Sparks flew Tuesday after Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) confronted Deborah Lipstadt, President Joe Biden’s nominee for special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism, for previously accusing Johnson of racism.
What is the background?
Last March, Johnson was decried as a racist for saying that he "wasn’t concerned" about the rioters who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. In the same interview, Johnson said he would "have been a little concerned" if the rioters were protesters with Black Lives Matter and Antifa.
Lipstadt, a renowned scholar of Jewish history, agreed.
"This is white supremacy/nationalism. Pure and simple," Lipstadt reacted.
What happened Tuesday?
During Lipstadt's Senate confirmation hearing, Johnson confronted her about the year-old remark.
Recalling words from Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer that social media discourse has become "malicious poison," Johnson asked Lipstadt how she would feel if someone called her a "racist."
In response, Lipstadt claimed that when she engages in criticism, she strives not to "ascribe to the person." In other words, she allegedly engages critically with an argument, not the person making it.
"But that's not true," Johnson fired back.
"What you just testified there is false. Because not only did you go on — first of all, you don’t know me. You don’t know a lot of the people that you have accused online in front of millions of people. You have engaged in the malicious poison," Johnson continued. "Calling somebody a racist is about as serious and vile an accusation as you can hurl over something against somebody you don’t even know. You’ve never talked to me, you’ve never met me. You don’t know what’s in my heart, do you?"
Johnson explained the problem is that Lipstadt was nominated for a nonpartisan government role, yet the manner with which she "engage[d] in malicious poison is purely partisan."
"Do you feel bad about that at all?" Johnson asked Lipstadt of her accusations. "Do you retract that? What's your current position on this?"
Lipstadt then admitted that her accusations were "not nuanced" — and eventually she apologized.
"I would not do diplomacy by tweet. While I may disagree with what you said specifically, and I think that’s a legitimate difference, I certainly did not mean it," Lipstadt said. "And I’m sorry if I made it in a way that it could be assumed to be political — at the person personally.”
Johnson finished his questioning by accepting Lipstadt's apology, but said he would not support her nomination because he believes she demonstrated behavior unbecoming of a U.S. diplomat.
Lipstadt, however, is one of the world's top Holocaust scholars, and she will likely be confirmed to the post with bipartisan support.
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