Sen. Ron Johnson on Tuesday accused President Joe Biden’s nominee to serve as the top U.S. antisemitism envoy of engaging in “malicious poison” after the renowned Holocaust scholar called out the Wisconsin Republican for “white supremacy.”
Deborah Lipstadt, the Emory University professor nominated last year to serve as the State Department’s special envoy for monitoring and combating antisemitism, has faced scrutiny from Republicans for her past public criticism of what she identified as dangerous rhetoric — including occasional callouts of specific lawmakers, like Johnson. Republicans had demanded additional vetting of Lipstadt, causing a six-month delay of her consideration by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
When Lipstadt got her long-awaited hearing on Tuesday, she offered the apology for her critical tweet about Johnson that the senator had denied insisting on as a condition of advancing her nomination. But she and Johnson also tangled openly.
Lipstadt pushed back on the idea that her efforts to call out antisemitism and racism have been partisan, noting that she has called out Democrats, too, for similar rhetoric and calling herself “an equal-opportunity foe of antisemitism.”
“A person’s political persuasions are irrelevant in the fight against antisemitism,” said Lipstadt, whose victorious court battle against a Holocaust denier in the United Kingdom was turned into a movie starring Rachel Weisz.
“Those people who only see antisemitism … on the other side of the political transom are not really interested in fighting antisemitism,” she added. “They’re weaponizing antisemitism.”
In a March tweet, Lipstadt charged Johnson with engaging in “white supremacy/nationalism. Pure and simple.” She was referring to Johnson telling a radio host last year that he would have been more fearful of Black Lives Matter protesters rioting at the Capitol than the supporters of former President Donald Trump who did so on Jan. 6, 2021.
Trump’s supporters “love this country … truly respect law enforcement, [and] would never do anything to break the law,” Johnson said. Scores of police officers were assaulted during the insurrection.
Lipstadt apologized for the manner in which she criticized Johnson’s comments and acknowledged that she was not as “nuanced” as she would have liked, adding: “I’ve also learned not to tweet in the middle of the night. Bad thing to do.”
She also appeared to reference her past chiding of Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), who suggested in 2019 that Americans who support Israel have “allegiance to a foreign country.“
But Johnson, who has made controversial and false claims about the Jan. 6 riot, did not appear assuaged by the apology. He told Lipstadt she was “not qualified” to serve as the State Department’s antisemitism envoy.
“You don’t know me. You don’t know a lot of the people you have accused online in front of millions of people,” Johnson said. “You have engaged in the malicious poison [and] vile and horrible charges against people including me that you don’t even know.”
Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), the chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, defended Lipstadt, whose Twitter account has 20,000 followers — less than one-tenth of Johnson’s following.
“If we cannot call out comments for what they are, if we don’t understand that words have power to them … then we can never challenge whether it be antisemitism or racism or other elements,” Menendez said. “If you can’t call out an antisemitic trope, how in God’s name are you going to do this job?”
He called Johnson’s comments about Jan. 6 “deeply problematic,” noting that many of the rioters “literally wore and bore Nazi symbolism” on that day.
Lipstadt, widely considered to be the foremost expert on antisemitism and Holocaust denialism, is expected to receive bipartisan support for her confirmation to the critical State Department post, which was created during the George W. Bush administration and elevated to Senate-confirmation level last year amid a rise in antisemitic violence worldwide.