gathering ended days later with the murder of Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old paralegal, and the wounding of 35 other peaceful counter-protesters by neo-Nazi Alex Fields, 20.

Lipstadt argues that Trump uses antisemitism for a “utilitarian” purpose, but he and his ilk are “directly responsible for the legitimization of explicit hostility towards Jews.”

She adds, “On some level, I find the utilitarian antisemite — the pot-stirrer who enables haters — to be more reprehensible than the ideologue who openly acknowledges his antisemitism. Because he is not affiliated with any extremist group, the utilitarian stands a better chance of both plausibly denying his antisemitism and influencing an audience that would never listen to an extremist.”

 The Emory University professor became in March 2022 Ambassador Lipstadt when confirmed by the U.S. Senate as the Biden Administration’s Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism. So, it’s interesting to look at her use of the verb “legitimize” when it comes to the former president. The word can have a nuanced sliding scale of meanings from say, in this context, making something bad “seem acceptable” to “officially allowing it.”

The ambassador generally means the first when talking about Trump. Likewise New York-born, Israel-based columnist Ruthie Blum used “legitimize/delegitimize” in a similar fashion when going to bat for both Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu in a recent piece for the Long Island Jewish World. Its editors headlined it on Page 4 “Biden Maligns U.S. Republicans,” with a particularly confusing subhead: “He’s unaware that millions believe in ‘Make America Great Again’” – confusing because Blum claims he is aware. 

The front cover is more on point, as it says in all red caps: “Biden Sends Republicans to Hell” – and then, with an inset picture of a small child with a MAGA hat, a subhead: “Including Him?”

On Page 23, where the Page 4 story continues, there is a picture of another small child with a MAGA hat captioned: “In painting ‘MAGA Republicans’ as people worthy of eternal torment in hell, Biden apparently forgot who he was really attacking with his broad brush.”

Actually, Biden’s MAGA speech didn’t mention hell or heaven or anything theological, except for this: “The soul of America is defined by the sacred proposition that all are created equal in the image of God, that all are entitled to be treated with decency, dignity and respect, that all deserve justice and a shot at lives of prosperity and consequence. And that democracy, democracy must be defended, for democracy makes all these things possible.”

Blum, though, suggested Biden is guilty of the three Ds – “demonization,” “double standards” and “delegitimization” – with regard to the Republican voting base; he is, in essence, placing half the population beyond the pale, in the same way Netanyahu’s critics are doing with him and his followers as Israel goes into fresh elections in the fall. The three Ds she invoked were coined by former Soviet dissident and current Israeli politician Natan Sharansky in a 2004 piece about a “new antisemitism” aimed at undermining the Jewish state. Blum prefers to add a fourth of her own for good measure, “disingenuous.”

The problem with her argument, though, is that Biden is talking in the same vein as Sharansky – legitimizing or delegitimizing here is not about making a set of opinions respectable or not, but rather about conducting a direct attack on democratic institutions.

The president said, “You saw law enforcement brutally attacked on January the 6th. We’ve seen election officials, poll workers, many of them volunteers of both parties, subject to intimidation and death threats. And, can you believe it, F.B.I. agents just doing their job as directed, facing threats to their own lives from their own fellow citizens.”

He said elsewhere, “They tried everything last time to nullify the votes of 81 million people. This time, they’re determined to succeed in thwarting the will of the people. 

The president added, “That’s why respected conservatives like Federal Circuit Court Judge Michael Luttig has called Trump and the extreme MAGA Republicans ‘a clear and present danger’ to our democracy.”

Clearly, Trump’s big lie about a stolen election is causing a huge problem for the GOP. Blum’s famous father Norman Podhoretz, a founder of neoconservatism, surprised many when he had a road to Damascus conversion to Trumpism in 2016 and cut off personal ties with some prominent never-Trumpers. He said Trump was the only alternative to the left’s evil, which checks off two of the three Ds right there, demonization and double standards. His son the columnist John Podhoretz has said, on the other hand, the second impeachment of Trump, that relating to Jan. 6, was correct. 

Blum, however, and the Long Island Jewish World, are being unprincipled in this piece with their ambivalence with regard to Trump’s big lie. 

Biden said in his recent "MAGA" speech, “I will not stand by and watch — I will not — the will of the American people be overturned by wild conspiracy theories and baseless evidence-free claims of fraud. I will not stand by and watch elections in this country stolen by people who simply refuse to accept that they lost. I will not stand by and watch the most fundamental freedom in this country, the freedom to vote and have your vote counted, and be taken from you and the American people.”

You can’t simply minimize people’s genuine concerns about attacks on democracy by playing the victim. 

When the Ukrainian-born Sharansky talked about “delegitimization,” it wasn’t just another word for “demonization.” 

His books got a lot of publicity when George W. Bush praised them. They’ve been accused of being overly simplistic and schematic, particularly when applied to the complexities of foreign policy, but when it comes democratic theory and democratic practice there are some real truths there that are sometimes too easily forgotten. 

One fundamental tenet of our democratic system and those of other Western countries is the peaceful transition of power from one government to the next. When millions of people are encouraged to believe the big lie that a freely elected government is not legitimate then we have a very serious problem.

Surely the honorable and principled position would be to address people’s concerns, to express solidarity with law enforcement, with the poll workers of both parties, and the democratic system?

I believe that’s what Natan Sharansky would do.