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Historic levels of hate crimes are a threat to U.S. democracy, Lipstadt says

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The historic levels of hate crimes in the U.S. were devastatingly illustrated with a racist mass shooting last weekend at a supermarket that took 10 lives in a mostly Black neighborhood in Buffalo, N.Y. At the forefront of a global fight against hatred and racism is a special U.S. envoy, Ambassador Deborah Lipstadt. Her mandate at the State Department is to monitor and combat antisemitism.

DEBORAH LIPSTADT: But anti-Semitism morphs into other hatred.

FADEL: And when she and I spoke, we discussed how ugly prejudices in one community can feed and grow hate in another.

LIPSTADT: The rising threat of anti-Semitism, the rising threat of racism, the rising degree of conspiratorial thinking, it's not just a threat to the welfare of specific groups in this country - we saw it against the African American community in a tragic, tragic way this past week - but it's a national security threat. It's a threat to our communal welfare. And the need is immediate. And the need is great.

FADEL: Since the attack in Buffalo, we've been hearing a lot about this racist conspiracy, the replacement theory. And when I hear that, I think back to Charlottesville, nearly five years ago, when we watched neo-Nazis and white supremacists march with torches and chant, Jews will not replace us. Can you just explain this debunked and racist conspiracy and its danger?

LIPSTADT: Sure. There is a belief amongst people such as the killer in Buffalo and too many others like him. And what they argue is that there is a concerted effort, a plan, a scheme to replace, to destroy white Christian culture, to turn white Christians into a minority by flooding their countries with either people from Africa, Muslims - in this country, people from, quote-unquote, "south of the border" - and to render white Christians a minority. But there's something else that motivates them or that is part of that theory. They look upon people of color as inferior to white Christians. There has to be someone behind them making this happen. They are the puppets. But who is the puppeteer? And some of them will immediately say, it is the Jew, because in their eyes, Jews are not white. Or they will look for someone whom they believe has the financial resources, the malicious smarts, the ability to be - though small in number, to do this thing, to make this thing happen and to do it secretly. And they will come upon the Jews.

FADEL: And this idea, this conspiracy that has no truth to it, it's not fringe anymore. It doesn't feel fringe anymore.

LIPSTADT: You're absolutely correct. There is an increasing percentage of the American population who believe this is really happening and who think that America's identity is under threat. And whether they read it online, whether they hear it in the media, whether they hear it from certain politicians - but they believe it. This young man who committed this horrendous, horrendous act in Buffalo, he was radicalized online. Now, maybe in his home, you know, he heard certain things that made him amenable to these ideas. But it's out there. And people have to recognize that it's this panoply of hatreds that constitute this threat to our democracy and threat to our country and to national security and foreign countries as well.

FADEL: Your mandate is global, and we're talking about the danger here in the U.S. But when you look at the world, how prevalent is this right now in 2022?

LIPSTADT: It's extremely prevalent. And my mandate, of course, is global. I'm based in the State Department. But it becomes increasingly difficult to draw a strict dividing line. Or take Buffalo - the killer in Buffalo, the murderer in Buffalo, looked at, as a model, the Christchurch shooter who murdered people in the mosques. He plagiarized what he had written. He also said he had been inspired by the shooter in Halle, Germany, who, two years ago, on Yom Kippur - the Day of Atonement, the holiest day of the Jewish year - tried to attack a synagogue in which there were 70 or 80 worshippers. And but for a lock on the door, we would have had the largest massacre of Jews on German soil since the Holocaust. So it is a global threat, including in our own country.

FADEL: But I guess I struggle with - how do you combat an idea, whether true or not? - because you can't imprison an idea out of existence. You can't kill an idea out of existence. I mean, what do you do practically?

LIPSTADT: I'm a teacher. And I hope I can reach people. I'm not going to be able to change the minds of people who would pick up a gun, put themselves in full body armor and go to a supermarket on a weekend afternoon, where people are buying groceries and buying snacks to watch their nighttime movies or taking their kids for ice cream, and murder them. Those people I can't reach. But I want to reach the people who don't really understand this threat, the nature, the danger of these ideas and get them to understand and get them to understand something else as well. And this comes from my years of study and teaching and research about the Holocaust. The Nazis in Germany didn't come into office in January, 1933, with a plan to murder Jews and saying, OK, we're going to have gas chambers. Maybe some of them had that in the back of their mind, but that wasn't what they were planning. They tested. They started first by burning books in May. Then they threw Jews out of civil service positions. And then, in 1935, they deprived them of their citizenship. And slowly but surely, in 1938, they had a nationwide destruction of Jewish property and killing of Jews. And they tested how far they can go. When can we be stopped? So you can't wait until a Buffalo to try to stop it. You've got to stop it before.

FADEL: Ambassador Deborah Lipstadt is the special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism. Thank you so much for your time.

LIPSTADT: Thank you, Leila.

(SOUNDBITE OF TWISTED PSYKIE'S "THE TRAVELLER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.