WASHINGTON — The Biden administration’s new special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism is admonishing Lufthansa for “classic antisemitism” following news that the German airline barred a large group of Orthodox Jews from boarding a flight after a few of them did not wear masks.
Ambassador Deborah Lipstadt, a renowned Holocaust historian sworn in as special envoy in March, told NBC News that her office at the State Department is “very concerned” and has been in contact with the German government over the May 4 incident, which involved U.S. citizens.
“Unbelievable,” Lipstadt said of the incident, in her first television interview since taking office. “[When] I first heard it, I said, ‘Oh, this must be wrong. Someone must be misreporting this.’ And then of course, it turned out to be precisely right — and worse than we even thought.”
The incident in question took place in a Frankfurt airport, following a flight from New York in which the airline said a “limited” number of passengers refused to wear masks. When passengers tried to board a connecting flight to Hungary, Lufthansa staff allegedly blocked all visibly Jewish passengers from boarding — including many who had not violated the mask policy and weren’t even part of the same group.
Lufthansa, Germany’s largest airline, has apologized for the incident, saying the airline has “zero tolerance for racism, antisemitism and discrimination of any type.”
“If any airline had done it, it would have been outrageous. But the terrible, awful irony of it coming from the German national airline was outrageous,” Lipstadt said.
German media reported that staff denied boarding to any passengers on the flight to Hungary who they determined were Jewish because they were wearing skull caps or had sidelocks. Video of the incident showed Lufthansa staff telling passengers that “everyone has to pay” for the mistakes of a few, then defining “everyone” as “Jewish coming from JFK.”
Lipstadt, who has published books on modern antisemitism, called it a case of “classic prejudice” in which an entire ethnic, religious or cultural group is blamed for the actions of a few.
“A Black teenager gets in trouble. Instead of saying a teenager got in trouble, you say, ‘Oh, well that’s how Blacks are.’ A Jew does something? ‘That’s how Jews are,’” Lipstadt said. “A small number of people do something wrong and you claim that that’s the whole group.”
In the interview, Lipstadt also drew direct comparisons between Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, in the Biden administration’s most forceful comments to date rebuking Putin for invoking Nazism to justify his invasion of Ukraine.
She accused Putin of using “precise Nazi language” in remarks he made commemorating Victory Day and the 77th anniversary of Germany’s defeat.
“I have been flabbergasted, just overwhelmed by the degree of fabrications, distortions, lies and the use of World War II and the suffering that was part of World War II and particularly the Holocaust in that region, to justify this war, to justify this invasion of a neighboring country,” Lipstadt said. “It is really shocking.”
Putin has insisted his invasion of Ukraine, rather than a war, is a “special military invasion” designed to “denazify” Ukraine, even though the country’s leader, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, is a Jew. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov recently drew global outrage for dismissing that fact by claiming without basis that Hitler himself had Jewish origins.
Putin later apologized to Israel, which had called the comments an “unforgivable” attempt to blame Jews for their own genocide during the Holocaust.
“It’s a form of Holocaust denial,” Lipstadt said. “They’re turning the victim into the victimizer.”
Describing Putin as an international bully who will keep pushing until stopped, Lipstadt said the Holocaust offered lessons for Russia’s current war: That the world can’t afford to wait for concentration camps and genocide to take a stand.
“The Nazis didn’t begin with genocide. They didn’t plan on gas chambers, but it’s step by step. How much can I get away with? What will the world accept? How far can I push?” Lipstadt said. "And I think we’ve seen the same thing here.”