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US Ambassador Deborah Lipstadt gives public lecture on the challenges presented by antisemitism

The lecture was timely because there is a rising trend in recorded antisemitic incidents internationally and in the UK.

US Ambassador Deborah Lipstadt delivers the talk at Birkbeck

US Ambassador Deborah Lipstadt, United States Special Envoy for Monitoring and Combatting Antisemitism, spoke to an audience at Birkbeck on 21 February. Her public lecture, ‘From Right to Left and in Between: Jew Hatred across the Political Divide’, considered antisemitism at both ends of the political spectrum and why the prevalence of conspiracy theories poses a threat to democracy.

Ambassador Lipstadt’s lecture was timely because there is a rising trend in recorded antisemitic incidents internationally and in the UK. This is the case whether the trends over a period of years are reviewed or whether the focus is on the weeks and months since October last year.

The lecture, hosted by the Birkbeck Institute for the Study of Antisemitism (BISA), in partnership with UCL, is testament to the international reputation of BISA. The study of antisemitism is a contested field, especially over the relationship between antisemitism and criticism of Israel. In this regard there are notable differences in opinion between Ambassador Lipstadt, a distinguished historian as well as a diplomat, and BISA academics. 

Within universities and within the realm of policy discourse, this debate has been crystallized by two definitions of antisemitism: the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) Working Definition of Antisemitism, which has been adopted by many governments, including in the UK, and the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism developed by a group of leading scholars in the fields of antisemitism studies, Holocaust history, Jewish studies, and Middle East studies.

There is common ground between these definitions, but sharp differences arise when they address the relationship between criticism of Israel and antisemitism. Ambassador Lipstadt sees merit in the IHRA working definition and has praised it as an ‘effective tool’. In contrast, David Feldman, director of BISA, has been a critic of the working definition for the way in which it conflates anti-Zionism and antisemitism, and he is one of the authors of the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism, the best-known alternative.  

In light of these differences, BISA’s commitment to pluralism facilitated Deborah Lipstadt’s visit to Birkbeck. It enabled her to share her concerns of antisemitism on university campuses and to engage in robust discussion with BISA colleagues around antisemitism and racism, as well as deliver a high-profile public lecture.

Professor David Feldman, Director of BISA, added: “Substantive and civil debate about points of difference is a sign of health, both in democracy and in academic life. The visit and lecture has been an object lesson in engagement and pluralism on a subject that is of vital concern to us all.”

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